Nonalcoholic cocktails are sprouting up on menus everywhere these days, and it makes sense: 30 percent of the U.S, population doesn’t drink, with Gen Z reportedly imbibing 20 percent less alcohol than millennials. But it’s not just teetotalers increasing the momentum of booze-free bevs: Inspired mixologists and new nonalcoholic-spirits companies are leading the way to concoctions so thrilling in flavor and flair, they’re intoxicating for anyone who appreciates a well-crafted drink.
What is a zero-proof cocktail?
Technically, a zero-proof cocktail is any multi-ingredient drink devoid of alcohol. Even the Arnold Palmer and Shirley Temple qualify, despite the fact that they don’t have the sophistication of a Manhattan or cosmopolitan, or the flavor depth of a simple gin and tonic.
Washington, D.C.-based no- and low-alcohol expert Derek Brown, author of Mindful Mixology, has a more contemporary definition: “For a nonalcoholic drink to be considered a cocktail, it has to meet certain criteria: intensity of flavor, piquancy (a ‘bite'), texture, and a certain volume that the alcohol usually takes up, so it isn’t just juice.”
In other words, it has to feel and taste like a real-deal, grown-up drink.
Achieving this result is far less complicated than it used to be. In fact, the volume and bite Brown speaks of can be concocted from everyday ingredients. Take his basic sour cocktail substitute, the Pinch Hitter, a refreshing mix of lemon juice, ginger syrup (for bite), volumizing and textural aquafaba (an egg replacement made from chickpea water), salt tincture, and a touch of apple cider vinegar. Shaken, strained into a cocktail glass, and served with a thinly sliced lemon wheel, it’s got all the pomp and satisfaction of a traditional boozy sour, minus the buzz and hangover potential.
Nonalcoholic spirits are a growing category.
Increasingly, bartenders are also employing a new category of bar ingredient to elevate their zero-proof cocktail offerings: nonalcoholic spirits.
Alternative or nonalcoholic spirits are exactly what they sound like: alcohol-free hooch crafted to mimic the flavor and character of whiskey, tequila, gin, rum, and beyond. Most of these new cocktail bases leverage botanicals, herbs, nuts, seeds, barks, and other natural products to coax alcohol-like characteristics into their blends. Others start with high-proof liquor, which is then distilled until the alcohol content is gone. Each kind is an exciting platform on which to create cocktails that hearken to the beloved ritual of socializing over a stiff, sexy drink.
Tom Halaska, national sales director of alcohol-alternative brand Ritual Zero Proof explains, “Five years ago, before Ritual Zero Proof launched, there was no such thing as liquor replacements. Now, non-alc is the fastest growing category in beverage.” In fact, the year-old Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association boasts 30 spirits-producer members, meaning we suddenly have a lot more choices when it comes to what we put in our cocktail shaker (and that list is sure to keep growing).
So far, alcohol alternatives don’t have quite enough bite to make them reliable stand-ins for spirits when served neat. But with the right mixers in hand, a satisfying zero-proof manhattan, margarita, G&T, or mojito is as simple as following the basic cocktail recipe and substituting the corresponding non-alcoholic spirit. Add a talented mixologist, and the options are endless (and lip-smackingly good).
Restaurants are adapting to customer tastes.
Not surprisingly, restaurants and bars are incorporating this brave new world of creative cocktails to mix things up and enhance the dining experience. After all, now that there are more evolved offerings than basic sodas or grenadine-flavored Sprite, there are also more customers requesting these sophisticated, buzz-free beverages.
In San Francisco, Ocean Beach Cafe & Non-Alcoholic Bottle Shop has a nonalcoholic menu even more robust than its selection of sandwiches and coffee drinks. Diners who order from Doordash or Caviar can add the Temperance Cocktail of the Day or a whole bottle of smoky-sweet Monday Mezcal to their meal.
In nearby Sausalito, Calif., at atmospheric Michelin-rated Mexican restaurant Copita Taqueria y Comida, the heat of achiote-marinated al pastor pork tacos can be paired with the Kickin’ Back cocktail: a combo of heady nonalcoholic Seedlip Spice, which is infused with chile de arbol, plus lemon juice, pineapple agua fresca, honey, and turmeric-ginger tonic.
At Brooklyn’s Santa Panza, you can partner the spaghetti with grass-fed meatballs with a St. Agrestis Phony Negroni.
For greater zero-proof drink variety, restaurants are also incorporating more alcohol-free wines into their menus, and at All Purpose Pizzeria in Washington, D.C., you can enjoy Jersey-style pies with nonalcoholic prosecco. LA hot spot Birdie G's provides the opportunity to wash down its juicy, prime koji flatiron steak frites with Leitz’s Eins Zwei Zero sparkling Riesling.
Inclusion is key.
As Brown points out, expanding the drinks menu is about making meals welcoming for everyone: “It’s about inclusion, making sure everybody has a seat at the bar.”
Portland, Oregon, restaurateur and bar conceptualizer Eric Nelson agrees: “The [return on investment] for NA beverages doesn’t come into play as liquidity, like cash. It comes from the fact that your guests now feel included in everybody else’s experience, which brings them back,” he says.
Given that sales of nonalcoholic drinks in the U.S. were up 20.6 percent from mid-2021 to mid-2022, it’s clear that guests are coming back. And why not? An enticing beverage program heightens the dining experience for everyone, whether the desire is to explore a mixologist’s creativity while sober, pace yourself with something more sophisticated than a Roy Rogers, or take on the heroic role of designated driver without the FOMO. We’ll drink to that!
Explore more restaurants featuring beguiling nonalcoholic cocktails.
If you’d like to enjoy the pure pleasure of sipping a well-crafted beverage with dinner minus the tipsiness, look for NA or zero-proof sections on any restaurant menu, or check out the following:
San Francisco: Enjoy a Recharge, an invigorating combo of ginger beer, turmeric, and lime at The Dorian.
Philadelphia: Sip a spicy pineapple mocktail for two from the Zero-Proof section of Charlie Was a Sinner's menu.
Eagan, Minnesota: Order the Blueberry Basil Sparkler kit from Mason Jar Kitchen and Bar and mix it up yourself (yes, this does qualify you as a master cocktail maker).
Chicago: At Roanoke, take flight with the Coconut Butterfly, a mixture of blueberry, lime, coconut water, and butterfly pea syrup.
Ocean Beach Cafe and Temperance Bar NA Speakeasy by Joshua James
Birdie G’s (steak) by Jeremy Fox, (wine) by Meghan Reardon
Derek Brown, The Pinch Hitter by Nole Garey
Courtesy of Mason Jar Kitchen & Bar
Courtesy of Shuka
Santa Panza (meatballs) by Steve Zavitz