7 Refreshing Nonalcoholic Cocktails Around NYC
Alcohol-free drinks are no longer an afterthought in many of the city’s top bars
Things were looking pretty good for alcohol-free drinking in 2019. After decades of sugary mocktails being treated as jokes, bartenders started taking nonalcoholic cocktails more seriously. Not only was it good business to offer them, they thought, but making them was also a fun, creative challenge.
During the pandemic, momentum in the space waned. Developing new nonalcoholic cocktail recipes was hardly the most pressing concern of an industry working itself to the bone in order to stay alive.
While things haven’t exactly leveled out, there is enough security for many bars and restaurants to refocus on their alcohol-free drinks — and bartenders now have a plethora of new nonalcoholic aperitifs, spirits, and other products to lean on. European brands had been ahead of the U.S. until the last two years, a time during which American-made products have been showing up strong. (This is especially true in the realms of alcohol-free beer and wine, as the technology has improved to allow for gentler dealcoholization methods.) Even the bartenders who have decidedly eschewed these bottled ingredients in favor of a fully from-scratch approach admit that tasting them got their creative wheels turning and drove them towards more innovative methods.
Here are seven of the best nonalcoholic cocktails in New York City right now.
Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; it may pose a risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial COVID transmission.
Julia Bainbridge, a writer and author of Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, is the recipient of the Research Society on Alcoholism’s 2021 Media Award and one of Food & Wine magazine’s 25 first-annual “Game Changers” for being “a pivotal voice in normalizing not drinking alcohol.”
The Amedeo at Ci Siamo
Verjus, the juice of unripened wine grapes (vert jus is French for “green juice”), is a game-changing ingredient for alcohol-free cocktails, according to bar manager Matt Chavez. The softly acidic, wine-like juice is one component of his Amedeo drink, named for Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani. Chavez is a visual person, which becomes clear upon learning not only of this eponym, but also of his commitment to developing a stirred alcohol-free drink worth seeking out amid the labyrinth-like Manhattan West development. Stirred nonalcoholic drinks are particularly challenging, as the general rule of thumb is to stir heavy, silky, spirituous ingredients, but Chavez’s rendition looks like a martini and tastes subtly floral from Amass Riverine, a nonalcoholic gin-like spirit, with chamomile and lemongrass notes from Lyre’s nonalcoholic dry vermouth. Pineapple gum syrup bumps up the drink’s body. “I wanted a clear cocktail that appeared sophisticated and like it belonged on a table in our dining room,” Chavez says.
Cucumber-yuzu agua fresca at Atla
You may not think of an agua fresca as a cocktail, but consider beverage director Yana Volfson’s approach: The water component of all of her aguas frescas is meant to add another layer of flavor, not simply to dilute fruit juice. Case in point, her cucumber-yuzu drink with palo santo-infused water, which has been on Atla’s menu for years. While the staff at Atla burns palo santo in between services — so, hit the restaurant at the right time and you might get a double dose of its woody musk — to make it ingestible, Volfson’s team also steeps it in boiling water, being careful not to let the sticks sit too long, lest the liquid turn bitter and sappy. Timed right, the infusion becomes citrusy and piney, operating almost like bitters to make the drink stand at attention and to unite the cool cucumber and floral yuzu flavors. The drink’s finishing touch? Strategically placed groupings of black basil seeds, which appear like dappled lily pads atop the drink’s ice cubes and, much like chia seeds, swell as they absorb liquid to become a not only striking but also textural garnish. “I would enter this agua into a beauty pageant if I could,” Volfson says.
The Moneyball at Death & Company
While Death & Company’s Denver and Los Angeles locations launched with alcohol-free options on their menus when they opened in 2018 and 2019, respectively, the flagship New York City location officially added them just this spring after fielding an uptick in requests for nonalcoholic drinks during the pandemic, according to head bartender Javelle Taft. At fifteen years old, Death & Company has still got it, and Taft’s four current alcohol-free cocktails may be the best and most balanced in the city. The Moneyball is a particular standout, especially given how difficult it is to create a bracing kind of beverage without alcohol. Akin to a smoked Negroni (it would be fair to liken it to a mezcal Negroni), it’s mainly a mixture of Brooklyn-based distiller St. Agrestis’ first alcohol-free product, the Phony Negroni; Pathfinder, a Fernet-esque nonalcoholic amaro made from fermented hemp; and housemade lapsang souchong tea concentrate. Taft lets the Phony Negroni — which is more like an Italian bitter soda than a Negroni — sit to remove the effervescence, while the tea concentrate acts as a smart way to bring in smoke. A little bit of passion fruit juice and vanilla syrup level things out.
