The $15 Mocktail Is Here

Are booze-free drinks too expensive? Or have they secretly become awesome?

The Serendipity at Existing Conditions is a nonalcoholic mix of clarified tomato and passion fruit. Photo: Noah Fecks
The Serendipity at Existing Conditions is a nonalcoholic mix of clarified tomato and passion fruit. Photo: Noah Fecks
The Serendipity at Existing Conditions is a nonalcoholic mix of clarified tomato and passion fruit. Photo: Noah Fecks

First, let’s talk about the word mocktail. “I hate ‘mocktail,’” says Dave Arnold, who, along with Don Lee and Greg Boehm, opened Existing Conditions six weeks ago in Greenwich Village. “I don’t just not like it. I hate it.” The word is unspeakable in any good bar, the industry’s “Voldemort.” But the underlying idea — creating a nonalcoholic drink that truly mimics alcohol — is one that Arnold, Lee, Boehm, head bartender Jack Schramm, and bartender Bobby Murphy have obsessed over for months. Now, they’ve dedicated the entire first page of the bar’s menu to four cocktails, all made without alcohol. Each one costs $15.

Fifteen dollars for a glass of juice? you might think. How is this happening? Lee and Arnold, two of the most accomplished bar operators in New York City, would nix your first question — these drinks are more than just juice — and flip your second on its head: How did this take so long to happen?

In the last 15 years, cocktails have evolved at a breakneck pace. Neo-speakeasy mixology and 50/50 Martinis gave way to barrel-aged Negronis and force-carbonated Cosmos. Drinks spun in centrifuges and steeped in devices shaped like alarm clocks. Cocktails that are “milk-washed” and “fat-washed.” Cocktails made with rum that was bottled before your grandmother was born. Meanwhile, options for nondrinkers, with few exceptions, have stalled. Even at restaurants and bars that should know better, alcohol-free cocktails tend to be, according to Nicole Kwan, a 32-year-old Manhattan resident who doesn’t drink, “fancy lemonade or dressed-up ginger ale.”

“Just because you don’t drink alcohol doesn’t mean you don’t want the experience of going out to a bar, sharing a social environment, and having a drink that drinks like a bar drink, right?” Arnold says. For the team at Existing Conditions, it’s the specificity of that last idea — drinks like a bar drink — that proved elusive for so long. Each of their nonalcoholic options has been science-geeked to nail the most desirable qualities of a full-proof cocktail, delivering a complexity of flavor and texture that coats the palate and lingers long enough to keep you surprised as you drink.

Arnold and Lee are among a handful of bartenders across the country who have rededicated their energy to nonalcoholic drinks. It is not a cheap pursuit, but they hope the quality of their recipes will win over any customers who experience sticker shock when they see a nonalcoholic drink on the menu that costs more than a beer.

The best nonalcoholic drinks out there right now are a far cry from dressed-up ginger ale. At Accomplice in Los Angeles, bartender Gabriella Mlynarczyk serves a No-groni, made with citrus peels, juniper, lime, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, and gentian, to add that essential bitter flavor. At Cindy’s, a rooftop bar in Chicago, the shockingly green Pea’s No Knees is made with puréed sugar snap peas, lavender, lemon, honey, verjus, and a nonalcoholic product from England called Garden 108 that’s designed to mimic the flavor of gin.

At the Catbird Seat in Nashville, beverage director Matthew Poli offers a nonalcoholic pairing that matches step with the restaurant’s alcohol pairing. To make a “rosé,” he steeps rose flowers and hibiscus flowers in hot water; blends the liquid with juniper berries, hawthorn berries, and elderberries; strains out the particulates with a coffee filter; and adds lime and sugar, for acid and a touch of sweetness. In San Francisco, Quince’s new nonalcoholic pairing starts with a cold-brewed Korean buckwheat tea that’s carbonated, served in a flute and topped with Meyer-lemon foam, which adds acidity and mimics Champagne’s mousse.

