A cozy winter day inside with close friends and loved ones—Hot Toddy. A summer day at the beach—Bahama Mama. A long day at the office—Long Island Iced Tea. There isn’t a moment in life that can’t be punctuated by the craftmanship of a cocktail, and it seems the imbiber has access to a prevalent culture the abstainer, whether for the night as a designated driver or someone who chooses the sober life, is neglected from.
“But wait,” you say. “What about a Shirley Temple? Or how about when I mix orange juice, pineapple juice, pomegranate juice, grape juice, and apple juice?” Number one: gross. And number next: there’s a market out there of people who want to enjoy the complexity of a well-thought-out drink but don’t want to have to worry about how they’re going to get home or if they’ll make some decisions only a sadistic bartender would allow. I mean, come on, Kari, you know nobody orders those pickled eggs on purpose.
Thanks to some mindful bartenders, nonalcoholic options aren’t the lazy offspring of their 21-and-over counterparts. Some places call them mocktails, but Robert Freeman, bar manager at Bar Corallini, says, “I like to call it a nonalcoholic beverage. I don’t like to think of it as mocking.” Robert has spent a lot of time perfecting his nonalcoholic options, and the consideration put into some of his creations exceeds the thought put into those expected alcoholic concoctions.
Robert’s philosophy on the creation process is to avoid mixing exotic ingredients for the sake of saying you did it. “Pairing flavors by themselves is just hard to do in general.” A strong base of knowledge to work from allows integration of new flavors in a meaningful way. For example, “I always use some sort of raw sugar in some form: honey, demerara, brown sugar. They all have different viscosities and textures to them. Brown sugar kind of replicates how rum would be in a cocktail, so maybe I would use a brown sugar syrup in a fake Mojito so I could actually give some similar characteristics to the cocktail.”
And if the time isn’t taken to really understand those flavor characteristics, as well as how to best utilize them, creating the next cocktail becomes an exercise of meh-risk, meh-reward gambling. Perhaps the person-of-meh might create some good cocktails, but they’ll be hard pressed to create something great.
Compare that to the thought Robert put into his winter cocktail. “I combine fresh lemon, honey syrup that’s equal part honey and hot water, dill syrup, muddled fresh ginger for some spice, and top it with seltzer to stretch it and give it a sparkling aspect. Then I add a lemon wheel and fresh dill for aromatics that are close to your nose when you’re drinking it. It helps connect all the flavors.”
The result is a drink that’s citrus on the nose with a really complex ginger flavor coming in light and finishing sharp. Each subsequent drink further enhances the ginger element until the harmony of the dill gives the drink a sense of completion.
Sharing Robert’s passion for nonalcoholic cocktails, and showing it in jubilant fashion, is Logan Benson, bar manager at Everly. He talks about how, to a child, what he’s doing behind the bar is magic. During our conversation, he gestures to the rows of colorful bottles and says, “These are all potions.” I get the sense he includes himself in that feeling of wonder.
The value of presentation is something that Logan is extremely aware of. “I feel like people don’t often garnish mocktails with the same level of intention that they do with cocktails, but I think you should. That’s part of the experience. You taste with your eyes first.” He also enjoys seeing people snap pictures of his nonalcoholic cocktails before they try them, embracing what he calls the “phones-drink-first movement.”
No drink at Everly exemplifies Logan’s excitement in making nonalcoholic cocktails a visual spectacle more than Tea Thyme. “Butterfly pea flower tea is pretty fresh this year, one of the hotter new cocktail ingredients. It’s a little blue flower that brews a very blue tea that doesn’t have a lot of flavor. But it’s a pH indicator, so when it reacts to pH levels, like citrus juice, it turns purple. It will change color based on the pH level that it hits.” For Tea Thyme, “It has to be in this order: strawberry, lemon, straw, ice, soda water, and then the butterfly pea flower tea.” The science experiment happens instantly in a very satisfying way, leaving behind distinct layers: red at the bottom, then purple, and finally a rich blue accented with a lemon wheel. Also important to Logan is the triple pun. It’s butterfly pea flower tea, it’s like an Arnold Palmer, and there’s thyme in it.
Nonalcoholic cocktails are some of the best tests for the mixologist. Robert and Logan enjoy working with customers that are looking for particular flavors, seeing it as a chance to further challenge themselves. Logan talks about interesting flavors, “like maple, sage, or sometimes people do things that don’t actually go together, like mint and grapefruit. Then we’ll make a grapefruit Mojito out of it.” And Robert remembers how much he hated having to say no to customers looking for something that tasted good and was nonalcoholic. It’s inspired him to be a voice in the nonalcoholic-cocktail movement; his latest endeavor involves working on recipes and photographs for Refresh, a book featuring nonalcoholic cocktails.
As society strives for more inclusivity in experiences, nonalcoholic cocktails provide a much-welcome avenue into a healthier bar scene. I think we also end up with a safer bar scene where an increased number of sober eyes make sure everyone gets home without harming themselves, others, or leaving with someone looking to cause harm. More importantly, they’ll be able to spend time with their friends without being relegated to slurping a cola in the corner.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.
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