Green apple soda at Overstory
Overstory’s green apple soda is the Champagne of house-made sodas. You might actually mistake it for Champagne: While it’s not served in a flute or a coupe, it tastes tart, crisp, and somehow a little bready, and it appears almost crystal clear with tiny bubbles that twinkle as they move north towards the drink’s surface. While Harrison Ginsberg, bar director for downtown Manhattan hot spots Crown Shy, Saga, and Overstory, is a fan of nonalcoholic spirits, he says that he prefers to manipulate raw ingredients instead. In this case, the soda contains simply Granny Smith apple juice, mineral water, and carbon dioxide. Ginsberg’s team achieves such surprisingly sophisticated results by clarifying the apple juice not with a centrifuge machine or Pectinex (an enzyme that breaks down the pectin within fruits and is often used by bartenders and modernist cooks) — the former, he says, would remove the trace bits of sediment that give the drink its yeasty quality and the latter would impact flavor — but by passing it through coffee filters again and again (and again). “I didn’t want to treat it with anything,” says Ginsberg. “I just really want to express what the thing is, and all it is is apples.”
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The Gungan at Sunken Harbor Club
It would make sense if you read the description of the Gungan cocktail — “very dry pineapple tonic” — on the menu of this bar above Downtown Brooklyn institution Gage & Tollner with some skepticism. The phrase sounds almost oxymoronic, as pineapple juice has a relatively high sugar content, but this deceptively simple mixture of the fruit juice, pineapple gum syrup, Tomr’s tonic water, and fresh-grated cardamom is, in fact, pineapple-y and dry. Unchecked sweetness is often a complaint made about alcohol-free drinks, especially those of the tiki variety, but head bartender Garret Richard, who worked with pro Dave Arnold at the late, great Existing Conditions, doses the pineapple juice with citric and malic acids for a refreshingly crisp result. “It brings up the acid level — in fact, you can swap it for lime juice in any of our recipes and it will hold the balance — and is a way to squeeze more pineapple into a cocktail without making it too watery or flabby,” says owner St. John Frizell.
The No-groni at Leyenda
The Negroni is one of the most popular classic cocktails to try to approximate in a nonalcoholic context, and methods vary widely. (See Death & Company above.) Leyenda head bartender Leanne Favre has stayed committed to hers since she put the No-groni on the Latin American-inflected bar’s menu a few years ago, and for good reason. It may veer slightly sweet, but bitterness is also present thanks to what Favre calls hibiscus bitter, a house-made concoction of hibiscus tea, dried gentian root, and orange peel, and the flavors are clean. Favre also uses Grove 42 in her No-groni. It’s a distilled nonalcoholic spirit made by Seedlip, a UK-based company that is responsible for helping break open the now-growing conversation about moderation, and it has notes of orange, lemon, lemongrass, and ginger. It’s a nice companion to Leyenda’s chicharrones dusted with chile piquín.
The Piney Shandy at Oxalis
Beverage director Piper Kristensen has had a way with alcohol-free drinks since Oxalis opened in late 2018, and in the years since, he’s only grown more confident in his vision — tea is foundational to the program — and in his tasteful sense of restraint. Kristensen’s current menu leans bitter, which is made possible by products such as the apéritif Ghia, made with gentian root, orange peel and rosemary. “I didn’t have the patience to work with something like gentian or wormwood myself,” says Kristensen. For the new Piney Shandy, his take on the classic combination of beer and lemonade, he uses nonalcoholic beer company Athletic Brewing’s Upside Dawn hoppy golden ale and an herbal infusion made in-house from the needles of a grand fir tree, which he turns into a syrup. He rounds it all out with orange oil and an acid blend.