Every November, I start noticing an increase of pitches related to two topics: booze-free drinks and hangover cures.
It’s a harbinger of the self-improvement craze that strikes each new year — that arbitrary turn of the calendar when we will finally lose the weight, get the new job, replace cupcakes with cruciferous vegetables, stop drinking and become the fit, sober, industrious demigods we were meant to be. Meanwhile, the hangover cure pitches suggest that before every healthy New Year’s resolution comes an unhealthy New Year’s binge.
Some of us apparently drink alcohol so regularly that we feel a need to take a break for a whole month. And some of us are drinking so heavily we would consider eating powdered spider poop if it could only reduce the pain of the morning after.
This is why “Drynuary” concerns me. It’s not the practice itself, but what’s behind it: an excessive approach to drinking that requires reparations. I know it’s not just this past year, but anecdotal evidence — specifically, the number of friends who report craving a drink every time they read the news — suggests that 2018 has been a rough time for livers.
As a cocktail writer, I’m hardly a preacher of abstinence. But heavy alcohol use is undeniably unhealthy, and what I do like about Drynuary is that it seems to inspire more bars to embrace liquid creativity beyond alcohol. I’d just like to see that creativity flow into more drinks the rest of the year.
At many establishments, guests encounter thoughtful wine, beer and cocktail selections, with a few haphazard sodas and juices thrown in as sops for non-imbibers; a complex, made-to-order drink that replicates the cocktail experience is often out of reach. Where most fine restaurants recognize a need to do better for vegetarians, guests who follow religious food rules and those with food allergies, plenty haven’t expanded that approach to the beverage program.
Many restaurants and bars are course-correcting, though, recognizing that hospitality that treats guests who don’t drink — for reasons of health, religion, sobriety or a night’s designated driver-hood — as less worthy of pampering isn’t fully hospitable.
Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Mixers, notes that there are economic benefits to building out a nonalcoholic menu: “Restaurants tend to make money on their bar programs,” he says, and if you’ve got sophisticated nonalcoholic drinks, you can charge more for them instead of offering those customers a $3 ginger ale.
Too often, the available nonalcoholic cocktails prance in the steps of the Shirley Temple: garish, cloying, its very name suggesting consumption by tiny guests with dimples, ringlets and appetites for animal crackers.
“So many nonalcoholic beverages are too sweet — all the canned juices and synthetic sweeteners,” says Brad Langdon, bar manager at the Dabney in the District, who’s putting out a number of booze-free options this month, including drinks made with artisanal vinegars and housemade sodas. That canned approach, he says, won’t do anymore: “More and more people are educated on culinary issues, and more of them are looking for nonalcoholic alternatives.”
Several bartenders suggested that the United Kingdom seems to be ahead of the United States. Nonalcoholic drinks have been “a really popular thing for probably four years now,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, owner of London’s renowned Dandelyan and other venues. At his bars, “we’ve never really seen value as simply the amount of alcohol in a drink. . . . It’s really about, how can we use cocktails as a good tool to help bring people together?”
Dandelyan’s is also one of a growing list of programs pouring Seedlip, described by founder Ben Branson as “the world’s first distilled nonalcoholic spirit.” Available in three flavors (emphasizing herb/peas, spice and citrus), Seedlip was inspired by a 17th century manual on distillation of herbal remedies, Branson’s childhood memories of the smells and flavors of his family’s farm, and a terrible, overly sweet nonalcoholic cocktail he was served a few years ago. It made him think there was an opening for something better.
He was right. Unsweetened, calorie-free and sold in bottles whose gorgeous labels look at home in the fanciest of bars, Seedlip has been a big seller, especially in major food and drink capitals, Branson says. “The L.A. market has been huge for us, because the culture around health there is so strong.”
Among working bartenders I’ve talked to, Seedlip has fans and detractors. The distillates are subtle and relatively expensive; they need to be mixed to really shine, but finding effective recipes can be tricky. They tend to disappear in some drinks but provide lovely depth and complexity in others.
How bars treat nonalcoholic drinks on menus and talk about them with customers is evolving. In some cases, the booze-free options are integrated into the main cocktail menu. R. Bar in Baltimore has a menu that includes drinks without alcohol, but built in a way that customers can opt to add booze that will integrate seamlessly. (The Homicider, for example, is mulled cider, spiced orange tea and maple syrup — delicious as is, but guests can add applejack, spiced rum or whiskey if they like.)
“There’s no difference in the way a sober or drinking guest reads through and orders,” says beverage director Amie Ward. Several bartenders at R. Bar are sober, and Ward says having a separate section for nonalcoholic cocktails isolates nondrinkers.
Morgan Stana, bar manager at A Rake’s Progress in the District, loves making “dealer’s choice” drinks without alcohol. “It weirdly can make my night when I can have a dialogue with a guest who isn’t drinking about what they like and make something around their preferences,” she says, especially because most nondrinkers aren’t used to such care and appreciate the effort.
