What’s the best way to come up with a novel cocktail recipe? This is the question that thousands of modern bartenders mull over, night after night. For many, the answer lies in the vast lineage of classics and modern classics. Drinks like the Manhattan, Negroni, Daiquiri and Whiskey Sour serve a vital purpose as blueprints for how to make a delicious cocktail, a framework upon which to create new, original recipes. Look at a typical cocktail bar menu and you’ll likely find a number of drinks that call back to specific classic cocktails: a Last Word with mezcal instead of gin, or a Vieux Carré recontextualized with local fruit, for example.
Bartenders often approach recipe development with questions like, “What if we did a Slivovitz Singapore Sling, or a chestnut fat-washed Negroni?” This easy language, this information-rich shorthand is made possible by decades, if not centuries, of bartenders putting in work, night after night, to build out a robust lineage for almost all of the drinks that get shaken, stirred and poured into glasses the world over.
There is one glaring caveat to this backstory of cocktails: Almost all of the recipes contain alcohol. For the majority of cocktail drinkers, this is fine. But for as long as people have been drinking, people have also been not drinking, yet it’s only in the past five to 10 years that the mixology world has begun to pay significant attention to the nonalcoholic side of things. Walk into a cocktail bar in 2013 and you’d be shocked to encounter even one spirit-free cocktail; now, it’s almost shocking not to see at least a handful of zero-ABV drinks sprinkled throughout the brandy and bourbon drinks. Despite this, we’re nowhere near that complex, interconnected tapestry of alcohol-based recipes.
This raises the question: Why is there no nonalcoholic canon? “I do think that it is attainable for nonalc to have an equivalent of the Penicillin—not the drink, but drinks that get made in this sort of new classic way,” says Josh Harris, founder of Bon Vivants Hospitality and owner of San Francisco cocktail bar Trick Dog. “But then you have to pick apart all of the factors that go into that,” he explains. “The right intersection of factors of easily enough understandable ingredients for everybody, easily enough attainable ingredients for everybody, easy enough technique for everybody, a little bit of the right time and space, maybe the right publicist and maybe the right bar does it. All of those things together maybe could create that.”
Or is there something fundamentally different about nonalcoholic cocktails that necessitates an entirely new way of thinking about drinks? A way of thinking about drinks that leaves behind the genealogical, Mr. Potato Head mindset in favor of something more expansive, more culinary and more centered around the experience of the person drinking than around any pre-existing concepts of how cocktails should be structured.
Stevan Miller, bar lead at Chicago restaurant Esmé, abides by this approach. “I think N/A cocktails fall more in the line of the culinary side of things than you would usually expect from a classic cocktail,” he says. “If you try and use a classic Old-Fashioned build and you’re trying to find the tannins with a tea, or if you’re trying to introduce wood in some way, it just doesn’t hold up. You have to kind of look at it more as, like, OK, I’m composing a dish. How am I going to make this bitter? How am I going to add a sweet component? How am I going to surprise at some point on the palate?”
It doesn’t help that for bartenders trafficking in nonalcoholic cocktails, the array of off-the-shelf ingredients is barely a sliver of what’s available to those working with alcohol. Nonalcoholic spirits have only been around for about 10 years. While some of these products forge their own identity and are not easily categorized, many attempt a 1:1 simulation of existing spirits like gin or whiskey. And while the quest to make the drinking experience as equivalent as possible for both the alcohol drinker and abstainer is a noble one, that doesn’t mean the experiences must be indistinguishable. For a growing number of bartenders, breaking free from the familiar—and useful—beats of cocktail orthodoxy has yielded far more success. “I don’t want the veggie dog of whiskey,” says Austin Hennelly, bar director at Los Angeles restaurant Kato. “I’d rather just cook a mushroom.”
At Esmé, Miller typically builds his drinks based on how they’ll pair with the restaurant’s menu. The Cherry Chile Jam, for example, was originally designed to pair with a course composed of caviar and peanut miso served with kombu ice cream. “All of those flavors reminded me of really bougie peanut butter. So my mind immediately went to, OK, how do I make a jam to go with this peanut butter explosion?” Miller recalls. “I’m in the Midwest, so Michigan cherries being in season made a lot of sense. So I had a core, and then when I made a syrup out of it, it reminded me of a not-spicy chamoy, a candy I used to eat as a kid. I started grabbing some ancho and guajillo chiles and turned that into a spicy jam.” He then balanced the spicy jam with citrus to temper the sweetness. “But it still needed a third pillar so people wouldn’t just be like, ‘OK, I’m having a sour.’ So I set it on a hibiscus ice cube. That way, as people drink it, it begins to have more bitterness and somewhere around halfway through the experience, it can get mistaken for almost a Negroni riff.”
LP O’Brien, founder and CEO of LP Drinks and winner of Drink Masters Season 1, thinks that the ultimate test of a modern bartender is their ability to craft an interesting nonalcoholic cocktail. “If you want to know if a bartender knows how to make a drink, ask them to make you something that’s N/A that’s not lemonade. I think that’s the real challenge.” And deprioritizing, if not completely abandoning, traditional frameworks might be the key to answering that challenge, even if the idea of a robust canon proves elusive. It might force us to expand how we think about drinks in general. “I think that it will be a slower process of—not the canon forming—but people reframing their perception of how to talk about drinks so that the questions don’t become, ‘Oh, do you like whiskey or do you like vodka?’” says Hennelly. “I usually lead with questions about textures. I think it’s just going to be a matter of time where people abandon the crutches of ‘What base spirit do you like?’ and start talking and asking our guests real questions about what they actually like or don’t like.”
When discussing nonalcoholic cocktails, words like “mindful” and “conscious” get thrown around a lot. They’re usually intended to evoke a somewhat woo-woo, Goop-adjacent context of health and virtue, but what if we took it a different way? What if the inherent challenge of nonalcoholic cocktails forces us to truly be mindful? To really pay attention? What if this moment represents an opportunity to approach drinks in general in a whole new way?
O’Brien articulates this sentiment perfectly. “The challenge of N/A drinks forces us to deviate back to what we were doing in the olden days, which is [to] make sure you know your shit before you get behind that bar,” she says. “It’s a nice reminder of humble beginnings and putting in work to become experts in your craft.”