A good spirit-free drink, says Chicago bartender Julia Momose, “shouldn’t be defined by the cocktail it is not. It should be a stand-alone, tasteful, balanced drink in and of itself.” To achieve that, these drinks are also going to cost the same as their full-proof counterparts.

This fall, Momose, along with partners Noah and Cara Sandoval, will open Kumiko, a long-anticipated restaurant and bar in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. They’ll offer a full range of drinks, including alcohol-free cocktails that will be priced out the same way as alcoholic drinks, “truly based off of cost.” She says there’s no secret to the pricing. It’s just an issue of “plugging it into a spreadsheet and figuring out what a drink costs to make, and charging accordingly.”

The Stingless at Existing Conditions, a mix of lemon, vanilla, and “carbonated Melipona honey.” Photo: Noah Fecks

At Cindy’s, the green-pea drink is $14. Existing Conditions’ non-boozy offerings cost the same $15 as everything else on the cocktail menu. “They’re actually our loss leader,” Lee says of his bar’s alcohol-free drinks. “It costs more to produce them than any of our alcoholic drinks.”

David Mor, the beverage manager at Cindy’s, agrees. “We make a smaller profit margin on the spirit-free cocktails because we don’t want to ward people off” by charging more, he says. From a mathematical standpoint, they should charge more, but they can’t.

Momose explains that “grinding, toasting, steeping, straining, adding varying amounts of sugar, and tasting every possible option — the amount of work that goes into developing a base for the spirit-free cocktails takes up a lot of time before even starting to mix with different ingredients. It’s like a brainstorm in a pan.”

Alcohol is an inelastic good — which means, like gasoline or tobacco, people will continue to buy it even as the price snakes upward — says Jon P. Nelson, a Penn State professor emeritus of economics who has published eight papers on consumers’ price tolerance for alcohol. (Elastic goods, on the other hand, see a price cap; say, if orange juice hits a price people deem outrageous, they might switch to apple.) Nonalcoholic cocktails, he predicts, will follow the trend of many new products: They will be inelastic for a while. But consumers may turn back to cheaper substitutes after sating their curiosity. “It’s fine to get the experience of one $15 mocktail, but two?” says Amanda ReCupido, a 32-year-old who stopped drinking eight months ago. “No, thank you.”

Three weeks ago, before I started reporting this story, I might have agreed with her. But after several nights of drinking liquorless drinks, I’ve seen that the ingenuity and resources required to make a truly great alcohol-free cocktail are surpassing anything else that’s happening in the bar world right now.

To help understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand Dave Arnold’s honey. A few months ago, he became fixated on Melipona honey, a thick, slightly sour honey made by tiny, stingless bees that fly around Yucatán, Mexico. “They’re small, and they get their ass kicked by European honeybees, which is why they’re endangered,” Arnold says. “I was like, ‘Get this honey! I want this honey! I’m obsessed with the idea of this honey!’” Lee, Arnold explains, took some convincing: “Don was like, ‘Dave, shut up with the honey.’” They eventually tracked down a supplier via someone’s “contacts in Yucatán,” Arnold says. (“Don was like, ‘We have a window where we can get it across the border.’”) A small, 5.3-ounce jar can cost $20 or more online. To make their nonalcoholic Stingless cocktail — “carbonated Melipona honey, clarified lemon, vanilla” — requires 19 grams (or two-thirds of an ounce) of that honey. That’s $2.50 worth of honey per drink, not allowing for any discount the bar may get on direct sourcing. For the sake of comparison, it might cost a New York bar around $1.60 to add two ounces of Beefeater to a drink that costs a customer $16. When you look at it that way, $15 for the Stingless seems fair.

Of course, justifying an expensive cocktail with an expensive ingredient only works if drinkers see the value in that ingredient. (For any sane person, a $10,000 Martini isn’t worth it just because there’s a diamond in the glass.) But for the people who visit Arnold and Lee’s bar, there is immense value in trying something they’ve never seen used in a cocktail — the reason you go is to try something that will challenge you, or teach you something new. Typically, nondrinkers have been left out of that conversation at bars. Arnold and Lee want to change that by allocating the most hard-to-find ingredients exclusively to the nonalcoholic section.

