Are you among the many opting for a sober January? Maybe you’re not shooting for an entire booze-free month, but figure your liver could use a little break from all the holiday carousing. Or tonight you’ve volunteered to be the designated driver. Whatever your reason for not imbibing, if you dread another night at the bar sipping sparkling water with a slice of lime while your friends get to enjoy drinks with exotic ingredients and nuanced flavors, you’re just not at the right bar.
Here are a few tips on what makes a good non-alcoholic cocktail and where to get one. And while we can guarantee you’ll enjoy your sober drinking, we can’t promise that you won’t find your drunk friends a lot less entertaining and more annoying than you used to.
1. Find a place that takes its bar program seriously.
This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, if a restaurant or bar is really into the fine art of combining spirits with other esoteric ingredients for a cocktail that strikes a perfect balance, won’t they think it’s sacrilege to leave out the gin, vodka, or whiskey that is typically the star of the show? Quite the contrary. A skilled bartender will consider it a challenge – in a good way – to make you a tasty drink without the alcohol, and will have the knowledge and ingredients to do it.
A first-rate bar is stocked with great building blocks: freshly squeezed juices, aromatic bitters, infused simple syrups, sodas made in-house. Starting with stellar individual components makes for a better end result. Case in point: Parlour Bar in the North Loop, where head bartender Sean Jones uses the house-made ginger beer to spice up non-alcoholic cocktails. His booze-free version of the bar’s spicy Margarita was a mouth-tingling mix of spicy, sweet, and citrus. “I take just as much care with a non-alcoholic drink as I do with any drink we make,” he says.
2. Look for a menu that lists more than NA beer.
If the menu lists a couple of liquor-free drink options, it’s a good sign that the bartenders have put some thought into coming up with tasty alternatives for folks who opt out of the hard stuff. Bradstreet Craftshouse features three non-alcoholic cocktails on its menu, each with a unique taste, proving that, yes, you can mix distinctive drinks without spirits. Each one riffs on its alcohol-based original. The Minted Ricky has the same flavors as a Gin Ricky, the Art of Crafts will remind you of a ginger martini and the Persephone will put you in mind of a Cosmo. If none of those choices strikes your fancy, just talk to the bartender for other suggestions.
3. Know what flavor profiles you like.
When you ask for a non-alcoholic cocktail, chances are the bartender will counter with a question of her own: What types of flavors do you like? Don’t stand there hemming and hawing, give them something to work with. Not sure how to put your preferences into words? Ralena Young, bar manager at Coup d’Etat in Uptown, offers this handy list to get you started: Do you favor sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, sour, or a combination? Still stumped? Think about the drinks you would normally order. Do you lean toward sweeter drinks like a Flirtini or do you prefer something citrusy like a Salty Dog? Do you gravitate to the deeper flavors of an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan?
Armed with this information, a bartender has a much better chance of making you a mocktail you’ll enjoy. “There’s no reason a non-alcoholic drink can’t be just as enjoyable as its alcohol-based counterpart,” say Young, who should know. She won an NA drink competition with her Ruby Rose, which combines pomegranate juice, simple syrup and soda water with cherries, lemon, and basil.
4. Make friends with the bartender.
Truly, this is a good piece of advice no matter what (getting a drink on the house every now and then is always a plus). But if you’re looking for a really good non-alcoholic cocktail, it’s even more important. For this reason, sitting at the bar is the way to go. It gives you a chance to chat with the bartender, get their input and give them your preferences. At Tongue in Cheek in St. Paul, there are no specific non-alcoholic drinks on the menu, but there is a section cleverly called Placebo Effect that lets customers know all they need to do is to put themselves in the capable hands of the talented bartenders. On a recent visit, after enjoying one of the booze-based cocktails, the Red Headed Stranger, which includes rye, vermouth, Amaro, bitters, and cherries, the need to drive home dictated a switch to an NA drink for the second round. Taking a cue from that drink, the bartender produced an NA version that echoed the flavors of the rye-driven original.
5. Keep an open mind.
Just like a box of Kraft mac & cheese is never going to taste like the three-cheese lobster pasta at your favorite restaurant, a non-alcoholic drink, no matter how skillfully and thoughtfully prepared, is never going to taste like your favorite Boulevardier. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyable in its own way.
1930 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Monday - Thursday, 4 p.m. - midnight; Friday 4 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. - 2 a.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. - midnight
2923 Girard Ave. S., Minneapolis
Monday - Friday, 4 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.
730 N. Washington Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday, 5 p.m. - 2 a.m., Sunday and Monday, 5 p.m. - midnight
989 Payne Ave., St. Paul
Tuesday - Thursday, 4 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. - 11 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., 4 p.m. - 11 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., 4 p.m. - 10 p.m.