Mocktail Is a Dirty Word

Swear jar with coins in it

Oh hello, did my salty little title about mocktails make you click this link? Good, buckle up.

I said what I said, and I stand by it: I do not like the word “mocktail” and I am not alone in this sentiment. That being said, I have a deep rooted respect for the category itself, don’t get it twisted; I hold a severe dislike for the word. 

Let’s break it down: mocktail sounds like it is actively infantilizing. It’s trying to be something it isn’t, it’s a fake, a fraud, a glaring grenadine sign signaling a sugar rush. A giggle attached to an order with the word “virgin” put in front of the name, teehee. It’s pedantic and pandering and Urban Dictionary agrees via their definition of mocktail. “A non-alcoholic kids’ beverage made to look and taste like a cocktail and marketed specifically to children.”

I’m not even going to begin to unpack the last half of their definition, but I digress.

I came to the bar by way of the tea house and espresso machine; to me, creating something flavorful and delicious has never begun or ended with a bottle off the back bar, although craft beer and booze is how I am primarily known. Early on in my bar career, I was in love with a recovering alcoholic. There weren’t many options for him in social settings, club soda and pineapple became his go-to. Menus back then didn’t list any N/A options beyond sodas (don’t even get me started on how bad the N/A beers were at the time) and there is something more than a tad demeaning when you ask for something spirit free and are presented with a Shirley Temple as an adult in a dark bar. Keep your neon cherries out of my glass, thank you very much.

Long after that relationship had run its course, I would talk with  friends who were becoming pregnant, friends who were rethinking their relationship with drinking, even customers who were long sober about their boredom within the non alcoholic realm. Creating delicious beverages sans alcohol has never bothered me–tell me what you like and I’ll get creative for you—but what we call these libations has always seemed more than a touch juvenile with a hint of imposter syndrome. Especially with the word mocktail. “Mock” is right there in the name, for crying out loud!

Making the decision to go zero proof for any reason is a very adult decision. Why are we still describing these drinks with a word that belongs on the kid’s menu right next to the chicken fingers?

Thankfully, the tide is turning. From bottle shops, to cocktail menus, recipe books and podcasts, I am more than a little excited that the zero proof world is expanding with choice, creativity, support, and a new vocabulary.

The Words We Use Have Weight

A non-alcoholic beverage does not have to mimic a cocktail (and it took me a while to realize that). It’s not alcohol, so why try so hard to make it taste or feel like it? A much broader world opens up when you discard the idea that something should mimic alcohol. This shift paints something beautiful on a completely blank canvas. So indeed, not a mocktail at all. At the end of the day all that really matters is that it tastes good and the consumer enjoys it,” says Katie Kennedy, head mixologist at Contento in East Harlem.

“I like n/a, no proof, and spiritless,” says Joshua Gandee, a bartender, consultant, and host of No Proof. “There are more and more creative names cropping up out there, and I mostly like people having fun with it. You’ll find different names for cocktail menus or lists from ‘libations’ to ‘House Drinks’ and I think the n/a space deserves its own vocabulary. I enjoy when n/a drinks can be found alongside spiritous drinks. It makes me feel like I’m ordering via mood or flavor and I don’t feel sequestered to a small section toward the back and bottom of a page.”

Adam George Fournier, beverage director of Fellow in Westwood, LA agrees : “I feel the word Mocktail devalues non-alcoholic drinks. It might be picky but words have power and there has been a stigma around not drinking for far too long.” Fournier was also recognized by Imbibe 75 this year for his work in the Non Alcoholic space ( oh, and he’s the 2021 Diageo World Class US Bartender of the Year).

The words we use matter, as does physical menu placement. None of these programs at the establisments mentioned above relegate their zero proof options to a sad little corner. They are right there, with appropriate billing, next to the spirited options. A great deal of thought and respect goes into creating these libations. While we are on the subject of verbiage, the word “thoughtful” came up with everyone I spoke to about this category. Almost like hospitality should be all about…well, being hospitable.

