Toronto’s bartenders are using ingenuity to craft non-alcoholic cocktails that are anything but boring.
Published: Friday 7th April 2017
It’s a Friday night at Pinkerton Snack Bar near Gerrard and Carlaw, and veteran bartender Adrian Stein is at his perch creating an alcohol-free work of art. In a lowball glass he muddles mint, sugar and lime together with cucumber and ginger syrups. He rims the glass with a paper-thin strip of cucumber and tops it all off with soda. He passes the drink across the bar. “It’s almost like a ginger-cucumber mojito,” he says, with a touch of pride. A faux-hito, if you will. It tastes surprisingly similar to an actual one.
Stein has become one of Toronto’s go-to bartenders for alcohol-free cocktails. It’s not a label he sought out, but he’s fine with the reputation he’s built. He stopped drinking around eight years ago, all the while continuing to bartend his way across the city. “When people started giving me credit for being the mocktail guy, I was like, why not?” he says. “It matches my lifestyle choice.”
In Toronto, a town perpetually wrapped up in a brown-liquor love affair, booze isn’t exactly a wallflower. Here, cocktail groupies follow top mixologists around the city as they make guest appearances at bars. But these days, throwing back a dumptruck’s worth of alcohol doesn’t have the same cachet it once did.
Perhaps we’re bored of the same old, or perhaps we’re finding inspiration from high-profile teetotalers (such as chef Matty Matheson, of Parts & Labour and Viceland, who nearly died from substance abuse issues a few years ago). Either way, drinking culture is being transposed to a new, lower-octane level.
“I never thought it would catch on the way it caught on,” Stein says. “It’s huge now. It’s beyond fashionable.” The word “mocktail” doesn’t inspire much confidence, though. Conjuring up images of saccharine drinks in neon hues, the term is a wet blanket in the lexicon of bars. It’s true that crafting a layered, interesting drink without alcohol can be tough. Not only does alcohol impart its own flavour, it also extracts flavours from other ingredients, particularly plant-based ones.
“Most of the chemicals plants produce are soluble in alcohol,” explains Amy Stewart, bestselling author of The Drunken Botanist, a book that examines the relationship between alcohol and botany. “Because alcohol is a solvent, it’s extracting whatever chemicals it can get out of the plant.” Alcohol provides an efficient transportation system for plant-based ingredients to communicate their flavours.
Non-alcoholic cocktails can get really creative. You just have to work on it
Think about how fruit, if left to sit in a bottle of vodka, will infuse the entire thing. So when the set of players in a cocktail includes alcohol, it becomes relatively easy to enhance and embolden flavours. When alcohol is removed from the equation, flavours are instantly less complex. That means mixologists are forced to impart complexity through alternative means.
It’s a challenge that many of Toronto’s bartenders are taking head-on. Generally speaking, cocktails can be broken up into two broad categories: spirit-based and long. With a spirit-based drink, different liquors are mixed together with bitters, syrups and modifiers (typically fortified wines like vermouth or sherry) to create a bold, stiff cocktail. A Manhattan, for instance – made with whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters – will kick you to the curb if you’re not careful. There’s no doubt that booze is present, which is why it makes sense that this style of cocktail would be difficult to recreate without alcohol.
Still, it’s not impossible. Anyone who’s ever taken a shot is familiar with the burn that hits the throat upon impact – an effect that can be reproduced via non-alcoholic liquor, which Stein has used in the past. “A perfume company created a molecule that gives you the sensation of alcohol on your palate,” he says. He found the results to be rather unimpressive, though, as if a thimbleful of whiskey were drowned out with water. He’s also philosophically opposed to the concept, likening it to a vegan lusting after fake meat: if you’re hankering after a mock burger, then you’re probably missing beef a bit too much.
