We love cocktails, beer, and wine and 2020 gave us all the reasons, occasions, and excuses to pour drinks. But a Dry January, or any other month, can be beneficial whether your goal is resetting habits, weight loss, or better sleep.
Part of pouring craft beverages is the process of discovering, developing, and sharing tasty sips with our friends and family. “Without alcohol” does not have to signal the end of delicious and the beginning of boring. This guide to craft mocktails will deliver all of the flavor and flair of cocktails while helping you keep your commitment to #DryJanuary.
Plus, for those of us in the hospitality industry, offering thoughtfully crafted non-alcoholic choices for guests who are not drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, is excellent service and good for business.
What is a craft mocktail?
Surprisingly, the Journal of American Speech notes the origin word “mocktail” doesn’t come from a sober mixologist but instead a 1979 Libbey Glass advertisement. By now, we have all learned that “mocktail” means a non-alcoholic drink meant to replicate a cocktail.
Just as cocktails have moved to the classic hand-shaken daiquiri, so have we moved beyond the virgin blender drink. Today, we see a wide variety of non-alcoholic options under bar menu headings that include: Zero ABV, Low & No Alcohol, Alcohol-Free, NA Options, and Zero Proof.
By whatever name you call them, craft mocktails require care, skill, and fresh ingredients like their boozy cousins. In short, they should be as well-crafted as a cocktail.
Trends in Alcohol-Free
At one time, being the designated driver, or sober, meant getting to select from sugary soda, juice or tonic, lousy coffee, plain soda, or tap water. Not very appealing options.
The “big upgrade” to this list was the addition of non-alcoholic beer.
However, today, as reflected in the 2020 Cocktail Trends Report, the #1 trend is low/no alcohol drinks. The craft mocktail is a rising star due to more mindful drinking and hospitality professionals serving up what their guests want.
What gets measured gets improved, and the mocktail is no exception. If you are in doubt, consider this:
- Alcohol-free – sober bars are popping up around the world and in the US
- Non-alcoholic bar programs are getting the attention previously reserved for craft cocktails
- Zero proof spirits are being produced, marketed, and added to the back bar next to the classics
- DIY mocktail books abound, such as the famed Aviary Restaurant’s Zero, A New Approach to Non-Alcoholic Drinks
Enough talk, let’s make some mocktails.
Getting Started Making Craft Mocktails
My three principles of “craft” apply to both cocktails and mocktails. It can be challenging, but with a little bit of practice – let’s say a month, give or take you’ll be a mocktail mixologist.
- Care – Give serious consideration to the non-alcoholic beverage you’re creating. Who will be drinking it, and when? This includes the food that will complement the experience.
- Who – Do they abstain from alcohol entirely, or can you use dashes of bitters which will add a tiny amount of alcohol?
- When – What’s the occasion and setting? The “who” and “when” answers will influence the glass, temperature, as well as the flavors and textures desired. Remember, the drink’s glass and size should match the alcoholic beverages to not draw attention to the person who isn’t drinking alcohol.
- Skill – Your objective is to mix a flavorful, complex, balanced, and beautiful drink.
- Flavorful – The drink should have a distinct flavor, not a watered-down juice or weak hint of something added to soda water.
- Complex – Complexity will come from using various flavors and aromas that blend harmoniously or provide an exciting contrast.
- Balance – Balance is the interplay between the five basic taste elements: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. A well-balanced drink will use multiple ingredients in proportion so that a single flavor does not leave the drink tasting one-dimensional.
- Beauty – We eat and drink with our eyes first. Use garnishes, ice, and glassware to create flair and enhance the experience of the drink you are making.
- Fresh Ingredients – The craft cocktail movement is founded on the use of fresh juices, housemade syrups, shrubs, tinctures, fresh-picked herbs and flowers, and the use of artisan brands. So, too, are craft mocktails.
