An Expert Bartender's Advice for Creating Great Non-Alcoholic Cocktails

Expert Interview

When non-drinking customers approach bartender Julian Cox, they don't have to settle for a boring club soda or ginger ale. "That wouldn't really make their day," says the award-winning mixologist. "I want them to feel happy, to have fun." Known for designing the cocktail programs at some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles, he considers the alcohol-free cocktail an opportunity for creativity – and says it's something people can have fun with at home, too.

Julian Cox is the Executive Director of Beverages for a restaurant group that includes LA's Rivera, Playa, Sotto, Picca, and MessHall, opening in Los Feliz this summer. We appreciate his philosophy on beverages both alcoholic and non, so we asked him to share some tips with our readers:

Guiding principles:

For a non-alcoholic cocktail, the trick is to make it fun, use great garnishes, make it balanced and not too sweet, and always use the freshest ingredients. As long as you're having fun, that's the key.

Basic template:

You don't want tons of sugar. This simple template will give you a good beginning balance: Mix 1 ounce lime or lemon juice + 3/4 ounce fresh simple syrup. Pour it into Collins glass or shake and strain it first, which will give it more body. Top with club soda for effervescence.

Seasonal twists:

I give my bartenders guidelines, but for non-alcoholic cocktails I let them go wild, to be totally creative. You can do the same at home, using ingredients in your refrigerator. For example, to the basic template you could add:

Muddled strawberries. Strawberries and grapefruit are a great combination, so you could substitute grapefruit juice for the lime/lemon juice.

Pineapple juice. Add 2 ounces of pineapple juice and garnish with a pineapple leaf and mint.

Muddled red bell pepper. This is unusual and really good.

Watermelon and mint. Dust with cayenne pepper to garnish. Great on a hot summer day.

Cucumber and mint. These garnishes are always refreshing.

Bitters:

Bitters are great for flavor and digestion. However, most bitters have a small amount of alcohol in them. You won't get drunk, but make sure you or your guests are okay with this before using bitters.

Citrus peel can also brighten a drink and make it sophisticated. Use a citrus peeler to peel the skin off a lemon, orange, or grapefruit. With the pith facing up, squeeze the peel over the glass to spray the citrus oils on top of the drink.

Tools:

You don't need special equipment to make non-alcoholic cocktails at home, but basic bar tools like a jigger for measuring, a shaker, a strainer, and cocktail glasses for serving can make your drinks feel special.

Thanks, Julian!

Related: 15 Delicious Non-Alcoholic Spritzers, Sodas, and Mocktails

(Images: Nora Maynard; Steve Julian)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade