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Mocktails On the Move: Mixologists Lead Flavorful Evolution of Nonalcoholic Drinks

By:  Mackensy Lunsford Feb 26, 2014
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With the rise of craft cocktails, another trend is on the upswing. Bartenders are finding there's more demand for drinks missing one seemingly indispensable ingredient: alcohol.

Nonalcoholic sippers are making a case for more room on the beverage menu. The reasons behind the rise of so-called “mocktails” are many, but some star bartenders say it's part of the general public's quest for a better, well, everything.

Raising the Bar

Greg Best

Greg Best

“Frankly, it was only a matter of time before cocktails came under scrutiny,” says Greg Best. Best, one of Atlanta's finest bartenders, is currently also one of the city's most transient.

A founding partner of Holeman & Finch Public House and former employee of Emeril Lagasse's, Best is building an as-yet-unnamed restaurant and bar in the city. Meanwhile, he's guest bartending at Atlanta hotspots like Paper Plane and The Pinewood.

Best says that, once restaurants and bars revamped the wine list and increased the quality at the taps and on the plates, it raised the bar for cocktails, so to speak.

“When food went through its metamorphosis, getting back roots of local and sustainable, I think it was the perfect storm,” he says.

The discriminating consumer is a big trend in the restaurant world. With the media exploring at length details of a modern food scene through blogs, magazines and reality television, years of travel are no longer required for worldliness — or at least the illusion of it.

The demand for better nonalcoholic drinks is an extension of that, says Best. People are no longer willing to settle for club soda; they want the experience of mixology, even when they're eschewing the alcohol.

“The average consumer is just better educated about all things,” Best says. “There's now a real focus on not just the products, but the ingredients in the products.”

Tapestry of Flavor

Best started building a better booze-free beverage in 2006 at Restaurant Eugene. It wasn't in response to any great demand, he says. “It was the simple fact that, as a bartender, I always felt very sorry for the pregnant woman who was relegated to cranberry juice and soda water with a slice of lime,” he explains.

Best wanted to bring an element of sophistication and ritual to the dining experience, without the alcohol. “The whole idea for me was not just to use great ingredients, but to bring the philosophy of the cocktail into it as well,” he says.

And a cocktail, much like a plate of food, is ideally “a well-balanced tapestry of flavor,” according to Best.

To build that flavor profile, Best experiments with juices, fresh herbs and spices. He tinkers with different food components to affect mouthfeel. He uses sucrose-based aromatic bitters and makes compound syrups with black pepper- and coriander-infused honey.

He's been known to use Coca-Cola as well, as in his Southern Cola drink recipe (watch him make it).  

“I think cola, on its own, is a hyper-dynamic flavor profile, and it certainly lends itself well to non-alcoholic beverages,” Best says.

Holy Smoke

Eben Freeman, former bartender at Wylie Dufresne's wd~50, tweaks the flavor profile of cola by smoking it.

Freeman was inspired to make smoked Coca-Cola after watching former wd~50 pastry chef Sam Mason fashion smoked-milk ice cream into a root beer float. With Mason, Freeman opened the now-shuttered SoHo restaurant Tailor in 2007.

Eben Freeman

Eben Freeman

“Sam really thought about smoked root beer in an indirect way before I thought about smoked Coke,” Freeman said.

At Tailor, Freeman smoked Coca-Cola syrup, then ran it through a soda gun for service. In a time when soda guns were less than hip in the bartending world, Freeman caught a little flack.

“But I decided that the technology behind soda guns was actually quite sophisticated and, if you used quality products like Coca-Cola instead of generic soda syrups and maintained your system, you could get out of it a good product that's also cost effective,” says Freeman.

The resultant cocktail, the Waylon, became the signature drink at Tailor. Freeman is now director of bar operations and innovation at Altamarea Group, which owns The Butterfly in Tribeca. The Butterfly features a smoked-Coca-Cola highball on its menu.

“The idea of smoked root beer certainly would probably not have caught on as much as smoked Coke because it's not as iconic,” he says.

Syrups and Soda Streams

At Butterfly, Freeman says he's seeing more requests for booze-free drinks than ever. People, he says, seem to be trending toward self-restraint, even if not total temperance.

“If it's true in the New York City market, where we don't have to worry about drinking and driving, I think it's true of the country in general,” he says. “It's become the expectation in finer-dining restaurants that you put some effort toward a nonalcoholic drink.”

Bartenders today are better stocked with tinctures and infused syrups and other hallmarks of a good bar program, said Freeman. To expect a barkeep to whip something up for the teetotaler is perfectly rational.

Freeman says that syrups are one of the easiest things to create at home, too.

“The idea of perfecting a syrup is exactly what Coca-Cola understood a long time ago,” he says. “If you perfect the syrup, and then make the carbonation balanced and perfect, really you can create fantastic, interesting things at home.”