Departure Gonggong mocktail

Ever since mocktails emerged as part of contemporary culinary vernacular, enterprising restaurateurs have jumped on the non-alcoholic beverage bandwagon. At $5 apiece, a virgin Bloody Mary and berry-infused soda water can mean a 30-percent increase to a $30 two-top dinner bill.

The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel’s Katharine Brasserie in Winston-Salem is one of the North Carolina city’s most popular gathering place. The building is the old R.J. Reynolds headquarters, which thrived back when three-martini lunches and tobacco ruled the day. These days, food and beverage director Michael Harris has mastered connecting guests with virgin beverages.

“In the last 10 years or so, non-alcoholic beverages have come a long way from strictly fizzy sodas and teas to the classic Shirley Temples with the ubiquitous, syrupy sweet maraschino cherries,” says Harris. “Ours work off the same scientific principles of balancing ingredients just like traditional, alcohol-based cocktails, plus offering them to a table is a great way for the restaurant to bond with guests.”   

Gaby Samba Sofitel mocktail
Samba mocktail at Gaby Brasserie Francaise

Harris has two suggestions as to how servers can inspire orders – first that the push makes sense for the target demographic, and, second, that drinks reflect the restaurant.

“The Katharine is a French brasserie, so it is a good fit for us to have a lemon lavender sparkling mocktail,” he says. “Provide your staff with a list of ingredients, explain any exotic elements and then demonstrate how the bar staff prepares the drink. And, of course, include the tactile experience of a tasting.”

Guests can tell when a service staff member can’t properly explain food or drink items, believes Harris, who also likes to incentivize his staff through sales rewards with prizes as simple as an entrée of their choosing. At Cindy’s in Chicago, spirit guide Nandini Khaund has a thought-provoking approach to creating non-alcoholic beverages.

“Ours are designed to complement the food from Cindy’s chef de cuisine Keith Potter’s menu, so I always weave in fresh garnishes that complement the season and that the beverage tell a story,” says Khaund, who features specialty coffees, tea, virgin cocktails, refreshing carbonated beverages and housemade herbal waters. “One of my favorites is the refreshing Reanimator non-alcoholic cocktail, made with activated charcoal, blueberry, ginger, demerara, and lime. The activated charcoal gives the drink an inky color and is known for detoxifying benefits.”

reanimater drink special
Reanimator mocktail at Cindy’s. Photo Credit: Nick Gerber

Oceane Galtie, food and beverage manager of Gaby Brasserie Française in Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel has seen an uptick in the healthy beverage trend, specifically among business guests and families. In the case of the unpretentious Gaby Brasserie, it gives servers the chance to promote the Gaby’s De-Light menu.  

“At Sofitel New York, it is a priority that children are well taken care of and part of that is making sure there are healthy alternatives to soft drinks plus our guests traveling on business and entertaining may not drink alcohol every day,” says Galtie. “Some of our favorite De-Light beverages include the Roland Garros, which we make with housemade cucumber and apple shrub, fresh lime juice and Perrier; and the Samba with pineapple and lime juice, Splenda and club soda.”

Upstairs at The Kimberly Hotel sales and events director Jordana Maurer gives attentive consideration to guests who may be sober, pregnant, health conscious, driving or waking up for an early meeting the next day.

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“Non-alcoholic beverages are extremely popular as people become aware of healthful ingredients – ours are just as tasty and sophisticated, but better for you,” says Maurer. “We serve the Pennsylvania Dutch in a martini glass prepared with raspberry shrub, twist of lemon and Seedlip Spice 94, the first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, while our Electrolyte contains muddled watermelon, pineapple juice, a splash of lemon juice and club soda, garnished with a watermelon wedge.”

Don’t forget to use sophisticated glassware and unique garnishes in virgin cocktails, says Maurer, who trains servers to infuse the same level of service and quality as they do for alcoholic counterparts.

Upstairs at Kimberly Electrolyte mocktail
Electrolyte mocktail at Upstairs at The Kimberly Hotel

Christopher Becker, St. Regis Aspen Resort’s director of food and beverage, says non-alcoholic drinks can also fill in for desserts and serve as a flavor compliment to a meal.

“Be creative for today’s discerning guests and don’t be afraid to cross-utilize ingredients,” says Becker. “The ginger syrup you’re using for the cool Sidecar variation you’re doing will work just as well in a non-alcoholic mule, for example.”

Becker advises it’s easy to miss a fundamental part of the taste profile after removing a distinctive spirit, so he gravitates toward towards herb-based savory sodas.

“There’s something really fun about drinking a carbonated beverage with complex flavor balances and no real sweetness to speak of, which ends up having a refreshing result rather than a tooth pain-inducing result like a lot of mocktails out there,” says Becker. “I rather enjoy a grapefruit and rosemary spritzer during warmer months, definitely a nice beverage on a warm and sultry afternoon.”

Yu the Great Departure mocktail
Yu the Great mocktail at Departure Restaurant & Lounge

At Departure Restaurant & Lounge, senior restaurant manager Samantha Azarow crafts a number of drinks that pair with food to create a synergy with the menu, but she has always been drawn to tea in particular.

“Specialty blends and various leaves are exciting, but to me it’s also what one can do with tea, so I make tea extracts to flavor sodas, blend various types to create specialty hot and iced offerings, and make tea syrups to add complexity to non-alcoholic cocktails,” says Azarow. “The world of tea is so expansive and because Departure has a culinary program deeply rooted in Asian cuisine, tea lends to our story.”

Consider it the perfect pairing for tipplers and teetotalers alike.

Written by   |  
Kelly Merritt has been specializing in freelance culinary travel writing since 1999. Her work has appeared in Southern Living, Forbes Travel, Plate Magazine, OpenTable, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, South Magazine and Florida Weekly. She is the author of "The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel" (Simon and Schuster) and the novel "FLIGHT" about the adventures of fictitious travel writer Kate Carrington. In her career Kelly has written about many famous faces including Oscar de la Renta, Larry King, Tim Tebow, Kenny Chesney, Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, design superstar Colin Cowie, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and bestselling authors Heather Graham, Kathy Reichs and Sandra Brown, among numerous others. Kelly curates a partial collection of her articles which number in the thousands at PotluckLife.com along with her author website, KellyMerrittBooks.com.