Just because menus are being thoughtful, doesn’t mean they can’t have a little fun. Clive’s Classic Lounge in the Chateau Victoria, labels their N/A section “I Can’t Taste the Alcohol” and features options like the “America-NO-NO.” “We go a little tongue-in-cheek,” says Shawn Soole, Clive’s manager. So do we, Shawn, so do we…

Spirit Free Spirits?

Peach Bum zero proof at Fellow in LA

Peach Bum zero proof at Fellow in LA

So what makes a great craft spiritless spirit?

“I think the best NA spirits are botanical forward. My favorites would be broadly categorized as ‘gin-esque’ but I am personally not as drawn towards spirits that ‘mimic’ their alcoholic brethren, but I’m coming around to them as I see more innovation in the spirit-free cocktails we have worked with some of our partners to create,” muses Nick Bodkins, Co-Founder and CEO of Boisson.  Boisson is a non-alcoholic retailer that launched in 2021 in Brooklyn, is rapidly expanding in NY, and soon to be across the nation, due to demand. Bodkins is a big fan of Amass (check out our Don’t Mind If I Do recipe ) and Ghia, a great aperitif style N/A that many of the professionals I spoke with also shouted out as their go-to.

Across the board, “viscosity” was the number one word used to describe a successful N/A spirit. The weight and mouthfeel need to carry flavors and stand up to dilution. “Creativity” and “innovation” also kept popping up:

“The west is still wild when it comes to the n/a space, ” says Gandee,”I’m less interested in the makers of products that exist to simply mimic spiritous counterparts. I admire the creators of n/a bottles that brought their idea to life because they dreamed big and wanted something unique. A great n/a spirit stands on its own, paves its own way, and excites a drinker by not tasting like anything you’ve had before.”

Several of these bar programs are even going so far as to make their own N/A spirits:

Jef Tate, beverage director at Billy Sunday in Chicago, mentions that “initially the motivation [to explore N/A recipes] was making the team’s life easier by streamlining calls for a spirit free cocktail. But then it blossomed into something more elaborate when our prep wizard, Lucy Wilson, and I learned a dedicated spirit free menu was a shared goal.” Billy Sunday now makes their own version of a rabarbaro , a smoky Chinese rhubarb Amaro, that they use in a spirit free Amaro daiquiri.

Over at Fellow, they have created both an American “Whiskey” Spirit and an orange “liqueur”.  By building on “intense teas” and layering flavors, they’ve created something recognizable on the palate. We’re no stranger to using tea in N/A offerings at The Crafty Cask. If you’ve taken a mixology class with us and opted for one of our N/A kits, you may have noticed! Personally, I’m a fan of Lapsang Souchong  as a stand in for whiskey or mezcal, Gandee is a big fan of fennel tea in his creations (dubbing it his “calling card”). He also hosts another version of No Proof focused solely on N/A spirits and their makers, aptly called Slurp Edition.

Put Some Thought Into It!

Spirit Free Amara Daiquiri at Billy Sunday in Chicago

Spirit Free Amaro Daquiri at Billy Sunday in Chicago

You’ve heard me say it time and time again: cocktails are about balance. Well, guess what? That concept doesn’t go out the window just because the beverage in question is zero proof!

N/A cocktails with “thoughtful ingredients that are well-balanced usually turn out the best,” says Kennedy, “It is important to put just as much thought into N/A offerings as you do alcoholic beverages, they should not be an after-thought.”

“I like n/a drinks that are built with length in mind. An n/a drink that beckons the savor is a win in my book. In the beginning of my sobriety I was hard pressed to find something bitter, so I often gravitate toward those types of flavors,” Gandee adds, “I like a good sour every once in a while but without the burn of alcohol I often find myself drinking them faster than I would anything else.”

Plenty of folks (myself included) will order something N/A between drinks as a way of extending the evening and making the next morning feel a little less, well, crispy. As a long time city dweller and taxi taker, it’s easy to forget that once you get outside NYC, cars are a very valid reason to offer spiritless tipples.

