I’m a Sober Bartender, and the Word “Mocktail” Has to Go
In October of 2017, I joined a small group of friends in their attempt at a “Sober October.” I use the word “attempt,” because working in the service industry meant my friends and I could find an excuse to have a drink no matter the circumstances — as bartenders, we sulk the same way we celebrate. Bad shift? Let’s go out and have a drink. Great shift? Let’s go out and have a drink. But just like a car past its warranty, I was starting to feel the wear and tear, so the prospect of cutting out drinking was thrilling.
In the beginning, I made some substitutions. Just as someone new to vegetarianism might only eat veggie dogs and burgers at first, I was cracking sparkling waters on the couch to hear the hiss of the can, and ordering grapefruit juice and tonics so I could hold something at social gatherings. It was probably the burnout of these two flavors that led me to start thinking about non-alcoholic cocktails in a more serious light. At restaurants and bars that featured a non-alcoholic list, I would order through the lot; in spots that didn’t, I’d ask the bartender to fashion me something. I learned that ginger beer was a crutch, and if you aren’t actively thinking about a non-alcoholic (n/a) program you’re basically going to pour nothing more than an improved lemonade. I quickly concluded that the world was ready to move beyond the mocktail.
As I remember it, the mocktail as concept materialized between 2009 and 2015, when talking about why you weren’t drinking took the air from the room — people were unwilling to hear it. The mocktail meant you wanted something that looked like a cocktail, but didn’t necessarily care if it tasted good; you just didn’t want the headache of an explanation. The words “sober curious” didn’t exist. But it was time for that to change, and for the hard lines of definition to soften. It’s like holding a door open for a cat saying “You’re either in, or you’re out,” and then realizing a little door will let them come and go as they please. Sober curious is that little door. It allows people to ease into a new way of drinking even if that only means taking the night off, or opting for something n/a during a round when you would usually just “have another.”
Just because someone doesn’t drink doesn’t mean the thrill of going out to good bars and restaurants dissipates; it’s important to give people options. I wanted to thoughtfully construct a non-alcoholic list of cocktails that people could be proud to hold and excited by.
I thought about how I typically constructed a cocktail: starting with a spirit then working backward. But if you take the gin away from the gimlet, how balanced is the sugar-to-citrus ratio? I then started thinking about non-alcoholic cocktails as a whole — who was ordering them, what did they like about them, and what was missing?
I began experimenting. Drinks containing shrubs, fresh citrus, acid-driven fruits, and cordials were met on the other end of the spectrum with savory herbs, exceptional teas, and compound syrups with an array of mouth-watering tasting notes. For the guest looking for something refreshing, I’d have ready homegrown Ohio strawberries or more tropical trending guava or passion fruit syrups to be met with effervescence. And for anyone leaning more toward the stirred and in a coupe route, I’d reach for distilled non-alcoholic spirits that make for a great gin or aquavit replacement and finish with citrus zest inspired by the classic martini. I continue to learn more with every n/a drink I make.
At my bar Watershed Distillery in Columbus, Ohio, we don’t have a separate menu for n/a offerings, and they aren’t sequestered to a small space in the back of the menu. They are placed in with the full-proof cocktails, so that those looking for low- or no-proof options can think flavor first as they decide what mood they’re in.
Serving a non-alcoholic cocktail that tastes really great, instead of mimicking a vodka soda, reminded me of my own shift from my daily mantra of “just don’t drink,” to — after that Sober October three years ago — deciding to keep going and defining myself as a person who doesn’t drink. As a bartender, I’m excited when my guests are willing to try something new, and when I can introduce them to something they maybe haven’t tried. Introducing my guests to the new way of drinking (or not drinking) has helped make me a better bartender.