Bars use different terms to describe these drinks, but many are shying away from terms like “soft-tail” and “mocktail.” The latter word especially irritates a lot of bartenders: “Mock” designates something as fake; the verb refers to the expression of contempt. “Mocktail” seems to suggest that authenticity in a cocktail is defined solely by alcohol content. And when used as a menu heading, the word could suggest that such drinks, even complex ones bartenders have taken time to develop, don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Plus, “it never seems celebratory to have a ‘mocktail,’ ” says Chetiyawardana.
I’d be lying if I said the appeal of a cocktail, for me, doesn’t sometimes include the relaxed buzz that follows. But it’s not the only appeal, or even usually the main one (unless I’ve been reading headlines). Often, I’m perfectly happy with a drink in which that component is absent. When the other things I want — great flavors, good aesthetics, a friendly bartender and great company to drink with — are present, a lack of booze doesn’t seem like an absence at all.
At Rosewater in Houston, owner and bartender Pasha Morshedi says that staff garnish nonalcoholic drinks elaborately “so that abstainers don’t feel left out.” Expectant moms and designated drivers drink free. And then there are special cases. “We have a regular currently going through chemo for breast cancer,” Morshedi says. “She and her husband love hanging out at the bar but can’t make it out much. So every couple weeks after treatment, they come by to see us, and we whip her up a non-ABV drink while her husband has a cocktail and we all catch up.”
“It’s probably the most gratifying drink I’ve ever made,” he says. “The idea that as a bartender you can nurture somebody’s happiness without having to include alcohol is everything wonderful and wholesome about hospitality.”
Seedlip drinks: These intriguing “nonalcoholic spirits” are turning up at some of the world’s best bars. They come in three flavors: the herbal, pea-like Garden 108; the cardamom and allspice Spice 94; and Grove 42, which founder Ben Branson describes as “all about the orange.”
Vinegar and verjus: Combined with sweeteners, vinegars can be used to create shrubs — bright, intense syrups that can be sipped alone or mixed with other ingredients. Verjus, usually made by pressing unripened grapes, is a gentler option.
High-quality tonics, sodas and bottled cocktails: Look for Q Mixers and Fever-Tree for less-sweet tonics and spicy ginger ale; Q’s grapefruit soda is particularly bright and tangy. Dry Soda offers such flavors as Fuji apple and cucumber; San Pellegrino makes some lovely, bittersweet citrus sodas; and a red Italian soda called Stappj mimics flavors of boozy Italian bitters. A line of bottled cocktails called Curious Elixirs takes most of the work out of the process.
Fresh juice: Especially without any alcohol to hide it, subpar juice sticks out like rotten tomato.
Savory herbs: Whether infused into the drink or used as an aromatic garnish, such herbs as sage, basil, rosemary and thyme can elevate the complexity — and appearance — of a drink.
Teas and tisanes: From the bergamot perfume of Earl Grey to the savory brown rice notes in Japanese genmaicha to hibiscus and chai, these blends hit a huge range of flavors.
Sweeteners: Swap out basic simple syrup for variety — make syrup with added spices or other kinds of sugar, or try ingredients like honey, maple syrup and jam (add the latter to a shaken drink, as in the Seedlip cocktail Hedge Your Bets).
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
1 serving (makes 3 cups shrub)
MAKE AHEAD: You should make the rosemary shrub at least 24 hours in advance to give the rosemary time to infuse. The shrub can be refrigerated for several months.
Adapted from bartender Lindsay Matteson and bar manager Brady Sprouse at the Barnacle in Seattle.
For the shrub
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup clover honey
1 cup hot water
6 stems rosemary
For the drink
6 to 8 ounces Q brand ginger beer or other high-quality, spicy ginger soda
Rosemary stem or sprig, for garnish
For the shrub: Combine the vinegar, honey and hot water in a container, stirring until the honey has dissolved. Add the rosemary and refrigerate the mixture for 24 hours, then strain out/discard the herb.
For the drink: Fill a Collins glass with ice. Add ¾ ounce of the rosemary shrub, then fill the rest of the glass with Q ginger beer or other high-quality, spicy ginger soda, as needed.
Clap the rosemary between your palms to release the aroma (or light the leaves briefly on fire, allowing them to continue to smolder as you insert the stem or sprig into the drink). Serve right away.
Seedlip Drinks are nonalcoholic, infused “spirits.” They are available online and at Modern Liquors in the District.
Adapted from a recipe at SeedlipDrinks.com.
2 ounces Seedlip Spice 94 (see headnote)
1½ ounces fresh grapefruit juice
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
2 barspoons fruit preserves
Basil leaf, for garnish
Chill a cocktail coupe or Nick and Nora glass. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the Seedlip, grapefruit juice, lemon juice and preserves, then seal and shake vigorously for 20 seconds.
Double-strain into the glass. Garnish with the basil leaf.
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