7 Expert Tips for Making Really Good Mocktails

It’s not as simple as skipping the alcohol in a classic cocktail recipe.

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April 05, 2023

Photo by: Photo courtesy of Grand Army/Max Flatow

Photo courtesy of Grand Army/Max Flatow

Mocktails are on the rise, and they’ve got plenty of benefits. Whether it’s a desire for less alcohol consumption, experimenting with flavors or making gatherings with loved ones more inclusive, crafting delicious mocktails is a skill worth having.

Generally, U.S. adults are drinking less and less, with more young adults in particular abstaining from drinking. Flagship months like Sober October and Dry January are often gateways for people to try non-alcoholic drinking, and the sudden change paves the way for interest in mocktails. Elizabeth Gascoigne, founder and CEO of sober drinking pop-up Absence of Proof, sees these months as a great way for people to try out drinking less without feeling like the odd one out.

“I always encourage people to think about how youre feeling during those months,” Gascoigne says. “Are you feeling healthy? Are you feeling happier? Instead of reincorporating alcohol as soon as February 1 comes, think about what part of this you want to take with you.”

Even if you don’t want to stop drinking altogether, it’s still beneficial to incorporate fun, non-alcoholic beverages into your day-to-day. The first thing you need to know about making a good mocktail is that it takes effort. People appreciate it “when deliberate consideration has been made for the needs of someone who is drinking more mindfully,” says Douglas Watters, founder of Dry Atlas and booze-free bottle shop Spirited Away.

“In the past mocktails have often been, ‘were simply going to take the cocktail that we make and remove the alcoholic ingredients and just give you the rest of it,’” Watters says. “And oftentimes, that leads to a mocktail thats out of balance and not really very thoughtful.”

Presentation, of course, is key. “People want to feel like theyre treating themselves,” says sober bar Hekate owner Abby Ehmann. “Part of it is, you know, the ritual [of] watching it happen, being served something in a pretty glass with a nice garnish.”

But there’s other things you need to know to make the model mocktail menu.

Photo by: Photo courtesy of Grand Army/Max Flatow

Photo courtesy of Grand Army/Max Flatow

Use the Classics as a Foundation

Mocktails don’t have to be intimidating to be delicious. Use your favorite classic cocktails as an entry point, and explore twists on the flavor to elevate it without the alcohol. Watters prefers a non-alcoholic gin and tonic with fresh herbs to keep the garden flavor that gin often provides.

“Instead of doing just a martini, which might just be straight alcohol, usually, we like to do a Lychee Martini where we add some lychee juice and the actual lychee,” says Gascoigne. “We still make a classic cocktail, but with a little bit of a funky twist.”

Keep It Fresh

Typical home ingredients like fresh citrus juice go a long way, per Leanne Favre, head bartender at Clover Club. Emphasis on fresh.

“You’re not using things that are store-bought because they immediately oxidize, and the pasteurization process won’t give you that crisp, beautiful, bright flavor that you’re looking for,” Favre says.

Try Zero-Proof Alternatives to Start

The advent of non-alcoholic alternatives for whiskeys, gins and other spirits helps mocktails ease into bar menus beyond the classic Shirley Temple.

There’s hundreds of options on the booze-free bottle market. They can be a great entrypoint to the world of mocktails or for sober curious people, because of the familiar names. You know what to expect when it comes to the flavor of a non-alcoholic tequila. But just like finding your favorite brand of spirits, finding the right alternative can be a trial-and-error process. Lean into the exploration to find what works for your palate.

“You have to shop around and try as much of the different alternatives as you can,” Gascoigne says. “I think some people will try one and be like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good,’ or ‘I don't like this.’ But there are literally hundreds of different brands on the market now. So sample, maybe go to events where you don't have to buy a full $30 bottle, but you can try just the cocktail and see if you like it and then purchase from there.”

Texture, Texture, Texture

When you remove the alcohol from a cocktail, one thing you might compromise is the texture of the drink. Patty Dennison, head bartender at Grand Army, points out that what alcohol gives to a cocktail is viscosity. Sometimes, non-alcoholic spirits will add missing texture, but think beyond the bottle.

“When I think about texture, I think about weight and body and the mouthfeel of the cocktails, so I’ve used egg whites in the past to kind of add that roundness,” says Favre. “I’ve made drinks with butter, for texture and weight, or as simple as going with some coconut, things that have a bit more viscosity.”

Dennison brings some of the same techniques you would use in cocktails to mocktails to add that sophisticated texture, such as with Grand Army’s Final Answer, a take on a clarified milk punch.

Complexity Is Key

Mocktails deserve forethought and to exist beyond a syrupy sweet drink. Juice in a glass doesn’t quite hit the mark.

“Mocktails have a reputation for being very sweet,” Gascoigne says. “So whatever you can do to make it have maybe a spicy twist, or a smoky twist or something that might be in a regular cocktail, I think that’s awesome.”

Sour, strong notes that regular alcohol tends to provide can still be evoked in a mocktail. Favre uses dried citrus peel and hibiscus to replicate the bitter orange notes found in Campari, adding tart and dry notes to her mocktails, similar to the flavor profiles of a negroni.

The Liar’s Dice, a non-alcoholic Italian spritz from Clover Club, is refreshing and crisp and uses champagne vinegar to get the depth and character in a mocktail without having to use spirits.

Look at Global Cuisine for Inspiration

You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Think of your favorite cuisine from around the globe and find inspiration in the flavor profiles there. Favre thinks of the non-alcoholic street drinks of Latin America, like chicha morada or horchata.

Claudia Duran, bar leader for PLANTA, takes inspiration from Asian cuisines in her drink development. Her love for edamame, winter snow peas and nori turned into a vegetal mocktail with savory flavors. Duran used nori salt, Seedlip’s non-alcoholic alternative, and created a shishito miso syrup to pull it all together.

“You throw shishito peppers in a blender,” Duran says. “You can either do white miso or red miso, just one scoop. You throw in simple syrup — so it is just your cane sugar and water — throw it into a blender.” Straining that out creates a syrup that pairs nicely with a non-alcoholic gin and tonic, or a non-alcoholic margarita.

Think Seasonally

Let the seasons guide your ingredient sourcing for a good mocktail. Lean into colorful drinks for the spring. Fresh fruit juice can be a great start, but when thinking seasonally don’t forget about flowers and vegetables. Lavender or sunflowers can evoke floral flavors, while snap peas or cucumber can add a green vegetal quality for summer.

Ehmann likes to create drinks that “evoke coming out from hibernation and make you feel like things are thawing,” like her drink “Earthbound,” a fiery combination of citrus, ginger and beet juice.

Try adding tea to your mocktail for depth, cream of coconut for texture or try a sweeter take on a Bloody Mary with this Tomato Basil Cooler. Whatever your palate, there’s plenty of mocktail recipes out there to satisfy it.

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