A number of your guests have many different good reasons for why they may not be drinking alcohol at your restaurant tonight. But as a restaurant operator, you don’t really have one good reason for saving all the good drinks — with complex flavors, wild flourishes and curated bitters — for your drinking guests. To do so means missed opportunities by the gallon in terms of being inclusive, extending your brand and boosting sales.
“It’s a good idea businesswise because it offers us a chance to showcase our cocktail program to people who aren’t drinking,” said Patrick Williams, beverage director for Punch Bowl Social, a group of eight restaurants with locations across the country.
“We have such a broad demographic of people who come, from families to college kids to couples that are double-income and don’t have kids…One of our goals in the beverage program is to let people step out of their comfort zone but with style and grace, and to not be intimidated.”
How to get the (nonalcoholic) party started? Ingredients for a strong mocktail program aren’t that different from those of a cocktail program. But without “the booze, mocktails must be that much more bold, complex and interesting in terms of flavor.
Here’s how a few operators are raising a toast with mocktails that are freshly foraged and ready to quench the thirst for adventure at the bar.
The Good Stuff
Punch Bowl Social’s philosophy is that it would be a waste of “all these housemade syrups, tasty shrubs and cool ingredients” to not share them with the nondrinkers in the house, according to Williams.
“I don’t want anyone to miss out,” he said, adding that he develops mocktails as their own flavor experiences from the start, and doesn’t think of them as just “drinks with the liquor omitted.”
That’s common mistake in developing mocktails, Williams has found, is not focusing enough on the balance of a nonalcoholic drink.
“If you just take the gin out, that falls short because you still need that balance, and you still need delicious ingredients to make a great non-alcoholic drink,” Williams said.
For the Jeanette’s drink — one of Punch Bowl Social’s bestselling mocktails — strawberry syrup is combined with fresh lime juice and aloe vera juice, which adds an egg white-like textural element.
Other standout mocktails at Punch Bowl Social include the chef’s cup (a no-alcohol take on a Pimm’s cup with cardamom syrup and currents), the season’s soda, and the fancy fizz, which packs a flavor punch thanks to the use of a the vinegary secret weapon for great mocktails: the shrub.
Shrubs are tart beverages made with vinegar and fruit that trace back to colonial times when the vinegar served as a preservative. Now, shrubs are a key component in the trendiest mocktail menus, adding a complexity that can be lost when bourbon or other strong-flavored liquors are left out.
Greg Thomas, manager of Austin’s Elizabeth Street Café, has found that shrubs served with mineral water help highlight the fresh vegetable and herb focus of the café, which serves French food for breakfast and Vietnamese food for dinner. An adventurous place like this needs beverages to match.
“We take a seasonal point of view and rotate accordingly,” Thomas said. Currently on the mocktail menu: a pineapple-coconut mocktail and a raspberry-red chili mocktail, both made with apple cider vinegar and cane sugar.
Because many popular mocktail components are on the sweeter side — infused syrups, ginger beer, craft sodas — “the real challenge is balancing those sweet elements with acidity,” Williams said. This is where shrubs come in. Punch Bowl Social uses shrubs made by McClary Bros., a maker of drinking vinegars in Detroit, including a special shrub made with Michigan cranberries.
Another way to balance sweetness is the juice and zest of citrus fruits like blood orange (also currently a headliner in the mocktail world), but shrubs can bring more depth of flavor to the party.
Clark Barlowe, chef and owner of the Charlotte, N.C. restaurant Heirloom, also loves shrubs as a mocktail flavor component. He’s also found that honey from the rooftop hives adds a depth of flavor to mocktails. That’s the kind of place Heirloom is: bees on the roof, and drinks made with redbud blossoms, the South’s first sign of spring. The next-level farm-to-table spot also offers special tasting menus, foraging classes and a cocktail class, too.
Custom-made mocktails and foraging for flavor
The best selling drink in both the cocktail and mocktail categories at Heirloom is the “I Trust You” drink. This means custom-made beverages, and these personalized creations make up about 75 percent of all drink orders.
“You tell the bartender what you like and what you don’t like,” Barlowe said, adding that he cribbed the idea from the bar Drink in Boston where he saw the “trust me” concept in practice a decade ago.
Playfully coaxing guests out of their comfort zone is built into the service model.
“If someone said they don’t like gin, we kind of take that as a challenge,” Barlowe said. “And for mocktails, it’s the same process. We can ask which cocktails pique your interest…which flavors.”
Bartenders at Heirloom build flavors into mocktails with the aforementioned honey and also beet juice, kombucha, ginger beer, bitters from a cult bitters company out of Raleigh, Crude Bitters & Sodas and lots of housemade syrups.
Barlowe lists the types of housemade syrups just waiting behind the bar to become part of a killer custom mocktail: “We’ve got pine, johnny jump up, beet, raspberry, cucumber, fig, basil, jalapeno, plum, merlot, bamboo, grenadine, strawberry, blueberry… in the summer we’ll have tomato.”
Seasonality and foraging are hallmarks of Heirloom’s beverage program.
“Now that it’s spring, we have redbuds,” Barlowe said. He and his kitchen team forage for the redbuds then infuse them into a syrup that tastes similar to a sugar snap pea.
Barlowe, who has been foraging since he was a kid growing up in Western North Carolina, loves to incorporate foraged finds into drinks, like a mushroom-based mocktail made with chanterelle mushrooms (apricot undertones, Barlowe said).
And Heirloom gets a few shrubs from Shelby, NC-based chef-turned-farmer Jamie Swofford, who bottles shrubs made with pine and sumac, among other wild treasures.
The price point for a mocktail at Heirloom, $6, is both a good in terms of a cost perspective, Barlowe said, and a drink like that isn’t too outrageous for customers in the blue-collar neighborhood.
Williams of Punch Bowl Social agrees that there’s value in the handcrafted experience of well-made mocktails.
“It’s $2.50 for a Coke, but $6 for a mocktail,” he said. “You’re not just putting a glass up to a nozzle; you’re using a shaker, measuring things out, it’s handcrafted every time. We haven’t found at any time that people were disappointed in the flavor or the value.”
A Forager walks into a bar: what to use for wild flavor
Chef and a leading voice in Cleveland’s foraging scene, Jeremy Umansky is gearing up to open Larder: A Curated Delicatessen & Bakery, a highly anticipated new-style Jewish deli that will feature foraged menu items. At a recent pop-up event, he served items like shagbark hickory pickled eggs with beef borscht terrine; acorn blini with sunflower seed butter and cream-fermented wild berries and small-batch honey mead with local honey and foraged wild blackberries.
Coming in at a close second in flavor options for mocktails, Umansky chooses wild aromatics. He likes using a mushroom called Chaga. “It has a fresh, mentholated undertone with hints of vanilla and a gorgeous honey color when steeped.”
Here are a few more of Umansky’s favorite flavor components to use in mocktails:
- Shagbark hickory adds great earthy and woodsy flavors to help with bolder drinks
- Staghorn sumac brings vibrant ruby colors, fruity flavors and a sour taste to drinks
- Sassafras has been the flavor base for the many drinks that have gone by the name root beer. It’s bright, herbal, and refreshing
- Spruce adds a fresh pine and lemony flavor that’s perfect for balancing out a good mocktail