However, for someone who does imbibe – but is the night’s designated driver – that burn may still be desirable. At Bar Begonia, Oliver Stern will use ginger syrup to provide a kick at the back of the throat; a mole-chili syrup can also create the same sort of nip. For a more bitter burn, he might turn to espresso, while shrubs (a.k.a drinking vinegars) give off an acidic bite.
The second branch of cocktails – the long ones – include those that have a greater total volume and in which spirits play a less obvious role. The bartender will add juices, shrubs or sodas to the alcohol. “You can do almost all of the same stuff with the non-alcoholic cocktails as you can with one of the longer styles of cocktails,” says Stern at Bar Begonia.
In order to add more body to his longer drinks, Stein makes his own tonic water using citrus juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange) agave nectar and cinchona bark. It’s a lengthy process, but a splash of that tonic can give a non-alcoholic drink a potent jolt of flavour. Like many bartenders, he’ll also use tea, shaking it up with spiced cranberry syrup, lemon juice and egg white to make the alcohol-free Winter Green cocktail.
For Evelyn Chick, bar manager at Parkdale’s PrettyUgly, working without alcohol can bring out a bartender’s ingenuity. “Non-alcoholic cocktails can get really creative,” she says. “You just have to work on them. You have to build layers of what the alcohol would represent in the drink.” Take a non-alcoholic version of a tequila based cocktail, for example. Chick would balance out the lack of tequila by adding agave nectar, since the spirit is distilled from the blue agave plant. “It’s just recreating those flavours – the tasting notes – with non-alcoholic ingredients,” she says.
When mixing a zero-alcohol version of Taste Sensation, one of PrettyUgly’s house cocktails, Chick would look at recreating the dominant liquor used: Tio Pepe sherry. Alongside the sherry, the cocktail is composed of Varnelli anise liqueur, lime, soda, egg whites and the so-called “green stuff” (an herbal blend that includes apple, celery and coriander). Since the sherry possesses a grassy quality, Chick would reach for a house-made rosemary saline solution to conjure up the flavour of the alcohol.
If you're not going to have alcohol, you still need to have fun
Another ingredient Chick uses to impart complexity is kombucha, a fermented beverage created though the growth of natural yeasts and bacteria on a sugar source. For her ginger-orange kombucha, she uses orange juice, ginger and sugar; it’s left to sit and eventually becomes carbonated and tart as the liquid ferments and microbial growth occurs. “You look at this big gooey thing and it’s pretty gross, but the product is awesome,” she says. “With non-alcoholic cocktails, your base ingredients have to be very interesting.”
The tasting notes need not only be added back via an edible ingredient. For a nonalcoholic version of a drink built around mezcal, the goal would be to bring back the mezcal’s smoky quality. In this instance, Chick would take a different approach, aromatizing the glass with hickory smoke rather than adding agave nectar. “I think it’s just having the mise en place – the ingredients – to be able to create something that’s of the same caliber as a cocktail,” she says.
Another linchpin of the non-alcoholic cocktail is nonalcoholic syrup. “Cucumber, watermelon, elderflower – I like to make a lot of my own syrups when I have the chance to,” says Stein at Pinkerton’s. When time is slipping through his fingers, he’ll use alcohol-free syrups by Monin, but when doing an important catered event, he’ll pull out all the stops. “I do private events for wealthy Muslim families,” he says. “So I’ll use the best quality saffron – Persian – to make a saffron syrup. It costs me $200 to make two litres of the syrup.”
While sipping an alcohol-free tipple hasn’t always been regarded as particularly cool, the negative attitude is gradually being shrugged off. And as interest in non-alcoholic drinks grows, a new form of artistry is also growing. It’s quite a sight to behold. “For me, a mocktail is about the experience,” Stein says. “If you’re not going to have alcohol, there needs to be some way that you can continue to get fun and enjoyment out of your experience.”
Editor’s note: Shortly before this story went to press, bartender Adrian Stein parted ways with Pinkerton Snack Bar. He is no longer affiliated with that establishment.