Taking Mocktails Seriously

Dark Invader
(Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; Page F05

It's easy to poke fun at mocktails. Take away the alcohol from a cocktail, and, I mean, like, what's left?

Well, in my house, mocktails are serious business. Readers of this column might be surprised to learn that I have two sons. They might be less surprised to learn that these boys very much enjoy an evening cocktail with their father. When they hear me testing a recipe in the kitchen, they ask, "Dad, when you're finished with work, can we have a cocktail, too?" Of course, since my boys are 7 and 4 (and we don't want a visit from Child Protective Services), their cocktails always lack a key ingredient: alcohol.

But that doesn't mean they also lack creativity and inventiveness. Sander and Wes are pretty discerning, and they often call me out on a failure of imagination. "Dad, are you using yogurt drink again?"

To be honest, nonalcoholic cocktails can present more of a challenge than regular cocktails because liquor usually offsets the sweetness of other ingredients and adds complexity. Take away the booze and you've got to find a new way to layer and balance flavor.

There are bartenders out there in pursuit of the perfect mocktail. While traveling in the Netherlands not too long ago, I was happy to meet one named Timo Janse, who has written a cocktail book for kids. Trust me, this isn't some seedy Amsterdam Red Light District thing. Janse has won acclaim as one of the finest bartenders in Europe, and his book, "Shake It!" (BAI, 2007), won a literary prize in Holland and Belgium as best children's book of the year. The cute illustrated guide features junior master shakers (kindergartners through preteens) dressed in chic black server attire and mixing drinks called Rhubarb Barbie or Spiderman's Web with real shakers, strainers and muddlers.

In addition to creating kid versions of such classics as the Singapore Sling or brandy Alexander, Janse experiments boldly. His Garden of Delight, for example, is a mix of strawberries, balsamic vinegar, cranberry juice and honey, topped with a splash of cola. My kids' clear favorite was the Dark Invader, a mix of muddled blackberries, pineapple juice and vanilla syrup. Another drink made of muddled red raspberries and orange juice and topped with ginger ale was a favorite of 4-year-old Wes, until he learned that the drink's name was Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

"Children in every country are drinking too much sweet soda," Janse says. "This book challenges children to think about what they're drinking." Did Janse draw any flak for linking kids and cocktails? Not in Holland. "The biggest concern from people was the need to supervise children when they were cutting the fruit," he says.

Here in the United States, mixologist Natalie Bovis-Nelsen (who blogs at http://www.theliquidmuse.com) is the primary innovator of virgin-cocktail recipes. In her book "Preggatinis: Mixology for the Mom-to-Be" (GPP, 2008), Bovis-Nelsen focuses on another time of life when you really shouldn't drink alcohol. "Welcome to one of the biggest decisions of your life . . . to give up cocktails for nine months," she writes.

"Preggatinis" presents drinks for those preparing to be pregnant (think milk thistle and antioxidants such as blueberries), for combating morning sickness (think ginger) and for increasing folic acid intake. The latter includes one of my favorites, the Folic Fizz (with cantaloupe and strawberries). Throughout the book she also suggests how to "De-Virginize for Dad," adding back the gin, vodka or tequila to certain drinks.

What I found particularly inventive about "Preggatinis" were the nonalcoholic versions of real drinks, such as the Salty Puppy (a Salty Dog with the usual grapefruit juice and salted rim but subbing tonic water for gin) and the Cosmom (with orange juice and orange syrup instead of vodka and triple sec to mix with the cranberry juice). "I don't want to make you a virgin bloody mary by just taking out the vodka and leaving you with tomato juice," Bovis-Nelsen said in a phone interview.

And she insists that "Preggatinis" is not just for pregnant women. "There are adults who don't drink alcohol," she says. "And unfortunately they've been relegated to the little kids' table."

At least at my house, you can get a pretty good drink at the kids' table.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

- Natalie Bovis-Nelsen will be in Washington for a book signing and tasting at Firefly (1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 202-861-1310) on April 25 from noon to 2 p.m.

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