Non Alcoholic Drinks

by Naren Young

When I first moved to the US of A almost eight years ago, I found myself aimlessly walking the streets of New York, asking for work at dozens of venues and visiting the bars and restaurants I had heard so much about. It was both a frustrating and enlightening experience for sure. One of those places was the Gramercy Tavern, whose wonderful long bar was at that time helmed by a jovial young chap named Jim Meehan. 

I remember it all quite clearly and yet the one thing I perhaps remember the most as I pored over the menu at this venerable restaurant was how vast, interesting and thoughtful the bar was. Sitting there, perusing their detailed beverage offerings completely changed the way I thought about setting up and running a successful bar. I still use it as my benchmark today.

It had (and still has) what I now often refer to as a ‘complete’ bar program. Actually, I don’t use this term that often or as often as I’d like because I don’t see that many bars across America that actually have a complete bar program. What does this rather ambiguous verbiage even mean anyway? It refers to those bars and its operators (be it an owner, head bartender, manager or even a consultant) that have made it the very core of their modus operandi to offer products and services that cover all the bases.

Never before had I seen such a detailed list of non alcoholic beverages. Neither had I seen a long list of esoteric bottled beers, ciders, vintage ciders and wines by the glass. There was a myriad of exotic spirits and digestive offerings. There was a short list of appealing house cocktails. There was good ice, leather place mats and gorgeous glassware. I could go on. And above all, the staff were extremely well versed in all of them, offering small tastes to the curious imbiber. It remains one of the great, underrated bars in America. 

Not every bar can be all things to all people and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that every sports bar, airport bar or titty bar should have a stellar list of non alcoholic libations or dessert cocktails. But if you work in a restaurant or serious cocktail bar, then there is no reason why as much thought and care should not be put into such drinks as the ‘house’ cocktails. Non alcoholic drinks are usually either ignored or made with a certain degree of apathy.

When I think about the bars across America that have put serious thought into providing killer drinks across all categories, I look to places such as the program at New York’s celebrated Eleven Madison Park and TheNomad (both designed by Leo Robitschek), that from Erik Adkins at San Francisco’s Slanted Door, perhaps Sepia in Chicago. At Saxon + Parole, we took this part of the operation very seriously, to the point where we had eight non alcoholic cocktails, which looked as beautiful as anything else on offer. We also had a solid selection of low octane drinks using such bases as sherry, port, amari, wine, vermouth and beer. Both categories are often overlooked but provide exceptional profit margins and allow you to significantly increase your GP.

Why offer your guests something as thoughtless as a glass of shitty bottled cranberry and orange juice for $3 when you could charge them $8 and give them something thoughtful, beautiful and delicious? I know I’m in a bar that takes their work seriously if they actually have a list of such no and low alcohol beverages. It makes me happy.

There are many bars that are now making their own flavored sodas, a big current trend right now that is very simple to do. They can also be spiked with booze quite easily. How about a fresh celery and tarragon soda? Or pomegranate and rose? Or Tangerine and thyme? Yum, yum and yum. Shrubs are another buzz word in our industry right now that make for sublime non alcoholic libations and are easily adaptable and can be made seasonally appropriate. Or you could add your own twist to the regular standards: hibiscus iced tea anyone? Bell pepper lemonade? Hmm, yes please.

Use juice that is only freshly squeezed (and yes, that includes no cranberry people) and to stop wastage, use juices or purees that are also used in some of the house cocktails and are therefore being used across several different drinks. If the kitchen or pastry department are also using said juices, then even better.

The point is, nothing in a bar should be considered more or less important than another thing. And this rings especially true for non alcoholic beverages. These should be embraced and promoted, not maligned or worse still: ignored. Now where’s my god damn corn-infused Milk Punch?

CORN-INFUSED MILK PUNCH

  • 1 oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. dark rum
  • ½ oz. agave nectar
  • 5 oz. corn-infused milk*

Build over ice and stir

Garnish with black sesame seeds

*In a pot, gently heat 1 gallon of full cream milk with 2 split vanilla pods, 4 cinnamon sticks, kernels and used cob from one ear of corn and 3 star anise. Allow to cool, strain and store in the fridge.

BELL PEPPER LEMONADE

  • 2 oz. red bell pepper juice
  • ½ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz. simple syrup
  • 1 dash chili tincture
  • Pinch of salt

Shake and strain on fresh ice

Top with soda

Garnish with a ring of red bell pepper.

CUCUMBER & THYME FIZZ

  • 1 oz. lemon juice
  • 1 oz. thyme simple syrup
  • 1.5 oz. cucumber puree
  • 1 sprig thyme in shaker

Shake and strain on fresh ice

Top with soda

Garnish with a piece of thyme skewered through a cucumber wheel.

Read more from Cocktails.

Read more from Naren Knows.