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Trends in mixology swing so swiftly these days that modern drinkers have come to expect just about any sort of alcoholic arrangement behind the bar. Which is probably why the latest craze has so many of them scratching their heads: it doesn’t involve booze, at all. The non-alcoholic movement (NA) is shaking up the industry in a profound way, and shows no signs of slowing. More surprising still, some of it’s biggest champions are hardly teetotalers. A slew of big-name bartenders are making a compelling case for the zero-proof cocktail. In 2018, they contend, going ABV-free is the hip way to be.
To be sure, ‘mocktails’ are nothing new to the bar world. These cloying concoctions built on high-fructose syrups and artificial sweeteners were never taken seriously by those forced to serve them. But the contemporary movement leans on elegance, applying the same sets of flavors—bitter, savory, earthy, herbal—defining their alcohol-imbued counterparts.
Ben Branson was instrumental in guiding this transition. A man who loathes the term ‘mocktail’, he helped make them obsolete with the introduction of Seedlip, in 2013. His product arrived in back bars as the world’s first ‘distilled, non-alcoholic spirit’. That’s not a typo: in distillation, a boiling process separates spirit from water. He opted to collect the latter rather than the former, flavoring the liquid with botanicals foraged from his family’s farm in the north England countryside. Notes of fresh Peas, hay, hops, and rosemary—encapsulated in an artfully rendered bottle, suggesting its inner vibrancy right on the label.
“It was important in creating Seedlip for it to be sugar and sweetener free,” Branson points out. “It provides a flavorful base for simple highballs with tonic or ginger beer or shorter cocktails like martini style serves.”
It’s origin was the classic case of necessity mothering invention. “I initially just began experimenting with a little copper still in my kitchen,” he recalls. “Three months later I was out for a meal, wasn’t drinking, and asked the waitress what non-alcoholic options they had. Her sad, apologetic face was the moment all the dots joined and I decided to do something about it.”
Branson’s native home was eager to embrace the fad he helped fuel. In London, a handful of high-profile early adopters hoisted it upon the stage of one of the world’s premier drinking destinations. At The Dandelyan, an award-winning temple of tipples, patrons can now choose between four artful assemblies of alcohol-free victuals, such as the Silk Road Gimlet: white tea, cardamom, salt-baked pomegranate—just hold the gin.
Dandelyan barman Ryan Chetiyawardana attributes the phenomenon to a broader shift towards healthier, more conscientious living. Nowadays, even those who don’t view alcohol as at all problematic, understand the value of moderation.
“I [drink],” says the award-winning bartender. “But I do take nights off. That sounds like I’m an alcoholic, but I mean that I still socialize and indulge in the activities I love, while consciously abstaining from alcohol.”
The movement finds its edible analog in the concept of haute vegetarian cuisine. Where chefs and purveyors are now armed with technologically-driven meat substitutes—beyond sad soy pastes—bartenders now have more weapons to assemble meaningful zero-ABV alternatives.
Los Angeles was among the first stateside cities to hop aboard the NA bandwagon. At Harvard & Stone, one of Hollywood’s most reputable watering holes, no less than two options on a seasonally-rotating menu can be delivered in non-alcoholic fashion. Bar manager Aaron Polsky developed a ‘No-groni’ recipe here, with the innovation of his bitter and booze-less Campari-inspired extract. “Everyone is welcome and everybody belongs,” he notes. “We want non-drinkers to feel the same way.”
Downtown’s Prank Bar widens the adult beverage space further still, with the use of home-made kombuchas and a series of ‘anti-inflammatory’ cocktails built with terpenes (organic, non-hallucinogenic compounds derived from cannabis). Says owner, Dave Whitton: “People choosing not to drink want to go out and feel like they can try something fun and interesting and not be limited to soda with lime. The movement is all about health and moderation, while still having fun and socializing. In the last two years, especially, I noticed [it] growing and becoming more common among guests.”
Although the two-story outpost is built around a tall stand of proper spirits, the drink list allots equal real estate for zero-abv preparations, like the Cross Fizz: a pineapple and mint-infused sparkling kombucha, featuring the same care in assembly as a typical craft cocktail.
At Spiaggia in Chicago, Rachel Lowe is mining the food-pairing potential of NA. In January, she crafted a ‘Temperance Menu’: zero-ABV arrangements designed to fit five courses of the kitchen’s Michelin-starred Italian cuisine. She sees many reasons for the rise of alcohol-free dining. “Health benefits of abstaining can be one, as well as weight loss, pregnancy, cleansing,” she enumerates.
There’s also a pronounced power of suggestion at play, according to the experts. So even while abstaining from actual alcohol, the mere presentation and context of the experience can impart a slight sense of inebriation. Adds Lowe: “[Bar goers] are excited to try something that breaks certain boundaries and has a creative, fresh twist.”
And they’re willing to pay a premium to get it; at most restaurants with progressive NA menus, the selections are priced in accordance with their alcoholic counterparts. At liquor stores, a full-size bottle of Seedlip retails for around the same price as a standout bourbon ($40). On its website, Curious Elixirs—a growing brand of ready-to-drink non-alcoholic beverages—fetches $88 for a 12-pack of single-serve bottles. Its founder compares its bitter, herbaceous edge to the mouthfeel of dry, sparkling red wine. Even with its hefty price tag, he can’t seem to make it fast enough.
For a new generation of drinker, this is all accepted as the cost of quality. “The amount of work that goes into making these beverages is intensive,” Lowe points out. “It takes a lot of time and creativity. We are providing not only a wonderful drink but also an intellectual experience.” Even without the booze, it seems, you can’t hold back a good buzz.