Hold The Alcohol

Serious mixologists are getting creative with alcohol-free drinks.

Los Angeles restaurant Salazar serves several alcohol-free aguas frescas, including the Fruta del Dragón (above), made with pureed dragon fruit, lemon juice, water, and sugar.
Los Angeles restaurant Salazar serves several alcohol-free aguas frescas, including the Fruta del Dragón (above), made with pureed dragon fruit, lemon juice, water, and sugar.

Once shown little attention in the on-premise, alcohol-free cocktails have become a presence at venues with upscale mixology programs. At some places, spirits-free drinks now have their own menus and receive plenty of bartender support, and they’re being made with high-end ingredients.

“Non-alcoholic drinks deserve the same love and attention to detail as alcoholic cocktails,” says Natasha David, co-owner of New York City bar Nitecap. While her venue has a full roster of traditional cocktails, she also highlights alcohol-free options. “Guests are always pleasantly surprised by how layered, complex, and balanced our non-alcoholic cocktails are,” David says.

Nitecap’s popular alcohol-free drinks ($8) include the Head Games, mixing zero-proof “spirit” Seedlip Spice 94, house-made blood orange shrub, grapefruit juice, cinnamon syrup, and tonic, and the Scorpio Sisters, comprising coconut cream, coconut milk, kiwi purée, pineapple and lime juices, and rose water. “Our goal is to make the drinks feel like ‘real’ drinks,” David says. “They’re served in fun glassware, beautifully garnished, and presented just like any other cocktail on our menu.”

For Chicago bar The Whistler, having a separate menu of alcohol-free drinks is all about inclusion. “Everyone who steps through our doors should be made to feel welcome,” says bartender Doug Phillips. The bar’s offerings include cocktails with optional spirits, such as the Milk Maid ($6; $10 with Cimarrón Tequila), comprising coconut milk, cucumber, lime juice, and salt, and the Delhi Cooler ($6; $10 with Beefeater gin), mixing house-made curry nectar syrup, pineapple and lime juices, and club soda.

“We approach a non-alcoholic cocktail exactly the same way we would approach a traditional one,” Phillips says. “When making a non-alcoholic drink we ask ourselves, ‘Would we put this on the alcoholic cocktail menu?’ The answer has to be yes.”

Inclusivity is also important at 4 Saints, a rooftop bar at the Kimpton Rowan Hotel in Palm Springs, California. Beverage manager Andy Nelson says his guests are often excited to see spirits-free options. “We use the same techniques to prep these drinks as for our regular cocktails,” Nelson says. “We want to ensure the drink is balanced, complex, and consistent. There’s a growing demographic of people who prefer non-alcoholic cocktails.”

The Gypsy Dancer ($7) at 4 Saints mixes a house-made pineapple shrub with lime juice and muddled mint and jalapeño. After seeing the success of the drink, Nelson created an alcoholic version—the Maquina Verde ($14)—that’s since become one of the bar’s most popular cocktails. The drink mixes the pineapple shrub and lime juice with Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Avuá cachaça, and Ancho Reyes Verde poblano chile liqueur.

Jenee Craver, beverage director for Chicago cocktail destination Sable Kitchen & Bar, has also seen alcohol-free drinks rise in popularity, primarily because they alleviate social pressure to drink. For her, non-alcoholic cocktails require even more attention to detail than their alcoholic counterparts. “I’d argue that it’s more challenging to craft well-balanced non-alcoholic drinks,” Craver says. “Alcohol offers texture and body in addition to flavor. When you eliminate that, you have to be creative in bringing those elements back into play.”

Craver uses many of the same ingredients in both her traditional and non-alcoholic drinks. This adds sophistication and integrity, she explains. Among the bar’s alcohol-free drinks is the Colada De Avena ($12), which mixes Seedlip Spice 94, oat milk, and house-made passion fruit and cinnamon syrups and is served in a tiki mug over ice (Singani 63 brandy can replace the Seedlip for $2 more).

For its health-conscious clientele, Los Angeles restaurant Salazar lists several alcohol-free aguas frescas on its cocktail menu. Beverage director Adan Maldonado says the drinks are popular during the day, adding that while they can be enhanced with alcohol, they’re more often ordered as-is. Salazar’s aguas frescas range from the Fruta del Dragón ($6; $12 with Platinum 7X vodka), made with pureed dragon fruit, lemon juice, water, and sugar, to the Horchata, mixing house-made rice milk, Thai coconut milk, and condensed milk with cinnamon ($6; $7 with cold brew coffee; $12 with Don Q Cristal rum and Copa de Oro Coffee liqueur). “Our non-alcoholic drinks are made to be just as delicious and beautifully presented as our boozy cocktails,” Maldonado says.