Shirley temples filled with maraschino cherries and virgin pina coladas are finding some competition at beaches everywhere as more restaurants and bars jump on the sober-curious wagon. The options blend sophisticated ingredients, modern techniques, and zero-proof spirits that rival boozy alternatives for style and flavor.
According to research by Nielsen, the desire for more conscientious drinking options, from abstaining completely to alternating no-alcohol drinks and regular strength cocktails, comes in response to younger generations looking for healthier alternatives when imbibing. IWSR Drinks Market Analysis reported in 2022, “Sales of no- and low-alcohol beverages grew by more than 7% across global markets, surpassing $11 billion in market value.”
As more bars and restaurants respond to this market shift with a wave of nonalcoholic menus, enjoying the sun and the sand without alcohol has gotten a lot easier.
In March 2023, Lily Hall (a once abandoned church, now a boutique hotel) made its Pensacola, Florida, debut. In the alley beside the hotel, a vintage rotary telephone hangs outside a door with the instructions “Don’t knock, use phone” emblazoned. The sultry space’s interior, lit by candles and red light, evokes images of Prohibition’s illicit underground bars and classic cocktail culture. Creative beverages populate the menu, but bar manager A.J. Galecki also ensures some equally inspiring nonalcoholic options had space.
“The alcohol-free cocktail movement has been exploding in the last few years and seems to get bigger every year as more people are discovering they can still enjoy interesting cocktails without the booze. We want to offer people more than just sodas or “fancy lemonade,” so we stock a few alcohol-free spirits, including Kentucky 74, which uses a reverse distillation process to make a non-alcoholic bourbon replacement. We pair that with peach bitters, a rich demerara syrup, and our large format ice cubes that are cut and stamped in-house, to deliver a delicious booze-free Old Fashioned,” says Galecki.
Just a few years ago, this level of craft in a zero-proof beverage would not have been possible, but today, the field of non-alcoholic spirits and the meticulous attention to detail by bartenders make complex booze-free alternatives a reality.
Visitors seeking a sober experience on the Hawaiian Island of Maui will find a dozen beverage options to imbibe near the clear blue waters of Lahaina Beach. At Pacific’o on the Beach, bartenders utilize an onsite farm for inspiration for their zero-proof cocktails. According to Bar Manager Mari Howe, “A lot of people want to try a Mai Tai when they come to Maui, so we wanted an option for people who don’t drink alcohol.” The signature drink, the Virgin Butterfly-Tai, blends pineapple, Liliko’i, macadamia nut orgeat, and fresh lime with a float of butterfly-jasmine tea, giving the drink a gorgeous ombre look that rivals a traditional Mai Tai.
For the health-conscious kombucha crowd, Pacific’o created two drinks: the Vitalitea Kombucha Restore made with Maui Gold pineapple, Kolo Kai Farms organic ginger, and turmeric, and the Vitalitea Kombucha Stardust prepared with organic hibiscus, Kolo Kai Farms organic ginger and organic blue spirulina.
For Howe, the decision to offer creative non-alcoholic beverages came out of respect for her friends who abstain.
“Some don’t drink for personal and health reasons, others are pregnant, but regardless of the reason, I want everyone to be able to come to our restaurant and know we put just as much love and thought into our alcohol-free cocktails as we do our regular cocktail menu,” said Howe.
And if you’re looking for the trendy Aeperol Spritz, she has you covered with Pacific’o’s whimsically titled “Not and Aperol Spritz.” Howe uses Giffard’s Aperitif Syrup, formulated to resemble the flavors of Campari. It feels and tastes just as chic and grown-up as the original.
Inclusivity tops the reasons why restaurants and bars develop zero-proof menus. According to head bartender Matthew Veronesil at Willa’s in Tampa, Florida, “Guests looking for non-alcoholic alternatives should be able to enjoy a mixed drink that is balanced and delicious, whether or not spirits are included.” His latest addition to the menu, “Cool As A,” utilizes their house tonic—a blend of lavender, cardamom, and cinchona bark, steeped for three days—as a base and is mixed with homemade cucumber syrup and fresh lime juice. It’s a refreshing summer sipper that doesn’t sacrifice quality or complexity for booze.
As bartenders will attest, creating zero-proof/spirit-free drinks requires the same level of craft as traditional cocktails. Many start with a quality non-alcoholic spirit and then the flavor is built from there, all while balancing acidity, sweetness, texture, and salinity. At Common Thread in Savannah, Georgia, bar manager James Nowicki builds drinks reminiscent of the classics like the Bandito—their n/a version utilizes a zero-proof cucumber, serrano, and lemon distillate (Amethyst from Bluffton, SC) mixed with fresh lime and orange juices to simulate the original and tap into a customer’s nostalgia for the cocktail.
