Unfold a bar menu (or, more likely, hover your phone over a bar QR code) and you may notice a relatively new category of libations tucked underneath the beer and wine. Referred to as zero proof, nonalcoholic, NA, zero ABV, or—my personal favorite, at Monkey’s Tail in Houston—free-spirited, these drinks are shaken or stirred with just as much care as traditional cocktails, without the booze. Beverage directors in Texas’s major markets have seen a noticeable shift in drinking choices among their guests, particularly within the past couple of years. Just don’t refer to the drinks as mocktails.
“No one calls them mocktails,” says Pedro Ricalo, the force behind the bar at Dallas restaurant Bullion. “It has sort of a mocking tone to it, as if these drinks are an afterthought, which they very much are not.”
According to IWSR, a London-based data and intelligence company that tracks worldwide alcohol trends, the no-alcohol product segment increased in volume by 4.5 percent from 2019 to 2020. The overall consumption of low- and no-alcohol beverages is expected to grow by 31 percent by 2024 across the ten markets of Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Spain, the UK, and the U.S. A quick online scan of recent book releases supports this beverage mindfulness—more than a dozen zero-proof cocktail recipe books (more than one of which is actually named Zero Proof) have been published within the past four years alone.
Despite the aura of a Paltrow-esque wellness trend, those interested in this growing drinks category aren’t only California transplants. People are seeking these options for a variety of reasons, whether they’re pregnant, the evening’s designated driver, observing Dry January or Sober October, in recovery, or simply want a delicious drink without the side effect of getting tipsy. Across the Lone Star State, restaurants and bars are heeding the call.
At Bullion, Ricalo helped devise an off-menu list of nonalcoholic cocktails. The category isn’t advertised, but the bartenders are ready when guests ask for one. “So many times, a bartender just throws something together but has no idea how to reproduce it again when that guest comes in another time and requests it. It helps to be ready in order to maintain consistency,” says Ricalo.
Other bars do commit valuable space on their beverage menus to a handful of thoughtful, well-executed cocktails minus the booze. At Houston’s Rosie Cannonball, bar manager Sarah Crowl curates a seasonal cocktail menu with about sixteen selections, at least six of which are always nonalcoholic options.
“We definitely see a demand for these, and we want to have options that appeal to everyone,” Crowl says. “It gives all guests a chance to be festive. No one has to feel left out just because they opt not to drink alcohol.”
At Houston’s east downtown bistro Nancy’s Hustle, the bold, eclectic flavors of the food menu carry through into the wine, beer, and cocktail lists as well as the “sobridades” section of the menu. “From a business perspective, it’s an oversight if you’re not including these on the menu,” says bar manager Zachary Hornberger. “It’s like you’re telling people who are not drinking alcohol that their only options are water or iced tea. But if you offer them something fancy, they’re probably going to try it.” For Hornberger, zero-proof cocktails like Dapper Queen, a concoction made from celery, citrus, honey, tomatillo, grenadine, and tonic, are an essential part of the restaurant’s offerings.
To whip up a nonalcoholic beverage, it takes more than just removing the booze. “It’s already a challenge to make a really good drink using alcohol,” says Justin Lavenue, owner and bartender at Austin’s Roosevelt Room. “But when you don’t have booze, it’s like building a house without a foundation. In this case, you can still do it, but it takes a lot more effort.” Most cocktails are built with a spirit as that foundational flavor. But beyond taste, liquor serves a few additional purposes. Brown spirits such as whiskey, bourbon, and aged rums can impart a little stronger mouthfeel than others due to the interaction with oak barrels during the aging process. Alcohol, in general, carries a level of viscosity that affects how the drink feels on the palate. Simply substituting booze with water or fruit juice could mean an unbalanced drink that falls short of its potential. That means bartenders must flex their creative muscles, perhaps even more so than when planning a cocktail menu.
Before Crowl joined the Rosie Cannonball team, she honed her skills at Coltivare in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. She has long been an advocate for zero-proof cocktails with creative flair. “We’re not creating a kids’ menu. We’re offering more than just a Shirley Temple,” says Crowl, whose list usually includes a seasonal soda with fruit, such as cantaloupe, paired with ingredients like pink Himalayan salt, coconut water, and mint.
The secret to any bartender’s success is a ready supply of balancing ingredients. Tea is a common favorite, to add tannic texture and a slight bitterness that complements sweetness. Coconut or aloe vera waters can also add texture. Salt can be used as part of a concentrated tincture to add brightness to a drink, or in fine, coarse, or spiced variations to add a playful note to the rim of a glass.
A touch of cream can add a little fatty texture, as with the Roosevelt Room’s Glitter & Marigold, a citrusy concoction similar to an Orange Julius with cream, pistachio extract, vanilla, orange flower water, and a dash of salt tincture.
At Nancy’s Hustle, Hornberger uses kitchen ingredients to make unique ferments and shrubs to add depth to his zero-proof drinks. “There’s so much attention that goes into prepping for these drinks, and it’s amazing how fast you blow through them in a night,” he says. “Guests have been having fun with it.”
If bartenders find they need a little backup in the ingredient category, there is now a whole range of alcohol-free spirits on the market, produced by some of the world’s largest spirit companies. Multiple bartenders call out London-based Seedlip, with three botanical-driven nonalcoholic spirits that can sub in for gin and whiskey. Ritual Zero Proof, Arkay, Ceder’s, and Austin-based Spiritless and Kin Euphorics have also grown in popularity.
Though proud bartenders might do their best to avoid these spirit-less options, a few do admit to leaning on them every once in a while.
“In general, I try to focus on seasonal ingredients to create something completely new. But on occasion, you need a good fill-in. We have a No’groni that uses a Seedlip selection,” says Crowl. “It tastes just like an actual negroni. We use Mexican Cola [to take the place of] sweet vermouth, and this Campari-like aperitif syrup, and it’s as close to the real thing as you can get.”
In Austin, Robert Björn Taylor is a bartender who has slung cocktails for Midnight Cowboy, Otoko, and the Arrive Hotel, where he was assistant general manager. There’s one other thing: he’s sober. Taylor walked away from alcohol two years ago. Though he continues to work as a bartender, he now sees the inclusion of zero-proof cocktails on a menu as just as essential as vegetarian and vegan options. Whether he’s behind or in front of the bar, Taylor appreciates it when he sees added effort from bartenders to create a welcoming option for all.
“I love it when someone is pushing the boundaries to create something thoughtful and meaningful without spirits. I think we’re going to see this category continue to evolve, and I look forward to what’s ahead,” says Taylor, who recently enjoyed a perfectly balanced zero-proof Painkiller at Austin’s new Tiki Tatsu-Ya. A smooth, tropical refreshment minus the pain.