“LA is a driving city,” Fournier points out, ” so having something full flavored and thoughtful to sip on while winding down with your friends has been something our guests appreciate. We wanted to make sure that if a guest wasn’t imbibing, for whatever reason, that they still felt like part of the group and not an afterthought. So rather than generic N/A cocktails we focused on occasions. Like creating our Sakura Rose Champagne for the bubbly celebratory experience or the Zero Fashioned for someone wanting the experience of a hefty stirred drink with their entree.”

I absolutely love the concept of theming the recipe around an occasion or a season. Getting creative in the zero proof realm at home doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the store. Your pantry may already contain the makings of a fab beverage! Vinegars are a great start, use them on their own or create your own shrubs like my roasted pineapple shrub base for our Nautical Nonsense!

If you happen to pick up a bottle of Ghia, Kennedy loves to whip up a simple lemonade:

Grab Her Recipe
  • 1.5 oz Ghia
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup (mint simple syrup if you’re feeling frisky)
  • 2oz sparkling water

Add first three ingredients to shaker, add ice and shake

Pour over fresh ice

Top with sparkling water (or still if you hate bubbles)

Garnish with a nice bouquet of mint or a lemon wedge

 

Who doesn’t love a recipe that asks if you’re feeling frisky?!

 

But, Do People Order Them?

Turkish delight at Billy Sunday in Chicago

Spirit Free Turkish Delight at Billy Sunday in Charlotte

One frosty Valentine’s Day, I was behind the bar at Dear Irving anticipating a crush of unending cocktail orders due to the holiday and our bar’s oh-so-romantic ambiance. What I did not expect was that every other drink ticket would be for a zero proof Bartender’s Choice! The best moment of the evening was when a couple leaned over the bar to ask  “ummm I guess can you make a mocktail? I want something fancy and we’re not supposed to tell anyone but we don’t know you so: we’re pregnant!” Maybe if we’d started this conversation about the weight of words in the N/A space that couple would’ve felt a little less awkward asking for a spiritless libation. They probably still would’ve made me their “secret squirrel” and that’s ok, it comes with the job. 

“The reception at Fellow has been fantastic,” says Fournier, “We’ve actually found a fair segment of diners who discovered us because they are interested in an elevated dining experience but just don’t happen to drink.” 

Across the country Boisson has grown “as quickly as we possibly can keep up! We are now going into our 2nd year of business and are continuing to see new customers exploring this space… How to explore lowering their ABV of cocktails, using NA ingredients, or taking a drink, a night, a week off of alcohol.”

Gandee has felt something along the same lines in his hosting, “When I was first starting my journey around five years ago I had a hard time finding stories that were similar to mine, ones that weren’t disaster stories. I want No Proof to be a platform that shows individuals that there is no wrong way to arrive to sobriety, whether that be gently or otherwise.” No Proof works in conjunction with Focus On Health and they have compiled a great list of resources for anyone looking for support.

“In order to be truly inclusive and hospitable, we must offer a place at the table for everyone,” adds Kennedy, “There are so many delicious products and drinks out there that are spirit-free, and plenty of people willing to pay to enjoy them.”

It’s important to note that this isn’t a solely U.S. movement. When I spoke to British Columbia based Soole, he pointed out that, “the demand has definitely been increasing over the last 5 years and has been pushing bars and bartenders to actually think about how the N/A movement can be a new hook for their venue.”  

I’m into it: hook, line, and sinker y’all! I’m also psyched that N/A beers have taken a turn for the palatable (and dare I say enjoyable) as of late, thanks to craft breweries like Connecticut based Athletic and California based Best Day! Regardless of your reason for ordering a no ABV beverage, your options are only increasing. We can give thanks to creative, thoughtful, and fantastic humans I spoke with to write this piece. 

All Grown Up

If you take one thing away from this conversation, it should be this:

choosing to order a zero proof cocktail should come with zero judgement attached.

Personally, I don’t feel like that can really be achieved until we start using words that connote respect and a modicum of maturity to menus and recipes. I’m not saying they can’t be witty and humorous (we’re all for tongue in cheek at The Crafty Cask!), but the words we choose shouldn’t make anyone feel like a fake or come with an extra side of ketchup and a sippy cup.

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