Mocktails: Zero Proof, Full Flavor

“I used to be anti-mocktail,” said Julie Joy, the Director of Beer, Wine and Spirits for Rouses Markets. “Just drink juice or something, right?” She’s not the only person who felt that way. Going into our conversation, I held the same view. Mocktails just always seemed like a lesser alternative to the real thing, or the consolation prize for the designated driver. The more Julie and I talked, however, the more I came to realize that I was mistaken. Mocktails are not merely a trend, but rather, a burgeoning culinary art form in their own right.

Julie’s shift in perspective occurred while traveling. She was in Chicago to see family and, while at dinner, a relative who was recovering from surgery ordered a mocktail. Julie tried it, and was astonished to find that it was really good. Later, while visiting Connecticut, a chance mocktail served at lunch sealed the deal. “I was like: Darn — I’ve really been wrong about this!” she said, laughing. She came to see mocktails the way all spirits are best enjoyed: as a communal activity.

“Even if they can’t — or don’t want to — drink, people still want to feel like they’re celebrating, or part of the moment,” she said.

Which makes a lot of sense. Whether raising a glass in a toast, clinking it with others, or enjoying that first sip, drinking can be a surprisingly complex social ritual. Mocktails allow for greater inclusion in the tradition, and facilitate a sense of belonging and participation that one might otherwise miss out on.

A common misconception about mocktails is that they’re merely cocktails without the booze. “It’s a new creature,” Julie explained, with their own flavor profiles, mouthfeel, sweetness and acidity. As such, they need not be interpreted by how “real” they taste, and bartenders aren’t simply duplicating the martini. Instead, they’re creating something entirely different. That said, the beauty of mocktails is that mimicry is indeed possible through specially crafted non-alcoholic spirits. And all those mixers on the shelves at Rouses Markets are just waiting for something new. A margarita without tequila isn’t a loss. Rather, it is an invitation for a new flavor to step forward.

For example, Rouses carries a line of non-alcoholic spirits called Seedlip. For an easy mocktail, Julie recommends pouring into a shaker two ounces of Seedlip Grove 42, one ounce of agave syrup and a half-ounce of fresh lime juice. Shake and pour for a perfect zero-proof margarita.

Indeed, the variety of mocktails is astonishing, from non-alcoholic espresso martinis to pineapple jalapeño margs for the whole family. The goal isn’t removing the alcohol; it’s about adding creativity.

“A really great bartender can do magic,” Julie said. Smoothies and specialty coffees were once considered adventurous. Mocktails exist in that same continuum, representing an elevation of non-alcoholic beverages into their own culinary genre.

Young people especially seem to have taken the notion of exquisitely prepared non-alcoholic beverages and run with it. But it’s about more than simply cutting back on alcohol due to health concerns, or reducing calorie intake, or restrictive diets. “It’s about demanding a rich experience,” said Julie. Unlike the “virgin” drinks of yore, today’s mocktails are not about eliminating an ingredient or experience, but rather, expanding the palate.

Moreover, the culinary artistry that goes into creating a mocktail is gaining respect. Just as a chef meticulously pairs flavors, textures and ingredients to create a dish, so does the mixologist in crafting a mocktail. It’s not just about tossing a few ingredients together; it’s about understanding flavor profiles, aromas and even the science behind it. The use of botanicals, spices and exotic fruits in mocktails is introducing consumers to a whole new variety of flavors, and new food pairings.

Ultimately, the rise of mocktails signals a broader societal shift. Fast vanishing are the days when alcohol was the staple of social gatherings. The mocktail mania of today reflects, in its own way, a more adventurous community that values choice and personal preferences. Mocktails invite us to reconsider our definitions of celebration and indulgence. As Julie put it: “When you get down to it, you want your houseguests who don’t drink to still be able to partake. When you have a couple of mocktail recipes available, you give them an alternative, where they felt like they are still celebrating.” In a culture that perhaps a little too often equates celebration with inebriation, it’s a refreshing perspective — no alcohol required.