PW's Brian Freedman Asks Why It's Such a Challenge to Get a Good Nonalcoholic Drink

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 25, 2012

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Last week, at a family dinner, my 5-year-old nephew sipped his first Shirley Temple. As for so many of us, it was his first foray into the world of nominally adult drinking. Of course, the flavor of the thing had little to do with that landmark—like so many nonalcoholic concoctions, this childhood classic is a sticky-sweet highball of artificial flavors and a cherry on top that’s more corn syrup and food coloring than actual fruit. But the ritual of it—the sweating side of the glass, the jingle of the ice, the sips he took whenever the adults at the table pulled from our cocktails—clearly struck a nerve with him. It may have been nonalcoholic, but my nephew, as a direct result of the vivid red liquid before him, felt like a part of the grown-up crowd for the night.

Kids aren’t necessarily the only people who want or need nonalcoholic mixed drinks, though. Mothers-to-be, teetotalers permanent or temporary—there are plenty of adults who don’t want to get tipsy but also don’t want to miss out on the vibe of their social circle. And it would be nice if Shirley Temple and her equally moldy old mocktail pals weren’t their only options.

“When I was over at the Farmer’s Cabinet, we always kept the temperance drink on the menu as part of the classics,” says local cocktail guru Phoebe Esmon, a self-described “gypsy bartender” well-known for recreating the bar programs at Chick’s and Farmer’s Cabinet and co-founding the Bartenders Guild in Philadelphia. “I feel like, if you’re pregnant—[or maybe you just] want to go out and be in a bar, you still want to have the atmosphere of a bar around you, but you don’t want to drink alcohol—you should still be able to enjoy yourself and not feel like a jerk, or not have someone judge you, or just be stuck with a water. So I think it’s important to always offer nonalcoholic options for people, and not just like a virgin Bloody Mary or whatever.”

There’s an intense focus in Philadelphia drinking establishments right now on craft cocktails. That means the stakes have been raised even higher for what passes as an “acceptable” nonalcoholic option among a certain set of serious cocktail aficionados. The trick, however, is that it’s perhaps a bit more difficult to craft a great drink without the benefit of booze.

“If you’re working from a base spirit—say I’m using bourbon—I know things that are going to taste good with that,” Esmon explains. “I’m going to be able to pair things and make you a nice balanced drink even if I’m making it off the cuff ... You know from experience, and from working with [the flavors of base spirits], what to do. Making a nonalcoholic cocktail is a little bit more like cooking.”

Though there’s a certain degree of tweaking that goes into crafting a traditional cocktail, even more can be needed when it comes to alcohol-free ones. Without the benefit of a base spirit’s power and ability to define a drink, striking a balance without sacrificing the drink’s personality is a tightrope-walk, requiring both attention to detail and a deep sense of creativity. Add to that the fact that not all drinkers of non-alcoholic cocktails want the same thing from their tipple—some want it to mimic the flavors of familiar cocktails based on spirits, while others want it to resemble nothing but its alcohol-free self—and you have a seriously daunting challenge.

Even once an interesting roster of nonalcoholic cocktails is created, there’s no guarantee that an audience for them will materialize. Steve Wildy, beverage director for the Vetri Family restaurants (Alla Spina, Amis, Vetri, Osteria), discovered this first-hand at one of the city’s top dining destinations. “When we switched over to all-tasting menus at Vetri, we had been doing the wine pairings for a long time before that, and then we decided we’d add a beer pairing and a non-alcoholic pairing,” he says. “And we were really excited about it. We tested a bunch of different stuff, and all of the [options] we came up with were geared towards cocktail flavors—things that were kind of recreations of classic cocktails, or at least had a component of cocktails where they weren’t overly sweet, that typically had a bitter component. They were geared toward [pairing] with food. And we found that they kind of fell flat with nonalcoholic drinkers. The ones that were big hits were the ones that were sweet and juicy and kind of syrupy. And that’s great, we ended up making a bunch of stuff like that ... [but] we got away from doing the non-alcoholic pairing as a result because we weren’t serving the stuff that we were super excited about.”

That said, there’s nonetheless a growing range of delicious options in the city for drinkers who enjoy the more sophisticated approach to sober beverages.

• At Vetri, for example, you can start off with the restaurant’s nonalcoholic riff on a Campari and soda: Grapefruit sorbet blended with San Pellegrino Sanbitter and finished off with a high-quality tonic water like Fever-Tree or Q.

• The Osteria Punch, at Osteria, is composed of homemade chamomile honey combined with fruit juices and soda.

Panorama offers a nonalcoholic Bellini, made with peach nectar, ginger ale, and club soda.

Varga Bar pulls draughts of Victory root beer year round.

Talula’s Garden has a green iced tea with local honey and fresh-pressed carrot juice: a brunchtime favorite, and an excellent alternative for nondrinkers who still want something layered and sophisticated without hitting the Bloody Marys.

Hop Sing Laundromat serves up the Little Joe (its name a tribute, as the restaurant’s is, to the old TV Western Bonanza), vivid with the juice of freshly squeezed pineapples and green grapes, a dash of homemade grenadine, and club soda, all over ice.

• And shrubs—essentially fruit vinegars—are increasingly popular; City Tavern has been making fine use of them for some time now.

So go ahead and enjoy a more sophisticated nonalcoholic drink than a Shirley Temple. Unless you’re a 5-year-old kid. In which case, please do not let us interfere as you bask in the glory of the single most glamorous thing you’ve ever tasted.

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