Make Mine a Mocktail

As non-alcoholic drinks surge in popularity, mocktails and other zero-proof libations are finally graduating from the kids menu to take their rightful place as a drink of choice.

June 14, 2024 | | Food

Behind the bar at Greystones Restaurant & Lounge in Orangeville, a bartender pours an ice-cold, citrusy concoction from his shaker with a flourish and garnishes the lowball glass with a generous mound of sprouts. Until recently, there would be no doubt that gin, vodka, rum or tequila was one of the liquids in that shaker.

Today, in the era of the mocktail, all bets are off. That drink is called Garden of Steve and features a non-alcoholic spirit, called Seedlip Garden, made from green peas and garden herbs. With patio season upon us, expect to see similar refreshing booze-free options on more cocktail menus and in backyard barbecue coolers.

greystones orangeville
At Greystones Restaurant & Lounge, the cocktail list includes sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks, including the Garden of Steve (left) and Faux Spritz. Photography by Elaine Li, Crave & Capture.

Where there was once a choice of a kid-friendly but saccharine Shirley Temple or an uninspired soda with a sad wedge of lime, now designated drivers and other non-drinkers are fuelling a booming demand for complex, layered drinks with the flavour and panache of “real” cocktails. That depth comes courtesy of savoury syrups, citrus peel, tart juices, flavoured sodas, fragrant herbs and non-alcoholic versions of gin, rum and other spirits distilled with just as much care as their inspirations.

“Bars and restaurants are fast realizing that we need to offer patrons something sophisticated that isn’t just juice or soda,” says Brittany Pierson, the front-of-house manager at Mono Cliffs Inn in Mono Centre. “Earlier this year we noticed a lot of our guests were doing Dry January and Dry February, so we had a lot of fun coming up with new and interesting drinks without using any alcohol.”

Brittany Pierson of Mono Cliffs Inn shares her Blueberry Garden mocktail.

The Cliffs’ new mainstay is the Blueberry Garden, says Brittany, a certified sommelier who curates the restaurant’s wine list and quarterly tasting dinners. “We take fresh rosemary, muddle it with fresh blueberries and lemon syrup made in-house, and top it with sparkling water. And of course, when it’s served in a beautiful glass it tastes even better.”

Getting in the Spirit

At Orangeville’s Revival 1863, a speakeasy-style lounge with a “secret” entrance through the Barley Vine Rail Co., mixologist Karolina Wojcik offers libations such as the Cucumber Green Tea Collins made with zero-proof “gin” and the lavender, hibiscus and butterfly pea flower-infused When in Rome – as well as non-alcoholic beers and sparkling wine.

“We take our drinks very seriously here, whether alcoholic or not,” owner Angela Ward says. “When someone says they ‘just want a pop,’ we discreetly pass them our mocktail menu and they’re excited to see so many options. We’re a cocktail bar, so we don’t want to have that one person sitting there feeling left out. It’s important to ensure people who don’t drink also have something gorgeous in a glass to enjoy.”

Karolina serves her creations in snazzy glassware, unique goblets and British teacups, garnished with eye-catching edible flowers, boba (tapioca pearls more commonly used in bubble tea), candied bacon or bruléed orange. A similar ethos reigns at Babbo Wine Bar & Patio at Hockley Valley Resort, where fresh herbs such as basil, mint or rosemary are accompanied by “citrus twists and edible flowers like hibiscus or pansies to transform a mocktail into a visual masterpiece,” says spokesperson Shannon Smith. She shared with us the bar’s recipe for their Blackberry Mule, which gets its fizz from ginger beer.

mocktail recipes
At left, Babbo Wine Bar & Patio’s Blackberry Mule, and at right, a Cucumber Green Tea Collins from Revival 1863.

And back at Greystones, restaurant partner Benn Froggett says the bar team takes their mocktails very seriously. “It’s all about balancing the flavours and creating an experience that celebrates the drink’s ingredients without the need for alcohol. We want our mocktails to be just as enjoyable as our cocktails.” Be sure to see their recipe for the Aperol Spritz dupe, the Faux Spritz.

