Lowering the bar

Enjoying alcohol-free cocktails with style and skill.
the golden apple alcohol-free cocktail
The Golden Apple. Courtesy iStock

There’s been a great movement in reducing alcohol consumption across modern dining culture, for physical health, social health and a general sense of balance. I, for one, am greatly in favor, not only because working in the spirits/alcohol industry makes it far too easy to casually end up drinking all the time, but frankly, it’s also tough to work a standard grown-up job every morning having to deal with a headache.

The best part of the “mocktail” movement is not only the normalization of choosing not to imbibe but also the wider availability of nonalcoholic drinks that are interesting, delicious and more appealing than just being offered a Diet Coke while everyone else drinks fun craft cocktails.

With that in mind, a discussion of skills and ingredients useful for a low/no alcohol bar will be a welcome “dry period” this month.

From a cocktail perspective, one of the most useful aspects of alcohol is its properties as a solvent – flavors dissolve very easily in alcohol, and thusly, it’s very easy to use alcohol as a wide palette of flavor agents for your drinks.

With that in mind, I encourage you to build your own “palette” of flavors but utilize more fresh ingredients, syrups and teas/infusions. Think of what you’re replacing from a technical standpoint: a raspberry liqueur is obviously raspberry flavored, sure, but the producer likely used other flavors to balance and add complexity — vanilla, honey, maybe a touch of almond.

So, if, for example, you’re using a raspberry purée for a nonalcoholic ingredient, try adding a touch of vanilla extract, a bit of honey and a drop of almond essence to round out this ingredient. Think of your raw materials as “core ingredients” — not just “mashed raspberries,” but rather a “raspberry cordial” — and use your flavor knowledge to make it into something just as special as that rare raspberry liqueur you’re swapping out.

Teas and infusions are a great boon to nonalcoholic cocktails, not only because of the flavors they offer but because they also can add bitterness and tannin to a drink — aspects that improve the drink’s body and complexity. I often field complaints that nonalcoholic drinks always seem watery and boring — well, classic cocktails are made with bitter, tannic and savory components that we take for granted; if you’re going to make a mocktail with the same satisfaction as a classic, you’ve got to find replacements for more than just the liquid.

Don’t ignore high-quality, pre-made sodas and mixers as useful agents in nonalcoholic mixology, too. We write off tonic water as simply a mixer for gin/vodka, but the bitterness and spice in a high-quality tonic — even just a splash — can be the element that really brings your mocktail together. A little heat from a splash of quality ginger beer can excite the palate just as well as the heat from a good whiskey. You can even get really creative with a touch of cream soda in a tea-based drink. Mixers like these, used in splashes and portions instead of as the main element, can be a great “secret ingredient” to kick up the quality of the drink.

Finally, don’t feel like sugar is your only profile. It’s very easy to reach for more juices/syrups/soft drinks to be the nonalcoholic filler, but you can make plenty of really delicious booze-free options with more savory, fresh flavors to keep the sugar buzz at bay.

— Torrence R. O’Haire, of The Starving Artist, is a chef, entrepreneur and restaurant consultant specializing in wine, spirits and cocktails. He also founded the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild.

Lassi Come Home

A riff on a classic Indian salted lassi, I love this as a morning pick-me-up where you might more readily drink a Bloody Mary. Salty and tangy, it can utilize whatever fresh ingredients you have around.

4 ounces Greek yogurt

½ ounce fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon honey

1 small super-ripe tomato (about ¼ cup, chopped)

A piece of hot green chili (optional, to taste)

½ teaspoon salt

A few sprigs fresh dill

A pinch of ground cumin

2 ounces club soda

Combine all ingredients except soda in a blender. Blend until smooth. Add a handful of ice and pulse until the ice is well cracked and the drink is chilled. Add the club soda and pour into a hurricane glass. Garnish with fresh herbs and a cherry tomato.

The Golden Apple

A surprisingly complex cooler with a sweeter but still “adult” profile.

1 chamomile tea bag

1 English breakfast tea bag

2 ounces chilled apple cider

2 ounces high-quality cream soda

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

1 slice crystallized ginger, to garnish

Combine both tea bags in a mixing vessel and pour over 4 ounces of boiling water. Let steep 7 minutes, then discard tea bags. Add remaining ingredients and stir gently. Pour over cubed ice in a Collins glass and garnish with crystallized ginger and a lemon twist.

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