- Juice – An electric juicer may become part of your essential bar equipment. It will allow you to go beyond using just fresh citrus juice.
- Syrups, Shrubs, and Tinctures – Provide not only sweetness but enhance your drinks with tartness, herbs, spices, fruit flavors, and peppers to build balance and complexity.
- Fresh-picked – Both taste and aroma create flavor. The use of fresh herbs and flowers in juices, syrups, and garnishes enhances the flavors you are making while also setting expectations visually.
- Artisan – Whenever possible, choose to make your mocktail ingredients at home or purchase brands that embrace the craft movement’s ethos.
Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” That is true with mocktails and cocktails. The interplay between a dash of this, and a small amount of that, mixed with something else can create a flavor profile that is inspired.
These books helped me to understand flavor pairing. I consult them regularly to expand my knowledge of flavor and creativity:
- The Drunken Botanist, The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
- The Flavor Bible, The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based On The Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
- The Flavor Matrix, The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes by James Briscione
Craft Mocktail Mixology
Thanks to Spirity Non-Alcoholic cocktails, and other brands,craft mocktails can be as quick and painless as opening a can – after all, craft beer is still craft. Or it can be as involved as making zero ABV spirits, developing syrups, and handcrafting bitters all at home.
Usually, it falls somewhere in between; I buy some things and make others.
All three options above are perfect depending on the occasion and how much time and equipment you have available.
- Easy and Quick – Doesn’t have to mean sugary and sweet. Creating a complex, well-balanced, and attractive drink can be as quick as combining bitters, shrubs, or balsamic vinegar with the mixer of your choice, along with a thoughtful garnish.
Balsamic Vinegar and Soda on the Rock(s)
I keep a supply of flavored balsamic vinegar on my bar right next to my bitters collection. Currently, I have Lemongrass and Mint, Cranberry Pear, Black Mission Fig, and Blueberry flavors on hand.
I use ¼ – ½ ounce of balsamic vinegar (use more or less as you or your guest prefers) with soda water to make an excellent drink. Depending on the flavor and presentation, I use one-inch ice cubes or a single large, hand-cut cube.
Lemongrass and Mint Cooler
¼ – ½ ounce of Lemongrass and Mint White Balsamic Vinegar
4 ounces of soda water
- Collins glass
- Four one-inch ice cubes
- Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and a twist of lemon
Bitters and Soda
Bitters and soda is a classic non-alcoholic choice. Yes, bitters are generally made by using alcohol to extract flavors from roots, herbs, leaves, and fruit, but when used in small quantities has no intoxicating effect. In the US, a beverage with less than .5% Alcohol By Volume (ABV) is considered non-alcoholic. There are also non-alcoholic bitters available.
In your local liquor store and online, you’ll find a wide array of bitters. There is no reason to limit yourself to Angostura Bitters only.
Bitters and soda are also readily available pre-mixed in a can from Hella, Angostura, and Schweppes, to name a few.
Bitters and Soda
2 – 6 dashes of bitters
4 – 8 ounces of soda water
- Pint, Rocks, or Collins glass – match the glassware and portion to the alcoholic drinks served.
- Garnish with a complementing or contrasting flavor element. The book Flavor Matrix is invaluable for great ideas.
Tonic Water & Lime
Readily available and straightforward, this go-to non-alcoholic choice can be full of sugar. Still, with a few upgrades, you can reduce the sugar and increase flavor.
Elevated Tonic and Lime
4 – 6 ounces of Fever-Tree Tonic
3 – 6 dashes of Woodland Bitters from Portland Bitters Project
- Large Rocks or Collins glass – match the glassware and portion to the alcoholic drinks served.
- Garnish with a lime wheel and rosemary sprig
- Make and Buy – This is what craft cocktail enthusiasts and bartenders do most of the time with craft cocktails. We purchase spirits, vermouth, bitters, etc., and make syrups, shrubs, and other easy-to-prepare ingredients. Craft Mocktails are no different!
