My Sober October is not exactly going as swimmingly as my Dryuary, probably because I haven’t been as public about it. I was actually doing pretty well until the weekend before last, when my family went on a road trip and our minivan got stuck in the mud and we had to have a friend with a tractor pull us out. My immediate thought after that ordeal was, “I would like a beer now, please”—my first in about three weeks.
After that ordeal, it was easy to slide into social occasions like a neighborhood wine walk or a restaurant lunch tasting. But for the most part, the lessons I learned in Dryuary have stuck with me throughout 2018: At my age, getting drunk is no longer the fun it once was. And honestly, many times when I meet friends out for a drink at night, I’m so tired after a long day that a glass of wine may just make me face-plant on the table. Since that fateful month, I am continually pestering bartenders to make me something fun but non-alcoholic, so that I can still hang out for the long haul with my friends. “Make me a mocktail,” I demand (nicely).
I am not alone, says Milissa Crawford, bar manager of Port Fonda in Kansas City. “We in K.C. have definitely seen a rise as far as customer demand for more non-alcoholic options.” This is even spreading to craft cocktail bars, making fancy options for sober patrons that include such fun ingredients as “tea-based syrups and homemade bitters or shrub—because most people think of fruit-cocktail style sugar bombs when they hear the word ‘mocktail.’” In some mocktail concoctions, the servers just replace alcohol with sugar, as in this concoction that really should have had an umbrella in it.
But at most places, when I tell the bartender to make whatever they like, just not too sweet, I get some amazing concoctions, often with some lemon and bitters. Crawford assures me I’m not being a pain in the ass with my requests, even though at some venues my server may stare at me blankly or just offer a virgin mule or something. For example, at The Warbler (my favorite new Chicago restaurant), they have a delicious basil-lemon drink that’s not only transcendent enough to make me not miss the alcohol, it’s only $4, unlike pricier cocktails that can veer past the $10 level. I also would have received a fancier non-alcohol drink Crawford’s Port Fonda. “Believe it or not, a lot of my bartenders love seeing ‘mocktail’ rang in on ticket in the well because it gives them some creative room to play. And I love it as a bar manager because it forces them to find out a little more about the guest—what sort of flavors they are into, if they’re looking for a highball, something fruity or maybe a more dry/bitter profile.”
To that end, Jacyara de Oliveira of Leblon Cachaça in Chicago offers a Bitter Ginger Fizz for a less-sweet mocktail. She says that this bright, spicy, and slightly bitter cocktail “is full of sophisticated but recognizable flavors. Mixing sodas doesn’t happen very often, but I find it a quick and easy way to rethink the typical options.”
- 2 oz. Bitter Lemon Tonic
- 2 oz. Ginger Beer
- 0.5 oz. lemon juice
Add all ingredients to collins glass with ice and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist and thyme.
Muddling—mashing fruits, herbs, and spices in the bottom of a glass to release their flavor—is a popular mocktail route. At my namesake Gwen Hotel here in Chicago, I once received a vanilla concoction muddled with raspberries. Close to that category are shrubs, a concentrated syrup made from whole fruit, vinegar, and sugar that can really amp up your mocktail.
Annemarie Sagoi, managing partner at Le Boutier in Cambodia, explains that shrubs “have a long history for giving acidity before lemons/limes were prevalent in parts of the country. If created right, they have no vinegar flavor at all—just a great tart flavor. For this time of year, I like sipping on a pear shrub.” Granted, there is considerable maceration time involved, but it sure looks like it would be worth it.
- 1 lb. chopped pears
- 1 lb. sugar
- 500 ml apple cider vinegar
- 8 cinnamon sticks
- 4 cloves
- 1/2 oz. Madagascar vanilla extract
Combine pears and sugar and macerate in fridge for two days. Add the rest of the ingredients and let sit four more days in fridge. Strain, pour over ice and top with soda water. Garnish with pear fan and cinnamon stick.
After all, is the whole point of going out to drink alcohol, or is it to hang with friends and taste delicious drinks? For me, I’ve realized it’s the latter. Mocktails offer me the opportunity to still get something fancy so that I don’t feel deprived, as I might with just a club soda accented with a wilted piece of bar fruit. And the increased mocktail presence I’m seeing in bars and on menus makes me realize that this is a trend worth getting behind. I’ll do Dryuary again, but this year, I’ll do so with a lot less complaining, what with the fortunate prevalence of delicious mocktails available.