A cold Coca-Cola is honestly a pretty good nonalcoholic beverage: sweet, refreshing, with a twinge of mystery flavor that perfectly cuts through the sugar. It’s fortunate Coke is so great, because for decades, it was the top option for nondrinkers at bars.
At some places, particularly dives, the “NA beverage program” still consists of a soda gun, but in Seattle, nearly every notable bar and restaurant offers nondrinkers, designated drivers, and “I don’t want a drink right now”-ers a chance to get something more interesting than soda or coffee. This is a welcome bit of inclusiveness that also makes business sense — thanks to a mix of Zoomer prudishness, wellness culture, and rising numbers of sober people, abstaining from drinking has turned downright trendy. During dry January (or *gasp * damp January), if your bar doesn’t have NA options, it’ll likely be losing customers to bars that do.
But not every bar approaches NA drinks (“mocktail” is a derogatory term these days) with the same level of care. “It’s disappointing when I look at a bar menu and I see beautiful cocktails that have alcohol in them,” says Christos Andrews, who owns Ghost Note Coffee on Capitol Hill and no longer drinks alcohol for health reasons. “And then you go to the NA menu and it’s just kind of lazy.”
This laziness can come in the form of NA drinks that are simplistic compared to alcoholic options. “Here’s some juice and some herbs and syrup smashed together,” is how Anthony Spruill, the lead bartender at Green Lake’s Eight Row, describes this genre. Other NA menus lean on beverages that try to replicate the taste of alcohol, which typically fails. A nonalcoholic wine pairing, for instance, sounds nice until you order it and realize that most NA wines are pretty close to grape juice.
As Kirstin Vracko told me when I recently visited her NA bottle shop, Cheeky and Dry, taking the alcohol out of spirits or wine means removing not just some of the flavor but also the mouthfeel that drinkers consciously or unconsciously have come to expect. So producers have to replace what’s lost in other ways, like adding bitters to NA wine or chiles to spirits to reproduce that tell-tale throat-burning sensation. Other NA spirit brands are building entirely new flavor profiles. The Seattle-based Pathfinder (a common ingredient at bars) is herbal and sweet in front but leaves behind an earthy aftertaste, like the roots of a tree. It’s sort of like amaro, but also like nothing but itself.
The most exciting NA concoctions are the ones that break the molds established by traditional cocktail culture. Like the Sun Ship, one of the signature drinks at Ghost Note. It’s technically a coffee beverage, but you would be forgiven for forgetting that there’s espresso in it — there’s also coconut water, lime, and smoked grapefruit rosemary syrup. It’s refreshing with strong citrus notes, but the rosemary adds a deep herbal aroma to it. At the cafe, it comes in a coupe glass garnished with a hefty sprig of rosemary. Try one and tell me that this isn’t the same category of beverage as a high-end NA cocktail.
At Eight Row (a hub for sober people in the service industry), the NA portion of the cocktail menu rotates seasonally just like the rest of it. Last time I was there, to talk to Spruill and owner David Nichols — both of whom are sober — I had a drink called the Schoolmaster, which had Pathfinder, Seedlip Spice (another NA spirit), pear butter, ginger, honey, lemon, and NA sparkling wine. It tasted like a cozy blanket on a rainy winter’s day.
At $16, a Schoolmaster is also as expensive as a cocktail with alcohol in it, but that makes sense: Bottles of NA spirits are as expensive as mid-tier whiskey or gin, and if a bar is doing it right, it should take the same amount of effort and thought to compose an NA drink as any other cocktail.
This can take many forms. The universe of NA beverages is much larger than the galaxy of NA cocktail-esque drinks. At Filipino fine-dining destination Archipelago, you can get a “juice pairing” that marries traditional Filipino flavors with Pacific Northwest fruits and berries. This is “not merely a substitute for our wine pairing, but truly its own thing,” co-owners Amber Manuguid and Aaron Verzosa wrote in an email.
When a bar with otherwise exceptional cocktails has a blah NA menu, it can signal that it doesn’t really care all that much about its sober (or “sober-curious”) clientele. Spruill compares it to dietary restrictions — chefs can work to accommodate them, or they can offer them some second-best substitution options, taking the attitude of “they don’t want our menu, so this is good enough for them,” he says.
Bars that have great NA selections can see tangible benefits from them thanks to the growing number of sober-ish customers. Kraig Rovensky is a partner at Capitol Hill bar Life on Mars, which has been growing its NA menu for years. Pre-COVID, only about 2 or 3 percent of the bar’s sales were from NA drinks, he says. Now, after making a major push to expand its offerings, that number is 10 to 12 percent on a regular month, and during January it can be 25 to 30 percent on a given night.
This takes effort. Non-drinkers are now accustomed to having options when we go out, and we’re no longer impressed by a seasonal shrub. Not wanting to drink alcohol shouldn’t prevent someone from having an over-the-top, high-end beverage with all the bells and whistles cocktail bars can provide. You have to care about the whole experience,” Spruill says. “You have to care about the whole spectrum of what people are interested in ingesting.”