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Cheers To Your Health

Written by Fredric Hamber | Photography by Craig Lee

White Cap’s Wallflower of smoked raspberry, pecan orgeat and chile oil.
White Cap’s Wallflower of smoked raspberry, pecan orgeat and chile oil.

With a surge in both popularity and options, nonalcoholic cocktails are a wellness movement earning prime real estate on the menu.

Mocktails are having a moment. From creative alcohol-free drinks appearing on bar menus to new brands that engineer zero-proof versions of gin, whiskey and sparkling wines, both supply and demand for healthy refreshments are on the upswing. A nascent energy reminiscent of the craft cocktail movement of the early 2000s is being channeled toward nonalcoholic concoctions.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on lifestyle habits and physical health, for better and worse. According to San Francisco physician James P. Hansen, M.D., “Many people with time on their hands started drinking too much and gained the ‘COVID-19’ [pounds]. But others realized this wasn’t healthy and switched to nonalcoholic cocktails. Interestingly, this mental clarity allowed them to cook more healthy meals and to avoid impulsively eating fast foods and junk foods.”

Joshua James’s La Playa Boulevardier, with Free Spirits Bourbon, Lyre’s Italian Spritz and Aperitif Rosso, at Ocean Beach Cafe.
Joshua James’s La Playa Boulevardier, with Free Spirits Bourbon, Lyre’s Italian Spritz and Aperitif Rosso, at Ocean Beach Cafe.

Restaurants and bars have begun meeting these changing tastes by broadening their drink selections with healthier options. Barman Carlos Yturria of The Treasury in the Financial District and White Cap in the Outer Sunset explains that not long ago a nonalcoholic drink wouldn’t be included on a menu due to space constraints. “Nowadays, it’s standard,” he says, though he notes, “It’s always going to be the last thing on the menu.” He believes that a bar should have a recipe rather than “leaving it to the bartender to freehand or freestyle,” so customers who like a particular drink can expect consistency when returning.

An indicator of a promising nonalcoholic cocktail is when the establishment in question has made an effort to include ingredients beyond fresh juice. “I’m a big fan of shrubs,” Yturria says, referring to a sweetened housemade fruit vinegar that can be mixed into a tonic or soda with ice. “It’s rare when people make a syrup or something specific for a nonalcoholic cocktail.” Among White Cap’s recent offerings is a drink of smoked raspberry, pecan orgeat, lime and chile oil.

Tall-format drinks often boast healthy ingredients. Tamarine restaurant in Palo Alto offers an antioxidant lemonade with blackberries, raspberries and pomegranate. At The Sherwood, scheduled to open this summer in West Portal, bar manager Jeff Hanford is creating strawberry-ginger spritz, a virgin mojito and the signature “tamarindo limonada.”

At White Cap, barman Carlos Yturria mixes the Monkey Wrench.

There are zero-proof spirits that replicate the flavors, mouth feel and viscosity of various liquors, allowing them to be substituted in a cocktail. Rich Table restaurant serves a drink with Lyre’s (a London-based “nonalcoholic spirits” company) Dark Rum. At Left Bank in Menlo Park, you can sip a No-Groni Spritz containing Seedlip, which was the first distilled nonalcoholic spirit on the market.

“Don’t drink fewer cocktails, just less alcohol” is the slogan of Marin-based Free Spirits, whose product line includes gin, bourbon and tequila alternatives.

They’re even fortified with vitamin B6 and amino acids. “‘Mocktail’ is one of my least favorite words in the English language,” company founder Milan Martin confesses, as he thinks it sounds like “it’s trying to be something it’s not.” Martin adds, “A nonalcoholic cocktail can be every bit as tasty as a regular alcohol cocktail,” and he suggests asking a bartender to make your favorite cocktail “sessionable,” which means half the normal amount of regular spirit is swapped out for the alcohol-free product.

