I love cocktails. I adore a dirty martini with extra olives served in a glass so cold I leave fingerprints on its frosted surface. I deeply appreciate an old fashioned with peach bitters (orange bitters are so passe), a touch of maple syrup and an Amarena cherry. If the restaurant serves it from a smoke-filled bottle, so much the better. I’m all for theatrical flair when it comes to tipple. And let me just say, if I’m going to pay $15 for a cocktail, it had jolly well better come with some flair.
Any reasonable person would point out that I could buy a whole bottle of fairly drinkable bourbon for the price of a single restaurant cocktail and make my own old fashioneds at home. Well, I do! When we have a dinner party, I relish creating alcoholic concoctions for guests. I get experimental, building adult libations from herb-infused spirits, homemade simple syrups and food-grade essential oils. (Note to novice mixers: a little bit of peppermint oil goes a long way. One guest dubbed her minty cocktail “The Ter-mint-ator” and declared it was like getting a year’s worth of toothpaste in one sip. Eh, not my best work.)
But the sorrowful fact is, I don’t often imbibe with my guests. My propensity for migraines has overtaken my ability to metabolize alcohol. Even so much as half a beer is enough to trigger a three-day headache that prescription medication can ease but not eradicate. It severely cramps my sophisticated, lady-about-town style.
Then I discovered the mocktail. It’s the obvious choice for someone who declines to have alcohol and many restaurants put them right on the cocktail list. However, I resisted on the grounds that mixed drinks seem terminally unexciting without the all-important booze element. When my husband took me out to celebrate my birthday earlier this year, I finally relented. I asked for a mocktail and the server returned with a highball glass containing a splendid mixture of grapefruit juice and lavender syrup with some other wonderfully mysterious ingredients, garnished with a blood orange twist and a fresh lavender sprig. I was captivated.
Since then, I’ve been ordering mocktails everywhere. Last week I had the most scrumptious pina colada-inspired drink with coconut milk, fresh pineapple and citrus juices garnished with toasted coconut shavings and a single blue pansy. At another restaurant, I had a refreshing lime-and-cranberry combination served with a bright orange chrysanthemum. I’m not saying that I wasn’t slightly envious of the purple martini my seatmate was enjoying; I’m just saying that my mocktail helped me feel less deprived. It turns out that all I need to feel fabulous is something pretty in a cocktail glass.
So what makes a mocktail? Is it any beverage served in place of a cocktail? No, it is not. A glass of juice or seltzer is not a mocktail. A chilled tumbler of juice, seltzer and flavored syrup with a garnish is a mocktail. The goal of a mocktail is to make you feel just as special as all the other tipsy people around the table, with the added benefit that, after two mocktails, you’ll still be able to pronounce “prosthetic.” Mocktails are also less expensive than cocktails, though not by much. They’ll run you $8 to $13 in most places, especially if they feature housemade syrups or other hard-to-source ingredients like prickly pear juice or kumquats preserved in fermented sparrow drool. Honestly, I prefer my kumquats pickled in shark’s tears.
You don’t need a bartender or a degree in mixology to be an exceptional mocktail maker. All you need are standard cocktail mixers like juice, seltzer or soda, syrups and fresh garnishes. Over time, you can collect more interesting additives like extracts, concentrates, food-grade oils, botanical waters and drinking vinegars. When creating a mocktail, you’re only limited by your imagination and your willingness to treat your guest as the unwitting subjects of your little experiments.
There are three principles to follow when making mocktails at home. The first is contrast — play opposing flavors off each other, like sweet against tart, or create unexpected combinations like rosemary and rose. Don’t allow any one element to dominate the others, but aim for a tasty tension. The second is simplicity — highlight just two or three main flavors, though the drink may contain several ingredients. The third is ABG, or Always Be Garnishing — a garnish should surprise and delight. It may offer a visual hint as to the drink’s contents or it may simply be pleasant to behold, if not strictly edible. (Best to make it non-toxic, I suppose.)
The waning summer is an excellent time to lift your spirits (if you’ll pardon the ironic pun) with a refreshing, eye-pleasing drink that’s as fancy as you can make it. Here are two mocktail recipes that will encourage you to jump right on the mocktail train and tip your hat to the conductor. If you just can’t stand a boozeless beverage, I’ve added suggestions for punching up the proof.
Chill two tumblers. Put ¼ cup ripe blackberries and three fresh basil leaves into the bottom of each tumbler. Muddle them with ½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger in each glass. Add crushed ice and fill with ginger ale or, for a spicier kick, ginger beer. Garnish with two fresh blackberries and a basil leaf skewered onto a swizzle stick. To make it a cocktail, add a jigger of rum to each glass.
Chill two coupe glasses. Mix 1 tablespoon sugar with 1 tablespoon coconut flakes and 1 teaspoon of lime zest in a shallow saucer; set aside. Into a large cocktail shaker, pour 1 cup coconut milk, 2 tablespoons Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice, 2 teaspoons rose water and the juice of half a lime. Shake vigorously with ice. Dip the rims of the cold coupe glasses into the sugar mixture and place 1 teaspoon of the mixture into the bottom of each glass. Pour drink into glasses and garnish with a rose blossom. To make it a cocktail, add 2 jiggers of coconut vodka to the shaker.
Now kick back, take a sip and practice saying “prosthetic.”