Mocktails have been around a long time. As legend has it, when Depression-era child star Shirley Temple was out with her parents, they had cherry-garnished Old Fashioneds…but without the booze. The sweet drink has grenadine, some form of soda and, of course, a cherry. The word “mocktail” may date back to the 1930s or the 1970s. Since craft cocktail bartenders started catering to liquor-avoiding patrons, it has become ubiquitous. It has not, however, always signified something you’d want to drink. As with vegan options in an omnivore-focused restaurant, mocktails can be poor guests at the bar or table, with little thought given to creativity, balance, or tempting the customer back for more.
Fortunately for the rest of us, a few fine pros are leading the way to attention-worthy, liquor-free drinks. According to Sahil Mehta, a bartender at Boston’s Estragon and Bar GoGo, “mocktails can be just as creative, just as interesting as regular cocktails.” In fact, he’s had—and made—some that had him thinking, “Why am I drinking alcohol, if things taste this good without it?”
There are two clear roads from theory to mocktail. “Sometimes, I try to [do] a classic cocktail,” Mehta says, “but more often than not, I’m building a taste—or layers and layers of taste.” With daiquiris, Mehta points out, the rum shines through, but sugar and lime juice are just as important. They can become the base of a splendid cocktail.
Estragon is a tapas bar. The dishes are small, but flavorful. “Most of our food has salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, and sour tastes,” Mehta says. “I try to do similar things with my mocktails, so there’s a complexity to it.” Taking this from the broad to the narrow, Mehta says, “I try to use complex sweeteners, and not just simple syrup. Whether it’s using things like orgeat or grenadine (not the fake red kind). Same thing with the sour: use verjus, or shrubs, which have both sweetness and acidity. I almost always have three of those going at my bar,” says Mehta, “and they’re all non-alcoholic.”
For bitterness, too, Mehta thinks beyond standard bar products. His ingredients are in many of our kitchen cabinets. “You can use something as tannin-heavy as a green tea, or something deeper: dandelion greens.”
Ezra Star, the GM of Boston’s menu-free cocktail lounge, Drink, says making an outstanding mocktail is about finding a good balance. An unexpected ingredient helps. “I like to put a little bit of salt in a cocktail, to round out sweetness.” Think about using soda water, which has a hint of salt.
Where salt’s concerned, Mehta would encourage you to think widely. Reach for celery salt, smoked salt, pink salt, rosemary salt, chili lime salt…components that come with inbuilt complexity. Whether you use them in the drink or on the rim of the glass, they’ll bring something unusual and surprising, making an ordinary mocktail remarkable.
In contrast with cocktails, Star says making mocktails “is much more like cooking, so if you’ve got raspberries at home, muddled raspberries with syrup, salt, lemon juice, almond, and a good dash of bitters would make a really good mocktail.”
Don’t discount the salad drawer. Star suggests “taking cucumber and vinegar, and making an a la minute shrub.” Add sweetener (honey, simple syrup, agave…) and soda water for a well-rounded bubbly drink.
Playing with what’s at hand has entertainment value. “It’s much more fun for people who are hanging out,” Star says, “when they see you’re picking something from your fridge and doing something unexpected.” When the unexpected is also delicious, your hostly job is done.
Star also uses orgeat in non-alcoholic drinks. “It gives a little bit of body to whatever I’m working with.”
If you’re okay with a few drops of alcohol, then bitters round out a drink. Go with Angostura, or consider a craft bitter, such as Cocktail Punk or Hudson Standard. Even without that bartending staple, your mocktails can have your friends asking for recipes, as well as another round.
With fresh lime juice, rich coconut milk, and complexity from honey, Smitten Kitchen’s sparkling piña colada riff is anything but a teetotaller’s consolation prize. Invest in good pineapple juice, or make your own. It’s a key component; quality will make the drink a winner. Get the recipe.
From sweetening tea to drizzling over pancakes, you’ll find plenty of purposes for this lavender cardamom simple syrup. Here, it features a sophisticated lavender cardamom fizz. The combination of egg white and club soda gives this a thick meringue. The soda also contributes a touch of salt—not enough for your guests to notice, but enough to elevate this cocktail above even its booziest competitors. Get the recipe.
Cool, green, and refreshing, this honeydew-basil nojito is jammed with fresh melon juice. Fresh lime and torn basil counter the melon’s sweetness. There’s very little sugar in this drink; if your melon’s ripe enough, then you could get away with none. Put melon balls between layers of ice for a polka-dotted style, or make it easy for yourself and garnish the drinks with melon sticks. Get the recipe.
With fresh strawberry compote, orange juice, and mint, this drink almost passes for a glass of sunrise. The compote needs cooling, so make that part an hour or more ahead. Use plenty of mint in the garnish to give this mocktail a festive look. Get the recipe.
This cocktail’s visual drama comes from blackberries. The recipe calls for fresh blackberries, but unsweetened frozen berries make this a drink for all seasons. Honey and vanilla warm the fruit’s sharper notes. Strain it through mesh and a coffee filter, and your mocktail will be seed-free. Get the recipe.
Ginger kombucha, frozen peaches, and minced ginger give this mocktail its cocktail lounge elegance. Invest in candied ginger for the garnish. You don’t have to choose between fresh peach and candied ginger to top your drink; the combination is fit to look at and to eat. Get the recipe.
When the Culinary Institute of America crafts mocktails, it’s certain they’re going to be exceptional. Here, a fresh cranberry smash has brown sugar, mint, and lime; a bubbly pomegranate mocktail has sparkling cider and a garnish of fresh pomegranate seeds; and eggnog gets ample flavor from nutmeg cloves, cinnamon, and maple syrup. Buy dark maple syrup, which has a more complex taste. You won’t miss spirits at all. Get the recipe.
The only thing this drink has in common with the Shirley Temple is grenadine. Orgeat and coconut cream contribute a lush (but liquor-free) mouthfeel, while orange, lime, and lemon juice naturally round out the sweetness of orgeat and grenadine. Toss it in a blender with ice, and you have a frosty mocktail to make a daiquiri melt with envy. Get the recipe.
This virgin Pimm’s Cup gets its spices from fresh ginger, ginger beer, and two non-alcoholic wine infusions: red with juniper, anise, allspice, coriander, and grapefruit; white with anise, coriander, juniper, and lemon. Tea gives it a dry side. A helix of cucumber is a dramatic garnish. Nobody will mistake this drink for child’s play. Get our Virgin Pimm’s Cup recipe.