Shawnee, Kansas, is far from the first city that comes to mind as a beacon of the United States’ most compelling cocktails. But Jay Sanders, owner of the James Beard Award finalist Drastic Measures and the recently opened Wild Child, which focuses on low-ABV and nonalcoholic cocktails, is putting the city on the map for any serious cocktail drinker.
In the small town, says Sanders, convincing locals that a cocktail is worth $12 to $14 is still a work in progress. But that hasn’t stunted his creativity; in fact, if anything, the constraint has pushed him to be even more innovative.
At Wild Child, which opened in July, the menu is dotted with adjectives familiar at any high-concept bar: clarified, infused, macerated, acidified. Most fascinating, though, is the word “distilled.” While distilling alcohol at U.S. bars using rotovaps or similar appliances—a popular technique in many of the world’s top bars—is still illegal, at Wild Child, the technique is used in the making of some of the bar’s standout nonalcoholic offerings.
Sanders uses a high-tech Girovap distiller to strip the alcohol from ingredients like fernet and Campari, retaining much of their familiar flavor without the booze. The choice to distill in this manner largely came down to cost and flexibility. While Sanders still uses certain commercial nonalcoholic ingredients, products in the category can be nearly as expensive as—or more expensive than—their alcohol-bearing counterparts. To make up for the volume lost during the distilling process, Sanders often turns to hydrolates (i.e., water-based infusions) made using an affordable home water distiller. The resulting products are put to use in drinks like the house N/A Negroni and the popular N/A French 75 Kakigori.
At Wild Child, tools like a kakigori ice machine and a water distiller that makes flavorful infusions set the nonalcoholic drinks program apart.
To develop the recipe for the latter, Sanders first tried to imitate the classic. “But there’s no replacing the alcohol finish—despite the best efforts from spirits companies who try with spices and extracts—so we had to hit it from a different angle,” he says.
Sanders started with a split base of Bare Zero Proof gin and a housemade juniper hydrolate. To make the hydrolate, he cooks juniper berries, orange and bergamot peels—a combination meant to mimic the key botanicals in gin—under sous vide until the heat extracts some of the aromatic oils and tannins. “I tried a lot of botanicals when distilling the flavors into water,” he says, “but bergamot was the flavor that stood up to juniper the best and added that high palate and lingering aromatic florality.”
Instead of using fresh lemon juice, as is standard in the French 75, Sanders opts for a blend of citrusy ingredients that add more complexity to the mix. The first is a nonalcoholic lemon aperitif from Abstinence Spirits, a bright and bittersweet product that “brings those familiar flavors of ripe citrus that guests expect from a gin sour.” And to mimic lemon juice’s acidic pop, the drink gets a dose of citric acid solution. The ingredients make the cocktail shelf-stable and easy to pre-batch and serve—a detail that Sanders notes is necessary, since, once one of the drinks is ordered, everyone in the bar wants one thanks to its eye-catching appearance.
To serve the drink, the mix is poured into a cocktail glass before a kakigori ice machine is used to manually crank out delicate shards of freshly shaved ice on top, eliminating the need to shake altogether, since the fine ice adds dilution to the cocktail almost immediately. To finish the drink in style, and to replicate the structure of the classic French 75, it’s then topped with a nonalcoholic sparkling verdejo.
The arresting presentation feels at home at Wild Child, where Sanders and his team are pushing the boundaries of local cocktail culture at a world-class level. “Wild Child is about making a space for anyone to gather in a bar setting,” says Sanders. The N/A French 75 Kakigori is the epitome of the bar’s approach, which gives equal billing to its low and no-proof drinks: “It’s excessive and silly and interactive and fun, but it’s also classy and unique.”