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Eat and Drink

How NYC's mixologists make mean 'mocktails' without the booze

Using fresh ingredients and a nonalcoholic spirit, cocktail bars offer alcohol-free choices, without skimping on flavor and craftsmanship.

Zsolt "George" Csonka uses a variety of fresh

Zsolt "George" Csonka uses a variety of fresh ingredients at his bar, Adriaen Block, to craft "mocktails." Photo Credit: Adriaen Block

As Dry January comes to a close, strong-willed New Yorkers are starting to quit their monthlong pursuit for nonalcoholic drinks on menus across New York City. Still, for many — whether because of pregnancy, sobriety, being the designated driver, or cutting back on alcohol for health or budgetary concerns — the search for alcohol-free fun doesn’t end.

But abstaining from drinking doesn’t have to be a chore. Cocktail bars and restaurants have been rapidly expanding their alcohol-free beverage choices — without missing any of the flavor and craftsmanship that have become synonymous with mixed drinks in NYC.

We spoke to three of the city’s libation experts to find out why they’ve been more aware of including enjoyable elixirs that don’t contain alcohol on their menus, their secrets for feeling like you’re not missing out, and tips and tricks for mixing for yourself.

Spirit alternatives

In select locations across the city, you can enjoy a spirit without the alcohol. Yes, you heard that right. Seedlip, the world’s first nonalcoholic spirit created by distilling different herbal mixtures, is served in a small number of U.S. locations — luckily most of them are in NYC.

Both Boqueria beverage director Kieran Chavez and Adriaen Block owner and master mixologist Zsolt “George” Csonka offer nonalcoholic cocktails that are made with Seedlip. Chavez created the “Winter Fix” ($12), which fuses chamomile tea with Seedlip Garden (a flavor infused with English peas, hay and fresh herbs) and winter citrus for a bright and refreshing taste, while the “Valencia Sunrise” ($12) mimics sangria with Seedlip Grove 42 (a citrus-infused flavor), orange-apricot marmalade, fresh lemon juice and cinnamon syrup.

Though he says Boqueria has always offered at least one off-menu, seasonal nonalcoholic option, with increased demand over the last few years they have added multiple selections that now have a home on the front page of their beverage menu.

“We've definitely seen an increase in popularity over the years,” he said. “Guests tend to order our zero proof cocktails more at lunch as well, because they provide something a little different during a time of day when people may not be drinking. We really see them as an option for everyone.”

Csonka says that at Adriaen Block, offering nonalcoholic options was part of the bar’s original design. Being in Queens, driving was more of a concern, and Csonka estimates that 35 to 40 percent of his own staff does not drink alcohol. He said he wanted people who weren’t drinking “to have an option to actually belong to the group of people they are going out with . . . to be able to celebrate without needing to have a soda beverage.”

In fact, the cocktail menu has an entire section dedicated to “Zero Proof” choices, also predominantly using Seedlip. Being NYC’s first CBD cocktail bar, if you want a little something extra to “chill you out” as Csonka says, you can add CBD oil to the mocktails — or you can have them completely virgin. The Kombucha Garden ($15 with CBD oil) combines Seedlip Garden, passion fruit kombucha tea and mint, while the Blackberry-Basil Sour ($15 with CBD oil) includes Seedlip Garden, blackberry shrub (a fermented fruit syrup that is made in-house), basil and egg white.

Keep it fresh

Island-influenced cocktail bar and vegan restaurant Mother of Pearl offers a large nonalcoholic selection that rivals their cocktail offerings, called the “Virgin Isles.” These include creamy options like the “Orchard Island” ($12) with green apple juice, lemongrass, lemon and coconut purée, and for those with spicier taste, the “Eastern Spice” ($12) including guava, cinnamon spice, lime, black pepper syrup and soda water.

Manager Nathan War Bonnet says that fresh and quality ingredients are what makes these drinks shine just as much as their alcoholic counterparts.

“The core belief of what we do is having a high standard of quality for the product we are putting out,” he explained. “[In] our cocktail program . . . all of the juices are cold-pressed in-house daily, all of the syrups that we put in [are made here]. Anything that we can curate or craft in-house, we do. We want as much control of the finished product as we can.”

Csonka also credits fresh ingredients as one of the main reasons guests become intrigued by his nonalcoholic offerings.

“People are always asking, ‘what is that?’ when I make a nonalcoholic drink,” he said. “They can see all of the ingredients right there in my bar . . . we handmade all of the bitters and shrubs . . . I cut my own fresh mint leaves from my plant.”

Elderflower and lingonberries are other fresh ingredients Csonka experiments with, making a nonalcoholic Lingonberry Mojito with lingonberry, mint, lime, and orange over ice, and an Elderflower Fizz with club soda.

“There are so many options out there that you can use for nonalcoholic versions,” he said. “it’s beautiful.”

Don’t be afraid of the cocktail menu

If you’re at an eatery that doesn’t offer these kinds of options, experts say to still take a look at the cocktail menu for inspiration and clues as to what ingredients are on-hand.

“Perhaps a restaurant offers fresh squeezed juices or juice blends,” Chavez said. “Or maybe they carry a good brand of tonic and other bottled sodas that could be a good base to a refreshing beverage.”

“If you notice they have lemon juice, a lemonade is pretty much something any restaurant can do, and they can sweeten it to your palate,” War Bonnet added. “Don’t be afraid to ask and let people know what flavors you enjoy . . . most places will be able to accommodate.”

And, of course, if restaurants still don’t offer anything to your fancy, you always have the option of making it yourself. If you do, instead of just mixing together random bottles from the fridge, make sure to think through what you’re creating.

“The more time and effort and thought you put into something, the more you will enjoy it,” War Bonnet said. “Really think about what you enjoy and the flavors that you like. Also don’t be afraid to try things out and not necessarily succeed.

“Trying flavors that you think sound good together . . . sometimes you hit gold and sometimes it doesn't work out so great. But you learn and you build a palate as you go, and you modify the quality of ingredients that you’re putting into stuff . . . and it is a lot of fun.”

Chavez agrees, saying they do the same thing at Boqueria.

“We put just as much thought into our refrescantes as we do alcoholic cocktails. Each drink undergoes rounds of testing to make sure they're perfectly balanced,” he explained. “We use Seedlip spirits in different varieties . . .[and] balance these with house-made syrups, seasonal ingredients, spices, and the highest quality ingredients just like we would a cocktail.”

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