Experimentation and fearlessness with mixology is the backbone of the nonalcoholic program at Corazón Cabo Resort & Spa in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. According to marketing coordinator Igrayne Landeros, they are not afraid to try new ingredients or techniques to come up with a delicious recipe that will make a wide range of customers feel included in the cocktail experience. Nobody wants to be the one at the table who feels left out, and often alcoholic beverages are equated with celebrating. Whether the choice to abstain from alcohol has to do with sobriety, pregnancy, healthier alternatives, or you’re the designated driver, you still want to feel like you are part of the crowd, not the afterthought glass of soda water with a wedge of lime.
For restaurants and bars, developing zero-proof menus that include mindful, creative drinks represents a nod to the generation of drinkers who demand something complex and delicious, even when it’s not boozy. Crafting a collection of housemade tinctures and syrups, while stocking inventive zero-proof spirits, allows bartenders the flexibility to concoct a libation that pairs with a Michelin-starred meal, complements a relaxing day on the beach, or provides sophisticated “travelers” with something after strolling the streets of coastal cities at night, no booze necessary.
It’s not enough to populate a drink menu with creative nonalcoholic options. These days, bartenders are upping the game with garnishes sourced hyper-locally and crafted into visual works of art. For Howe, it’s the knowledge that people drink with their eyes first; if a drink looks beautiful, it feels special.
At Pacific’o on the Beach, the farm plays a big part in their garnishes. Nasturtiums, Marigolds, and Dianthus grown on-site bring seasonality to the drinks. Iconic Hawaiian pineapple makes appearances in many of the menu offerings, but also as a garnish. “We love to use the pineapple fronds for a pop of green. It’s nice to give the fronds a second life rather than throwing them out,” says Howe. They also use dehydrated fruit, like the small oranges hanging on the fruit trees outside the restaurant, giving the citrus a longer life when in abundance while keeping waste at a minimum.
For Veronesil, garnishes can be a tricky enterprise. “I love a simple garnish to elevate the cocktail and not get in the way of it. Cross-utilizing ingredients that are already used in the drink is a way I tie things together.” The pineapple gum syrup made in-house yields an earthy core, which is then dehydrated and used as a garnish.
One of the biggest trends of the classic cocktail boom over the last few years is intricate ice work. At spots like Sister Hen, ice is hand-cut to order and then embossed with logos and designs, creating another visual spectacle in the glass. Some watering holes even include a bit of honeycomb in their Bees Knees sourced from a local apiary or you might be greeted with sprigs of lavender grown in window boxes outside the bar.
Whatever the garnish, the drink’s finishing touch is no longer just a plastic sword of cherries. It is an extension of the drinking experience and another avenue for restaurants and bars to showcase their dedication to sourcing locally and move towards a more zero-waste model while curating one more way for guests to eat with their eyes.
¾ oz Macadamia Nut Orgeat
¾ oz Pineapple Liliko’i (passion fruit) syrup
½ oz Fresh Lime Juice
3 oz Filtered Water
Float of *Butterfly* Jasmine Tea
Instructions for Butterfly Jasmine tea:
1. Add 1 gram of dried butterfly pea blossoms to 1 bag of jasmine green tea.
2. Let steep for 3-4 minutes then strain. Butterfly pea tea starts out naturally bright blue but turns purple when it touches citrus!
Instructions for a single drink:
1. Add all your ingredients to a tall glass, add ice, then float the butterfly jasmine tea.
**For a larger batch, you can convert the oz to cups.
1 oz Giffard non-alcoholic syrup
.5 oz Jack Rudy tonic syrup
.25 oz lemon juice
.125 oz 2:1 simple syrup
Approximately 5 dashes of Bitter Truth celery bitters
1. In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients and shake. Pour over ice.
2. Stir a pinch of salt and top with Topo Chico seltzer
3. Garnish with a celery stick and a sprinkle of celery salt
“The Kat’s Cradle is a bitter, crisp, refreshing zero-proof cocktail that is inspired by old-school celery soda that is often found in delis.” – James Nowicki
1 ½ cup of papaya puree
1 oz mango puree
1 ½ cup fresh pineapple juice
1 ½ cup orange juice
3 lemon wedges
1. Place the papaya and mango purees into a cocktail shaker. Add pineapple and orange juice, squeeze the lemon, and shake well.
2. Dip the rim of a highball glass into lemon juice and then into the Tajín powder. Poor the beverage and add ice.
3. Garnish with a pineapple wedge.
4 macerated strawberries
2 oz fresh pineapple juice
½ oz citrus lemon juice
½ oz cinnamon syrup
2 oz natural coconut water
1. Place the strawberries in a cocktail shaker. Add the pineapple juice, citrus lemon juice, cinnamon syrup, and coconut water, and shake well with ice.
2. Pour into a martini glass. Garnish with a rose petal and shredded coconut.