Mocktails- Non-Alcoholic Tonics
Part of the responsibility of the conscientious bartender is to have a solid repertoire of non-alcoholic cocktails or mocktails in your back pocket. I’ve been thinking a lot about mocktails and non-alcoholic cocktails lately and with the resurgence of no-alcohol movements and cleanses, being able to offer the tee-totaler the exciting beverage, sans the alcohol, is both beneficial to the customer and it helps the bartender think outside of the box. A mocktail is more than just lemonade variations.
One of the most compelling things about having an amaro-focused program, is that you begin to learn the individual flavor profiles of herbs and spices. No other spirit is going to cause you to really taste an herb like an amaro, at least in my opinion. The nuances of the plant world are infinite, and the constituents of the innumerable plants are both delicious, complex and varied. Using this knowledge to your benefit is helpful when you are crafting a “mocktail.”
My favorite resource for the newly-christened bartender is the “Flavor Bible—The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity” by Karen Page. This book explains that the science of flavor is an equation comprised of aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and the “x-factor,” those things that are perceived by your other senses, or what speaks to the soul. She explains that being able to manipulate the subtle and overt components of flavor will make you a better cook, and in my experience, a better bartender. The art of the cocktail is much like the art of cooking. You are taking components of several things to craft a whole experience—that is, you are creating something interesting from parts that might be unremarkable on their own. Lemon juice is tart and hard to drink on its own, but with the help of a little sugar, water, and some bitters, you now have a delicious lavender lemonade. You must understand the needs of the customer and be able to craft a drink that meets and exceeds their expectations. The act of tasting something is not without the help of the nose as well, so in your simple lavender lemonade, if you garnish your glass with a rose petal or bud, you now have a delicious garden experience that is created by the aroma of the rose.
I’ve known bartenders that have scoffed at the mocktail, but I find it to be a bit more challenging—to use the ingredients you have on hand to craft a drink that is both interesting, beautiful, complex, and sans-alcohol takes a bit of ingenuity. The herbal backbone of any amaro is rooted in the medicinal properties of herbs, using those properties to make tonics that are good for digestion, mental clarity, and general malaise. Thinking about the non-alcoholic drink as a tonic is a good place to start. What herbs can I combine in this concoction that will provide refreshment and possibly provide relief for other things like indigestion, stress or anxiety? Mint, a carminative and sedative, provides relief for stomach upset and has soothing qualities that puts the mind at ease. Dill, another culinary herb, also has carminative properties in addition to providing relief for sleeplessness and restlessness. If I combine these with lemon, a fruit that aids in hydration and helps relieve kidney excess, and agave, a sweetener from the agave plant that also has medicinal properties rooted in healing digestion issues, we have now created a refreshing and interesting beverage that has all of the properties that an amaro would have. Adding a fruit like strawberries or blueberries, we have now added an antioxidant, a property found in certain foods that protect your body from free radicals or aid in cell regeneration. All these ingredients together are now something that is not only refreshing and delicious but has healing properties as well.
Thinking about the ingredients as more than just their flavors, while an essential step, is necessary in creating mocktails that are delicious tonics. Use the gentian root that you bought for your house amaro as a base for your simple and you’ve created a woodsy syrup that will provide a bittering agent for your mocktail. Pair that with a bright fruit like peaches, some citrus like lemon and pineapple, and top it with soda and you have a delightful Gentian Peach Refresher, a drink on par with the layers and complexity of your favorite cocktail.
Some of my tips for mocktails:
1. Use fresh herbs and fruits—fresh is always better—you’ll work with what is in season, which means that you will get peak flavor and all the nutritional benefits of the plant.
2. Determine your recipe for your sour base—citrus and sugar are important in the balanced mocktail—figure out what your ideal ratio is and use that as a jumping off point for the other things you use. I like to use 1:1 for sugar and citrus. If you are using an alternative sugar, you’ll want to adjust this ratio because they tend to be a lot sweeter than your standard sugar simple. Also, cut the sweetener with water. This is called a simple. We use 1:1 for our sugar/water simple. Simple pour one cup of boiling water over your one cup of sugar and stir. Store in the fridge and use whenever you need to add a little sweetness to your mocktail, coffee, or beverage of choice.
3. If you are cutting out sugars, use different herbs and teas to create complexity. Using a peach black tea as your base, you can add thyme, rosemary and lemon to craft a more flavorful, dynamic tea beverage. I also like bitters for this purpose. The alcohol content in bitters is high, but you are using such a small amount that there should be no influence on your beverage and the abv would be less than a bottle of kombucha. I love peach and cardamom bitters in soda water with a little lime, it’s delicious and refreshing and has very little calorie content.
4. Try experimenting with shrubs or drinking vinegars. People often wrinkle their noses at the idea, but I’ve made some shrubs that are delicious (think strawberry/balsamic shrub.) You can often find them at your specialty grocery store too and keep it on hand for cocktail or mocktail occasions.
A muddler is your friend when it comes to mocktails. The act of gently pressing against herbs and spices in a little simple, and the sugar has gone from plain to full of those plant oils in a matter of seconds. I regularly parous my garden to see what is in bloom to use in cocktails and mocktails. Currently, my basil and mint are growing with great abundance and my blueberries are ripening, I could easily harvest a few of these to create a quick and delicious beverage. I also like to use different teas as my base too– A little over-steeped chamomile tea on ice with my basil, mint and blueberries and a squeeze of lemon is absolutely delightful.
The mocktail is more than just the inconvenience for the bartender, but rather an excuse to use the skills you have acquired in your vast repertoire to create something pleasing and delicious for your guests. As someone thinking about going on an alcohol cleanse, you don’t have to resort to the ordinary iced tea, you can ask the bartender to make you something delicious, refreshing and fancy and feel at ease with the fact that you did not break your Whole 30.