To sample a few nonalcoholic elixirs, I venture to Ocean Beach Cafe in the Outer Richmond. The establishment opened in January to serve and sell alcohol-free creations (by the glass, bottle or case) alongside its deli counter. “We’re disrupting the alcohol industry,” boasts owner Joshua James, a former bartender. The variety of offerings is striking and includes amari, aperitifs, orange and coffee liqueurs, and even wine, including “alcohol-removed” red blends from Napa and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

The Monkey Wrench, with coconut, lime and seaweed-infused simple syrup. It was so popular, Carlos Wrench added a rum version to the menu.

James offers an hourlong tasting for $25 by appointment. He mixes a no-groni for me and the inclusion of Lyre’s Italian Orange, which mimics a bitter orange aperitif, provides the needed kick. The backbone was Free Spirits Gin. There’s a familiar tingle on the palate when sipping alcohol, and the Free Spirits products replicate this in an uncanny way via a process Martin calls “distillate reconstruction.” He says, “Part of what makes a cocktail a cocktail is that slow-drinking burn of the ethanol alcohol on your palate. … you can feel it warm going down.”

Before long, I have several glasses in front of me, including a rum that’s sippable enough to enjoy neat. The effect on my taste buds is so convincing that I unconsciously begin to pace myself. James tells me that each of his customers has a reason for abstaining or cutting back, from allergies to pregnancy to simply not liking the way alcohol makes them feel. It’s rarely the reason you might expect: i.e. being in recovery from addiction. Also, the more closely a virgin cocktail replicates a familiar prototype, the more it would be avoided by someone on a regimented sober journey who is seeking to change behavior and avoid temptation.

San Francisco real estate attorney Sara Wilson enjoys a glass of wine or a cocktail on weekends but during the week prefers no-booze options that aren’t sickly sweet. “The best are something tart, the way an alcoholic drink can be tart. I don’t want a kid’s drink; I want an adult drink.”

Sounds like she’s ready for one of James’s no-gronis.


Recipes

Jeff Hanford, general manager of The Sherwood in West Portal, knows what makes a cocktail — and a nonalcoholic version — sing.

Virgin Mojito

“An easy, brisk mocktail.”

Ingredients

  • 8 to 10 fresh mint leaves
  • 1½ oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1½ oz. simple syrup
  • tonic water
  • soda water

Fill a 16-oz. glass about halfway with ice. Add the mint leaves and gently break them up with a muddler over the ice. Add fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and 2 oz. tonic water. Top off with ice and soda water, stir and garnish with a lime.


Tamarindo Limonada

“A refreshing citrus summer mocktail. Start by making a tamarind syrup.”

Ingredients

  • 3½ oz. wet seedless tamarind paste
  • 4 oz. brown sugar
  • 1½ oz. fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 1 half-inch piece of vanilla bean sliced into quarters lengthwis
  • 1 cup water

Bring the water to a boil. Stir in the tamarind paste and brown sugar. Make sure the brown sugar has dissolved and that you break up the tamarind paste. Reduce to a simmer and add fresh-squeezed orange juice and vanilla bean. Let this simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. After allowing it to cool, pour through a fine strainer to remove any large particles of tamarind.

To make a Tamarindo Limonada, fill a 16-oz. shaker with ice, add 1½ oz. of tamarind syrup, fill to the top with fresh-squeezed lemonade, shake vigorously, strain over ice and garnish with a lemon wheel.


Strawberry-Ginger Spritz

“A tart and tangy effervescent mocktail. Start by making strawberry-ginger syrup”

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. fresh strawberries, sliced thin
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1-inch piece of peeled ginger cut into small cubes
  • 1 cup water

Bring the water to a boil. Stir in the honey and add the strawberries and ginger. Cover and reduce to a low simmer for 30 minutes. After cooling, pour through a coarse strainer to remove the chunks of ginger and strawberry.

To make the spritz, fill a 12-oz. glass with ice. Stir in 1¾ oz. of strawberry-ginger syrup and ¼ oz. of fresh lime juice while filling to the top with soda water. Garnish with a lime wheel.

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