NEW YORK—There was a time when mixologist Thor Bergquist dreaded a customer’s request for a nonalcoholic drink. But these days, people’s tastes have changed.
“With a greater consciousness toward healthier living, I’ve seen younger people choosing not to drink, sometimes for that night or sometimes as a life choice,” said Bergquist in an email interview. He runs PS40, a cocktail bar in Sydney, Australia, that makes its own handcrafted sodas—which you can order without the added spirits.
Others simply want “something thoughtfully made in the middle of the day,” said Jason Mendenhall of the newly opened restaurant The Wild Son in New York’s Meatpacking District.
In turn, mixologists have stepped up their game. Bergquist and Mendenhall are among a growing number of bartenders who are creating nonalcoholic drinks with the same care and attention they put toward making cocktails.
That means crafting a drink that has complexity, “using bitter, sweet, sour, and potentially savory to create something more than the sum of its parts,” Bergquist explained.
The days of sugary sweet virgin cocktails are over. At PS40, the sodas are made with a variety of herbs and spices, some unique to Australia. The Bush Tonic, for example, is flavored with Australian lemongrass and lemon myrtle.
Bergquist also taps into nostalgia, creating adult versions of childhood treats like the PS40 cream soda, with tonka bean, vanilla bean, and pomace made from Shiraz grapes to give tannins.
As with constructing a cocktail, Mendenhall thinks about what flavors are dominant and then balances with secondary flavor notes. His WSD drink at The Wild Son, for example, first hits you with the taste of bell pepper juice, then is rounded out by spiciness in the chipotle agave and tartness from the lemons ($8).
The Mango & Turmeric Shrub leaves a tomato-like tang in the mouth, but goes down with sharpness from the vinegar ($7).
Technique-wise, Mendenhall also incorporates the same principles from cocktail-making: shaking down the drink, making it froth, and using carbonation to heighten flavors.
Meanwhile, Nandini Khaund mixes healthy tisanes and elixirs at Cindy’s Rooftop in Chicago, taking inspiration from the old idea of an apothecary offering spirits-infused remedies. Khaund’s interest in biology (she studied it in school, and has doctors in her family), coupled with an eye-opening trip to Belize eight years ago where she explored the medicinal properties of plants, led her to the idea.
Her nonalcoholic drinks are filled with health benefits, such as the Golden Lime, made with soda; calamansi, a Southeast Asian citrus that’s good for your skin; honey, a natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory that can help ease allergies; and tarragon, a herb high in antioxidants and good for your eyes and heart, Khaund explained in an email interview ($8).
The Reanimator is made with blueberry, ginger, demerara sugar, lime, and activated charcoal—good for removing toxins ($8).
And at Sushisamba, a Brazilian-inspired sushi restaurant with locations in London and across the United States, Richard Woods creates balanced mocktails out of ingredients you would normally find on a food menu.
The Matcha Milkshake, for example, is a creamy, horchata-like drink made with quinoa milk, rice milk, coconut, vanilla, and matcha infusion ($8). The Koko Cold Brew surprises with an element of savory from fresh cilantro, mixed with cold-brew coffee, pineapple, and coconut sugar ($8), while the summery Suu-Izuru ($8) is a marriage of bright citrus (yuzu) and mellow sweetness (lychee, pineapple-tarragon syrup).
Khaund thinks the recent attention to crafting mocktails has to do with the revival in the cocktail scene, “and the wealth of ingredients available to bartenders to express their creativity without alcohol,” she said. She’s seeing more and more establishments with menus dedicated to only mocktails.
She’s glad people who don’t drink finally have options when they’re going out. “Bars are social gathering places, spots for the meeting of minds, so mocktails are a way of including everyone and keeping that mentality open,” she said.
For more delicious mocktails in New York City, click here.
And for super easy mocktail recipes, click here.