There are hundreds of reasons why you might find yourself in a bar or party and not want to drink, and it certainly isn’t something to be judged or punished for, let alone find yourself relegated to the children’s table. I’d go so far as to say there’s a particular place in Hades reserved for bartenders who make you sip sickly-sweet mixtures of juice garnished with an umbrella while your friends enjoy a sophisticated Manhattan.
The cocktail industry has completely transformed itself since the 1990s, but for some reason, mocktails were left behind doing the Macarena with Emma Bunton. While a few bars took a stance against this negligence, most places still just reach for the fizzy drinks. So, if you’re committed to, or even just considering, a dry January – but equally not interested in becoming a complete hermit – there are some important things to know about giving up the booze.
Sugar is your biggest enemy. Cocktails are known to be sweet but they have nothing on most mocktails, which are usually made up of fruit juice and soft drinks. Get around this by asking for refreshing, herbaceous and citrusy drinks lengthened with soda water. A Virgin Mojito is a great option – give it a twist with a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (alcoholic, but two dashes is barely 5ml) to add a punchy flavour and turn it into a Virgin Queen’s Park Swizzle. Tonic water, ginger ale, ginger beer and lemonade are all packed with sugar and sipping them all night will do you more harm than good.
If you’re lucky enough to be drinking in a bar with carefully considered alcohol-free cocktails then you’re in for a treat. Artesian under Alex Kratena (who left in October 2015) was a perfect model of how to integrate mocktails into a menu. There, the drinks were listed alongside their boozy siblings and were just as flavoursome and exciting, to the point where the only flag that they were alcohol-free was the price – if only more bars would approach the issue with such finesse and style.
In London today, one bar rules supreme on this topic – the award-winning Dandelyan on the South Bank, which is a paradise of great bartending and cocktails. Flip to the back of its menu and you’ll discover four outstanding booze-free drinks which are balanced, elegant and tasty. These include:
- The Bradsell: a coffee concoction which mixes cold-brew Square Mile coffee, malt syrup and chai spices
- Peaches and Spilt Cream: a long and easy tipple of whey syrup, peach shrub, ginger and soda
- Apple Sourz-less: a refreshing combination of apple, Dandelyan capillaire, rye and acid
- Wild Thing: Seedlip, ylang ylang and Dandelyan herbal tonic.
The last drink has an ingredient that is transforming the mocktail world. Seedlip is a non-alcoholic distilled ‘spirit’. It’s a clear liquid made with botanicals, and is slightly tannic, bitter even, with plenty of large flavours – the only thing it lacks is a big punch of alcohol. It’s delicious served long with tonic, short with olive brine or substituted into many gin-based cocktails. There’s no sugar or sweeteners, and 50ml contains just 0.2 calories.
Mayfair’s Sexy Fish is another venue in London which has put a lot of thought behind its offering , and one which has also made use of Seedlip in its SeedSide, which mixes Seedlip Green Garden, lime juice, sugar, mint and soda water.
Whatever your reason for abstaining in January, or even February, July or December, there are ways around sweet and fruity mocktails. If you find yourself out with friends in a small cocktail bar which doesn’t specify non-alcoholic drinks, then you’ll need to take charge and explain what you want. You may just discover a new favourite drink which, at the end of your detox, could always have the booze added back in. Just a suggestion…
Jane Ryan is editor of DrinkUp.London – a daily-changing website showcasing the very best of the capital’s drinks scene.