Today, there are many brands and choices of spirits when you are stocking your sober bar. For a deeper dive, check out the Mixology Talk podcast #177 as Chris Tunstall, founder of A Bar Above, talks non-alcoholic cocktails with Laura Lashley, a Brand Ambassador for Seedlip.
We’ll dive in by focusing on three non-alcoholic versions of classic cocktails: The Old Fashioned, the Daiquiri, and the Negroni. With a little bit of searching on the Internet or Amazon, you’ll easily find what you’re looking for.
2 ounces Ritual Whiskey Alternative
¼ ounce Simple Syrup
2 Dashes Stirrings Blood Orange Non-alcoholic Bitters
- Add Simple Syrup, Stirrings Blood Orange Non-alcoholic Bitters and Ritual Whiskey to your mixing glass. Add ice, stir to chill—strain with a julep strainer into a rocks glass with ice.
- Rocks glass with one-inch ice cubes or one large rock
- Garnish with a twist of orange
2 ounces Ronsin Non-alcoholic Rum
¾ ounce Fresh Lime Juice
¾ ounce Simple Syrup
- Add Simple Syrup, Lime Juice, and Ronsin Non-alcoholic Rum to your small shaker tin. Add ice. Shake for 10 seconds—double strain into a coupe glass.
- Coupe glass
- Garnish with a lime wedge
Add Seedlip Spice 94, Lyre’s Italian Orange, and VERSIN Non-alcoholic Vermouth to your mixing glass. Add ice. Stir to chill. Strain with a julep strainer into a coupe or rocks glass.
- Coupe glass with no ice, or a rocks glass with one-inch ice cubes or one large rock.
- Garnish with an orange twist
- DIY Mixology – If you are a total cocktail nerd who is getting into craft mocktails, I highly suggest you order Zero, A New Approach to Non-alcoholic Drinks. In it you’ll find the guidance to make your own Zero ABV backbar inspired by Gin, Whiskey, Tequila, Triple Sec, Mezcal, Rum, Amaro, Chartreuse, Fernet, Campari, and classic bitters.
I started with gin. It’s complex, interesting, and very drinkable. It took just a few hours after gathering everything I needed. Most of the whole spices were readily available in the bulk spice section of a gourmet grocery store. A few ingredients – vegetable glycerin and angelica root I bought on Amazon.
Zero ABV Gin worked well with tonic and as a sour, but I wouldn’t try to tell a gin drinker that it’s gin. In my next batch, I will try to amplify the juniper notes by cruising the juniper berries more.
The recipe cautioned me not to puree the juniper berries, so I may have been too cautious, leaving the tincture lacking the full gin that I enjoy.
If you go the DIY route, it will help to have a few things on-hand:
Note: the blender and scales are the minimum starting place. You’ll be using your blender to make tinctures – concentrated extracts made by blending up spices, herbs, or barks in a liquid. In the Zero ABV Gin, I blended juniper berries in a combination of vegetable glycerin and water.
Many of the ingredients you’ll be working with are very aromatic, flavorful, and lightweight – a little bit will go a long way. Thus, you’ll be weighing out one to five-gram portions on a gram scale instead of using measuring spoons.
Water, fruit juice, and vegetable glycerin – heavy ingredients, are too much for the tiny gram scale. That’s why you’ll also need a kitchen scale. Plus, there are many uses for a scale once it’s part of your kitchen set up. You can weigh flour for baking, sugar and water for making syrups, and food for portion control.
Overall, I’m delighted with the outcome. I know my craft mocktail menu options will be endless when I complete the backbar. Next up is Zero ABV American Whiskey!
Limitations can inspire creativity. Eliminating alcohol is just such a boundary. Writing this guide to craft mocktails has shown me that complex, well-balanced, and visually stimulating non-alcoholic drinks are more than possible. They are a necessary part of a home bar or professional bar program.