Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinks

Ari Bendersky

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There was a time a bartender may have felt put out if someone sidled up to the bar and simply ordered a soda water with a lime or a virgin piña colada, but no longer. Sometimes you just don't want to drink alcohol, and these days, bartenders at top spots across America have started putting more thought into spirit-free drinks – the emerging term for what many of us have called mocktails, virgin cocktails or, more simply, non-alcoholic drinks.


This new movement came about when renowned Chicago bartender Julia Momose, who gained acclaim at the now-shuttered Michelin-starred GreenRiver (a design-forward restaurant from mega-restaurateur Danny Meyer and the team behind award-winning bar Dead Rabbit), published a manifesto in September of 2017 that called for the abolishment of negative terminology behind drinks made without alcohol.

"The very term 'mocktail' evokes negative feelings," Momose wrote in the manifesto. "The word is merely the combination of 'mock' and 'cocktail.' So then, is it a mockery of a cocktail, a disappointment since it isn’t a 'real' cocktail?"

Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinksPhoto courtesy of Sammy Faze Photography

Before publishing the proposal, Momose had already created a non-alcoholic pairing menu at Oriole, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago's West Loop from husband-and-wife team Noah (executive chef) and Cara (general manager) Sandoval. Momose felt people shouldn't be relegated to only drinking water, or worse, watered-down versions of drinks with booze in them. Momose has since partnered with the Sandovals on Kumiko, an upscale cocktail bar set to open sometime this fall.

"I was saddened by the number of guests who had a look of embarrassment when asking for such a drink," Momose says in an email interview. "I also felt like [the drinks] deserved a word that had more life and luster to it, rather than a descriptive term that is defined by what the drink is not. Spirit-free is empowering: it denotes a choice, not a compromise. A spirit-free is any variety of stimulating non-alcoholic mixed drink made of diverse and distinct ingredients."

While her omakase (bartender's choice-style) drink menu has not been finalized at Kumiko, it will certainly include a spirit-free selection in the vein of what she created at Oriole, where diners can select the pairing for $85 (verses $125 and $250 for alcohol pairings). Some examples of the simply named drinks there include "red" with lapsang souchong tea, ice wine elixir and verjus rouge; "tawny," with chamomile tea, prune, green cardamom and white peppercorn; and "juniper tonic," a play on a classic gin and tonic with juniper berries, coriander seeds, white and Szechuan peppercorns, yellow mustard seeds and osmanthus flowers.

Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinksPhoto courtesy of Orpah

So why spirit-free drinks and why a larger push now?

"The general movement in the cocktail world has been towards better ingredients, fresh juices, house-made syrups, but all in the realm of alcoholic beverages," Momose adds. "I believe now is the time for us to take a step back and look at the beverages we are creating with the incredible teas, syrups, juices, herbs, etc. that we now have on hand to see how we can take care of our guests who do not drink alcohol."

Momose is one of a growing crop of bartenders striving to bring higher-quality spirit-free drinks to the masses. With the introduction of Seedlip, what's called the "world's first distilled non-alcoholic spirits" by its creator, U.K.-based entrepreneur Ben Branson, bartenders have started combining this bottled beverage with fresh juices, teas, spices and more, creating more genuine tasting non-alcoholic options to offer consumers.

Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinksPhoto courtesy of Pea's No Knees

Elsewhere in Chicago, at newly opened Juniper Spirits & Oysters, mixologist Nick Nye created a menu of spirit-free drinks using herbal and botanical flavors, like the whimsically named Orpah Winfrey (how Oprah's name was spelled on her birth certificate), comprising pear juice, ginger shrub, rosemary, nutmeg and honey. Over at Cindy's, the rooftop restaurant at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, beverage manager David Mor crafts a variety of drinks without booze like the Pea's No Knees with Seedlip Garden 108, verjus blanc, sugarsnap peas, honey and lemon.

Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinksPhoto courtesy of Photo via Jimmy at the James

New York bartenders have also gotten in on the action. Johnny Swet, co-owner and mixologist at JIMMY at the James, located on the rooftop of The James Soho, has a couple of non-alcoholic drinks like the In the Tiki Room, comprising Seedlip Spice 94, pineapple juice, nutmeg and cherries. At Stay Gold, a cocktail bar in Kips Bay, head bartender Kacie Lambert added the Dry Birdy, a play on one of her boozy offerings, with Seedlip Garden 108, strawberry basil shrub, lemon and seltzer water.

Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinksPhoto courtesy of Departure

In Cambridge, Mass., ArtScience Culture Lab & Café bar director Tenzin Samdo takes inspiration from his Tibetan culture and Indian upbringing for his spirit-free creations like the mango madness, using saffron, mango, honey and cardamom. And in Portland, Ore., Departure Restaurant + Lounge's Samantha Azarow offers five spirit-free drinks for her patrons so everyone can have a complete experience, she says. One drink, the citrusy, herbaceous Yu The Great has Thai basil, matcha, lime and coconut milk; while the refreshing Yami is made with lavender, pink peppercorn, lemon, peach bitters and orange blossom.

Welcome to the brave new world of spirit-free drinksPhoto courtesy of Juniper Spirits

And in Los Angeles, Gracias Madre beverage director Maxwell Reis has an "on the wagon" section of his cocktail menu for non-imbibers that includes the michelada sin cerveza, a spicy drink with Whalebird dry-hopped grapefruit kombucha, habanero bitters and jalapeño basil ice.

So when you want a drink, but aren't in the mood for something boozy, seek out a bar that makes the effort to serve something more enticing for you to enjoy.


Ari Bendersky

About Ari Bendersky

Read more about Ari Bendersky here.


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