In Austin, a growing queue of talented mixologists is catering to patrons who want to enjoy the cutting-edge food, atmosphere and sophistication of our nightlife, but either can’t, or choose not to, include alcohol in the mix. Enter the “mocktail.”
One of the spike-less offerings that’s gained renewed popularity in recent years is the Prohibition-era drink, the shrub. Traditionally, a shrub is made from fruit vinegar and simple syrup topped off with sparkling water. Versions of it can be found around town at restaurants such as Launderette, Vinaigrette, The Hightower and Dai Due, where shrubs are seasonally inspired to include Texas-sourced ingredients, including lime, beets and hoja santa (an aromatic herb often used in Mexican cuisine).
Part of the shrub’s charm is its versatility and fruity vinegar kick, but you don’t have to be a fan of vinegar to enjoy a great nonalcoholic mocktail. The trick is as much about sensation as it is taste. Kevin Liu, a writer for the website Serious Eats, says the key to a great mocktail is to consider some of the ways alcohol affects our senses, then replicate those elements to mimic the sensations. The first and most famous of these is the alcohol “burn.” If you’ve ever sipped strong liquor or done a shot, you’re familiar with the pleasant, flowering heat that’s created as the drink travels down the throat. To mimic this burn, Liu recommends adding ginger or hot chilies. Either can be boiled into a liquid concentrate or simple syrup, muddled into a shaker or juiced. Fresh ginger juice has a spicier, slightly more bitter kick than boiled ginger, which is mellower and a little sweet. Both add considerable flavor and warm-belly burn to a mocktail.
Alcohol also lends an astringency and sometimes bitterness to a drink, which can be expressed via bitters (there are excellent bitters produced locally using local ingredients, such as the ¡Salud! line), a variety of vegetal tannins such as over-steeped black or green tea or boiled allspice berries or citrus rinds. And to replicate the pleasantly woody and smoky qualities present in some types of alcohol like whiskey, Liu uses a faux “barrel-aged” simple syrup made from a kit. There are also flavored wooden rods like Time and Oak’s Whiskey Elements that are intended for flavoring whiskey, but can be dropped into any liquid and allowed to infuse the liquid with flavor. Liu’s “barrel-aged” cherry soda is slightly astringent, slightly sweet and has just a hint of aged-whiskey flavor, but none of the alcohol. And a Whiskey Element rod was used in a jug of strong iced tea to create the refreshing “Annie Palmer”.
According to Jessica Sanders, co-owner of Drink.Well. and Backbeat, the goal with any nonalcoholic beverage is to preserve the flavor and texture of its boozy cousin. “All too often,” she says, “mocktails lack the body and complexity of their full-proof counterparts. Or worse, they’re laden with sugary juices or syrups. My approach is always to keep the end in mind—what kind of drink am I ultimately trying to emulate or recreate? If I’m trying to recreate something refreshing and light, I look for vibrant ingredients that mimic that style and would therefore steer clear of dense, heavy flavors.” If entertaining at home, impress your guests with some of these alternatives to the typical dinner party cocktail menu. Nothing says “deft host” like surprising a guest with selections or accommodations they weren’t expecting.
by Laura McKissack • Photography by Alison Narro