Even before the pandemic shuttered restaurants and bars, Americans — particularly Millennials and Gen Zers — were drinking less alcohol than in decades past. Whether you cite health factors, cost, changing social norms, or any other reason, the fact remains that booze doesn’t have the same cultural sway it once did. Bars and beverage makers are recognizing this and providing all kinds of new choices in the way of delicious mocktails and other very drinkable non-alcoholic options. Teetotalers are having their day in the sun!
At home, though, it doesn’t seem as common to whip up a mocktail as to just grab a soda out of the fridge. This is likely because the end result of DIY mocktail mixology often doesn’t seem worth the effort. A non-alcoholic drink is indeed a tough thing to get just right and can turn out a little lackluster. Since cocktails get much of their flavor from spirits, how do you replicate it — or at least the feel and feeling of it — without that foundation?
In the last few months I’ve done extensive experimenting at home in order to make a better mocktail for my wife, who is pregnant with our third child. We’ve long enjoyed having an evening cocktail after the kids are in bed, but with her first two pregnancies, I admittedly didn’t try real hard to supply a substitute for these nightcaps, offering her a fancy soda instead. But this time around, with a little more cocktail knowledge in my back pocket, I figured I’d try a little harder to take things up a notch. And through trial, error, and tweaking, I’ve hit upon the perfect recipe.
The key to its success is using the same standard “formula” that cocktails are built with: a base flavor (in a cocktail that’s the liquor), a modifier/mixer that builds on the foundation, and a garnish or final flourish.
With a strong and flavor-packed base, a well-sourced mixer or two, and a garnish, you can create a mocktail that captures the balance of flavors, the mouthfeel, and even the aesthetic of a true cocktail.
How to Make the Perfect Mocktail
The first key to creating the perfect mocktail is treating its preparation and presentation just as you would any other cocktail. Measure the ingredients, use a fancy oversized ice cube, and serve the drink in a quality cocktail glass. Don’t just carelessly throw ingredients together into a plastic cup. The care taken in the creation and look of a mocktail contributes mightily to its enjoyment. If you approach it like you would any other cocktail, you’re primed to enjoy the experience all the more.
As with any recipe, food or drink, it all starts with quality ingredients. Let’s look at the three components of the perfect mocktail.
Base: simple syrup. Rather than starting with a spirit, we’re using a flavored syrup as the foundation of the drink. In its most basic form, simple syrup is sugar dissolved in water at a 1:1 ratio. Most modern cocktail recipes utilize simple syrup of some sort, often flavored. Some of my favorites include vanilla, mint, and blackberry ginger. The flavor combinations are limited only by your imagination and palate. Any number of flavored syrups can be bought online or at your local liquor store, or they can easily be made at home.
Your best bet for a mocktail is something fruity that also has a hint of herb or bitter. You don’t necessarily want to go entirely on the sweet side.
Modifier/Mixer: tonic, ginger beer, or other NA beverage.
In a traditional cocktail, the “modifier” ingredient (or ingredients — it doesn’t have to be just one) is anything that modifies or builds on the flavor of the base. In an alcoholic beverage, this could be a liqueur, simple syrup, juice, soda/tonic, etc. In a mocktail, you should go with something that has some bitterness or bite to it so that it offsets the inevitable sweetness of the syrup. Tonic and ginger beer (not ginger ale) are the go-tos in our household; the quinine in tonic is an excellent bittering agent and the real ginger in a quality ginger beer adds a delicious spiciness to a mocktail.
Quality mixers make a difference when it comes to mocktails. In a drink that has liquor, something like Schweppes is just fine, but since the mixer needs to pull its weight a little more here, and since you’re saving money by not buying booze, it’s worth getting something higher-caliber than the sodas you’d find in a convenience store. In the tonic department, that means splurging for a quality brand like Fever Tree or Q; if you like your ginger extra spicy, try Cock & Bull or Bundaberg.
There are other NA beverages out there — Gruvi makes a tasty dry prosecco that can be used as a mixer, Lagunitas has a fun drink that they call Hop Water (basically a seltzer with hops added), and others are quickly hitting the market as younger generations lessen, and spurn altogether, their alcoholic intake.
If you choose something purely sweet, like a soda or an especially sugary syrup, you can also add a few dashes of bitters. Though bitters are an alcoholic product, it’s such a small dosage as to be unrecognizable by most. That said, a recovering alcoholic might understandably choose to avoid even that amount.
Garnish: citrus (and sometimes an herb). The acid of a citrus wedge perfectly complements the sweet of the syrup and the bitter/spicy of your mixer. Whether it’s a lime, orange, lemon, or grapefruit, always squeeze as much juice out of the wedge as you can. In a cocktail, garnishes are often just for the nose — they add a strong scent to the top of the drink to help inform your taste buds about what’s coming, which means the flavor isn’t always imparted in the drink itself. In a mocktail, our garnish has a clear purpose and adds mightily to the drink.
To finish things off, I often like to add a sprig of herb. As you’re taking a sip, a hearty whiff of mint or rosemary is a great complement to the flavor of the beverage. We have herbs in our garden, making it easy to just snap off a couple inches; if you’re needing to buy your herbs, it may not be worth the cost unless it’s a special occasion.
Perfect Mocktail Recipe
- 1 oz simple syrup of your choice
- 3-4 oz tonic (or other mixer)
- Lime wedge
- Mint sprig, for garnish
The construction is a piece of cake (easier than cake, in fact): after putting a large ice cube in a cocktail glass, add the syrup and tonic, squeeze the juice from the lime wedge, and mix it all together with a bar spoon (or other small spoon). Add the herb sprig and serve.