“Check this,” Arnold says. “Literally tomorrow we could decide; you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to milk-wash some gin and we’re going to do a Bee’s Knees with Melipona honey. Forty dollars a crack. We’d sell ’em like this” — he begins snapping his fingers at a rapid pace — “40, 40, 40, 40, 40, 40, 40. But I don’t want to.” (“We also don’t have enough honey,” Lee chimes in, pragmatically.) Instead, the Stingless lets nondrinkers know they’re seen. The drink is layered and balanced, with a viscosity that really does feel like a cocktail, a triumph that Arnold and Lee say took hours of R&D, playing with carbonation and sugar levels and centrifuged citrus.

You drink one and you want to see what else these people can do. Their Serendipity (also $15) is a combination of clarified tomato juice and clarified passion fruit, shaken and served over a giant ice cube with a grapefruit twist. It looks like an Old Fashioned and drinks like a liquid picnic, slowly becoming more vegetal as the drink wears on.

Lee compares his team’s nonalcoholic ambitions to the beginning of the mixology era. “Ten years ago, someone would go to Pegu Club or Milk & Honey, and the drinks were magic,” he says. But “making a cocktail is obvious if you know the formulas — it’s just plug and play. It’s Mr. Potato Head. You can swap out the gin and put in a rye, swap out the lime and put in a lemon. There must be something like that for nonalcoholics. We don’t know what that is yet.”

By now, the word wellness might be as reviled as mocktail, but the idea that people want to pay more attention to how they treat their body is very real. Statistics on drinking show that people 19 to 28 are doing less of it. After a decade of excitement over “cask-strength” whiskey and “Navy-proof” gin, low-ABV spritzes and highballs are the drinks of the summer. Zero-proof cocktails at Cindy’s in Chicago make up one of every five orders. And there has been an outpouring of eye-opening research that reveals more than ever the ways in which alcohol can ravage our bodies. As researchers at University of Michigan reported last month, death due to liver disease jumped 65 percent in the U.S. between 1999 and 2016, disproportionately affecting 25- to 34-year-olds and entirely driven by alcohol consumption. It’s getting harder to convince yourself that a glass of wine each night is actually good for you.

One bartender who’s noticed a rise in “bartenders becoming a lot more interested in what they’re doing to their health in the long term” is Nathan O’Neill, the bar manager at the Nomad. On a recent Friday, I sat at the bar and ordered a Latchkey: Wood Dragon tea, orgeat, lemon, white vinegar, and Seedlip Spice 94 (Garden’s cousin, with allspice, cardamom, oak, grapefruit, and cascarilla). The drink, $11, was slippery in the way a good daiquiri would be. The vinegar hit the front of my tongue, delivering a tart, almost puckering brightness. But the Wood Dragon, an oolong variety sold for $5 an ounce, was the real game changer. It dried my mouth out after each sip, like a tannic wine would, resetting me for another taste.

It surprised me in the same way the Serendipity and the Stingless did at Existing Conditions — it felt like something truly new. Even though I wasn’t drinking, I felt taken care of, engaged, and included in a way that I wouldn’t have if I were sipping Pellegrino all night. Not everyone would agree: “People drink to get socially lubricated,” Arnold says. “Let’s not fool ourselves here.” Still, if one person walks in wanting a nonalcoholic cocktail, these teams have done their jobs by making sure that cocktail is impressive. It’s basic hospitality. Treating everybody equally. Inclusive is a word that comes up again and again, from all the bartenders putting time into nonalcoholic drinks.

“Very much I believe in this idea of the third space,” Lee says. “You have work, you have home, and then you have something else, where you get to be yourself, someone that is not your work self or your home self. In New York, specifically, more so than anywhere else, that place is the bar.” He wants nondrinkers to have that, too. “To feel comfortable here. To feel like, ‘Oh, this is a place I can go.’” Even if they get to the bar and still insist on calling it a mocktail.

The $15 Mocktail Is Here