Why Your Bar Needs Better Non-Alcoholic Drinks…

Written by Marcia Simmons

A cocktail garnished with aloe leaves.

Non-alcoholic drinks, like Matt Siegel’s Mr. Oxford, should be no less complex or interesting than the premiere cocktails your bar serves. (Photo: Matt Siegel.)

Your bar may feature a dozen rare bourbons and a housemade tonic clarified in a centrifuge. But if the non-alcoholic options boil down to seltzer and a virgin Rum & Coke, there’s still room to up your game. Bartenders can use the creativity and dedication to craft that makes for a good cocktail program to develop alcohol-free drinks that expand a bar’s appeal.

“So much of what we do on a daily basis is focused on guest experience. We aren’t in the business of making people feeling excluded,” says Dustin Lawlor, head bartender at The Kitchen in Denver. “People who choose not to drink alcohol should still be able to hold up a delicious beverage when they toast their daughter’s engagement or just unwind after work.”

The bar menu at the Kitchen always includes three non-alcoholic specialty drinks, in addition to on-the-spot creations for guests. One impromptu invention Lawlor made for a sober co-worker ended up on the menu. Say Peas is made with pea puree, black pepper simple syrup and lime cordial.

“No one came to your award-winning bar to have a fizzy lemonade,” Lawlor says. “They came to you and your bar team because of your creativity, ingenuity and talent, so use it!”

Bars shouldn’t assume that guests who want a non-alcoholic beverage have unsophisticated palates. You’re still creating an adult beverage. It just happens to be for an adult who isn’t drinking alcohol. That’s why it’s important to look for ingredients beyond fruit juice and sugar.

“Find whatever herbs, barks, vegetables, bones, spices, whatever and boil them in hot water, or any other liquid — you’ll be amazed at what you can make and the depth of flavors you can achieve,” says mixologist Matt Seigel, who has created drinks programs for bars including Eleven Madison Park in New York and the upcoming Melody in Los Angeles.

Seigel likes to use barley tea and kvass, a lightly fermented rye bread and raisin concoction. Combining the two inspired Eastern Medicine, a drink that evokes the flavors of a mint julep. He advises finding ingredients that mirror the qualities of spirits.

Hops, juniper berries, cardamom, saffron, fennel and other ingredients used in gin and herbal liqueurs can be used raw or toasted to add complex flavors to a drink without adding alcohol. Lawlor likes to use cinnamon and clove for tannins and horehound and citrus pith for bitterness.

While non-alcoholic drinks are never going to be a bar’s best sellers, they show guests you care about their experience. The booze-free menu can also be a tool to encourage responsible drinking while still participating in cocktail culture. But these drinks are also bigger revenue generators than a glass of water or an iced tea.

“I think a big mistake that bars make with mocktail programs is that they treat them as a nuisance and don’t put the same kind of thought and development into creating them (as they do for cocktail menus),” says Kerstin Mikalbrown, sommelier and beverage manager at Kinship in Washington, DC.

The staff at Kinship gets as much training about non-alcoholic offerings as they do about the wine and cocktails on the menu. The winter menu has two alcohol-free drinks: Garden Party, a grapefruit and rosemary spritzer; and Smells Like Snow, which combines a mulled apple cider reduction with lemon and ginger beer. But guests can talk to the bartender about their tastes and get a custom-made mocktail, like a recent creation made with pomegranate juice, fresh orange and lime with an egg white and splash of house-made grenadine.

Seigel advises bars to make non-alcoholic drinks that share ingredients with the rest of the menu. If the bar is part of a restaurant, talk to the chef to look for efficiencies and ideas. A little leftover pickling liquid could spark an idea for a new drink or sharing a batch of chopped herbs could save time.

However, the goal is to make sure that people who don’t drink alcohol are still getting your bar’s best work. Everything that goes on your menu reflects on the bar and its approach to serving guests.

“A few creative non-alcoholic drinks instantly makes not only those guests not drinking but anyone who cares to read through your drink menu that much more engaged, says Seigel. “It is not only thoughtful. It shows a complete and well-rounded program.”