Local Libations

Several local entrepreneurs are making it easy to replicate this experience at home too. Former brewer Dave Hennig, of Orangeville’s Headwaters Beverage Company, offers non-alcoholic concoctions teeming with flavours such as herbes de Provence, teas, lemongrass, sea salt, mango and goldenberry. His Burst drink is made with sparkling hop water. “People ask if I want to go back to traditional brewing, but to be honest, I’m having a lot of fun doing this. The world is my oyster in terms of flavours. I’m not trying to copy a beer or a cocktail. These drinks are completely original.”

At GoodLot Farm & Farmstead Brewing Co. in Caledon, owners Phil and Gail Winters are launching a new non-alcoholic option this summer featuring spicy organic Jamaican ginger. It complements their popular Trellis Hop Fizz, a zero-alcohol, zero-sugar, dry-hopped sparkling water made with hops grown on the farm. Their growing zero-proof lineup both meets the demand in the market and keeps their on-farm service safe. “Because we’re in a remote location in the countryside, almost everyone has to drive here to hang in our beer gardens or barn,” explains Phil. “We started the Trellis Hop Fizz project because we wanted to offer drinks made with 100 per cent on-farm ingredients that could be enjoyed by everyone, and not just beer drinkers. We carry non-alcoholic offerings to ensure everyone can wet their whistle and have a good time.”

Also in Caledon, Spirit Tree Estate Cidery serves three kinds of sparkling “soft” cider – Sparkling Apple, Sparkling Crabapple and Sparkling Pear – all pressed on-site. Heartwood Farm & Cidery in Erin sells artisanal, farm-crafted strong ciders, but three years ago Kieran Klassen, whose family runs the business, says the trend toward sober challenges spurred them to create a non-alcoholic sparkling cider, Sparkle Organic Apple. Kieran says their tart new flavour, Sparkle Sour Cherry, will “remind people that the wonderful world of craft drinks isn’t limited to products containing alcohol.”

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  • In Mulmur, Ontario Honey Creations now sells a lip-smacking Honey Soda alongside their popular mead. Bolton’s The Tipsy Neighbour Beverages offers mocktail-adjacent “spirit infusion jars” in flavours such as Canadian Rum Punch, Pineapple Orange Mojito and Tropical Sunrise. Packed with loose dried fruits, spices and herbs, the blends are used to infuse juice or soda in the fridge for three days. (And, yes, they can also be spiked with alcohol after the fact.)

    One Ontario-based must-try is Sobrii 0-Gin, made nearby in Stratford and sold locally at Scandi-chic shop Lagom 172 in Creemore, where they mix slender gin and tonic highballs for openings in their gallery space north of the main shop. Sobrii is also available at Maple Grove Farm in Mulmur, where earlier this year market manager Sarah Cameron set up a tasting table for customers to sample.

    “When I first heard about non-alcoholic spirits, I was really sceptical,” Sarah said that day as she poured tiny cups of pretty pink Palomas made with a spicy zero-proof Sobrii tequila and grapefruit juice. “I wondered if you were going to stop drinking, why spend money on fake alcohol when you can just have a soda? But now I get it. People are really surprised when they taste this. It’s like having a real drink, but without the calories, the hangover or the Uber drive!” Sarah says the zero-proof gin continues to be a hit, along with new offerings from other Canadian brands.

    Even the owners of the new Creemore wine shop and bar Chin Chin, Kieran Coyne and Tammy Yiu, opted to focus on non-alcoholic wines for their very first event in late May. They served six zero-proof options from Italian label Prima Pavé and Australia’s NON.

    “Whether it’s got alcohol or not, it should really be about enjoying the taste of your drink and how it goes with your food,” says Tammy. “Even if you don’t drink, you still want the shared experience of sitting at a nice table, with the glow of candlelight, the flowers, eating good food, listening to music, holding a beautiful glass, having a toast with friends – that’s what’s actually important. It’s not about the drink. It’s about giving people options so they can still be part of the fun.”

    The Decline of Drinking

    So who exactly is not drinking and why? According to Statistics Canada almost a quarter of adult Canadians don’t drink at all, and the percentage of Canadians who do drink is declining. Despite a spike during the early days of the pandemic, in 2021–2022 Canada saw its largest drop in volume of alcohol sales in more than a decade. Experts believe this is because of an increased awareness about the risks of alcohol, a more conscious attitude toward consumption, and a general movement towards focusing on health and wellness. A 2023 survey by market research company Ipsos found younger Canadians are the ones behind the decline, with more and more generation Z and millennials choosing to drink less or not at all.

    But the trend is also ageless. This year Karen, a 59-year-old resident of Caledon, took on a Dry February challenge for the first time. Her goal was to get healthier, lose a few pounds before a big vacation, and sleep better at night.

    “My husband said he’d do it with me, and then my grown kids wanted to join in and a friend got on board too,” says Karen, who asked to omit her surname for privacy. “We stocked up on a bunch of zero-proof wines, spiced rum, gin and tonics, Aperol Spritzes and coolers. There’s so many choices these days, it makes things easier, so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.”

    mocktail recipes
    A new breed of mocktails includes, from left, Blueberry Garden, Strawberry Rhubarb Soda and Vanilla Sage Paloma, all at Mono Cliffs Inn.

    Julie Elsdon-Height, a recovery coach who helps people struggling with sobriety and addiction, considers the boom in booze-free drinking “a breath of fresh air.” Julie has spent most of her life living in Orangeville, and when she stopped drinking in 2010 there were no non-alcoholic options, she says. “And quitting was not easy,” she adds. “I remember my first sober Christmas, when one evening I was wrapping gifts and suddenly just burst into tears. My husband asked what was wrong, and I told him that usually at this time I’d be relaxing, wrapping gifts and having a glass of wine. Then he went into the kitchen and mixed me a really pretty drink in a beautiful glass to help fill that gap for me.”

    The lack of alternatives led Julie to start researching mocktail recipes and drink alternatives, and self-publish her recipe book, Mocktails & More, in 2012. More than a decade later, she’s thrilled to see so many new products and the attention mixologists are giving mocktail menus. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s a sign of change that we are getting over the stigma of not drinking,” she says. “There is a pressure to drink whether we want to admit it or not. And it relieves that pressure if you already have a beautiful drink in your hand.”

    Daniel La Cute has likewise transformed a personal triumph into a beacon for others. Two years ago, while working at a brewery, he began to re-evaluate his relationship with alcohol and got interested in the world of zero-proof beverages.

    “There are tons of drinks out there, but the biggest challenge is that people don’t know where to look,” explains Daniel, an Orangeville native now based in Hamilton. “I missed the experience of simply going to the LCBO or a craft beer pub and discovering a great new drink. So I decided to offer premium craft experiences through an online subscription service that could be delivered across Canada.”

    Daniel launched Free Bar in 2022 and stocks a wide range of non-alcoholic drinks from Canada – including those from Headwaters Beverage Co. and Heartwood Farm & Cidery – as well as the United States and Europe. In the two years he’s been at it, he’s seen interest from consumers who are sober, sober curious, or just interested in cutting back. He described an increasingly popular practice called “zebra striping,” where you control your alcohol intake by alternating between a “real” drink and a non-alcoholic one.

    “People’s preferences are changing, and we always refer to it as a movement rather than a trend. Trends come and go, and this one is here to stay,” Daniel says. “For us, it’s not about dissuading people from drinking. What we’re preaching is that there are other alternatives so you can find something new, and find something that you love to drink.”

    About the Author More by Emily Dickson

    Emily Dickson is a writer and editor living in Orangeville.

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