Food & Drink | August 16, 2017 9:00 am

The Newest Fad at the World’s Best Bars? No-Booze Cocktails.

Sobriety never tasted so good

Pop your head into The Drug Store, a pop-up bar just north of Manhattan’s Little Italy, and you’ll be met with the typical day-drinking crowd: women in their 20s and 30s in head-to-toe athleisure wear and 40-something guys with tousled hair and vintage T-shirts, all bending straws and elbows inside a sunlit space.

Behind the bar, a smartly dressed bartender muscles out a series of colorful concoctions that smell of fresh herbs and citrus, bobbing his head to Kendrick Lamar. And the design screams boozy Manhattan brunch spot throughout, with its white subway-tiled walls, vintage neon sign and old-school iron and glass doors.

But a few steps in, you’ll notice that something’s off. Instead of liquor bottles, the back bar is lined with citrus, the well crowded with tinctures, tonics, extracts and teas, and there’s soda water — not beer — dripping from the shiny taps.

Nary a drop of booze in sight.

“People want to be out, be social, listening to good music and drinking something, but they don’t always want alcohol,” says Zak Normandin, this curious cocktail den’s co-creator (and co-founder of the healthy beverage company Dirty Lemon). “When you look at what’s in our products, it’s a lot of ingredients craft cocktail bars are using, so making a more experiential version of our beverages just came naturally for us.”

We know what you’re thinking: “Booze-free cocktails? That’s a contradiction in terms. Also: No.”

But The Drug Store isn’t some hippie juice bar. It’s the real deal, complete with seasoned bartenders and a skillfully crafted menu incorporating many of the components you’d see at Death & Co., Employee’s Only, Lost Lake and other award-winning bars, just minus the liquor … which, maybe surprisingly, doesn’t have to mean the drinks are boring. Normandin’s mocktails range from Detox, a jet black mix of lemon, ginger, dandelion root and activated charcoal, to the delicate Rose Lemonade, made with lemon, Bulgarian rose water, chamomile and fragrant orange blossom honey.

seedlip (4 images)

“It’s really a new category — I wouldn’t put this in the kombucha category. I wouldn’t put it in the juice category,” Normandin continues. “We’re taking herbs and botanicals that are very common in the naturopathic community and the bar community, and we’re blending them in a way that’s approachable. And people seem to love it. You should have seen our opening night party — we were totally slammed.”

The Drug Store may be a temporary venture for Normandin, but it’s not without precedent. Mike Kirlan, the beverage director at Next Door American Eatery, a farm-to-table restaurant and bar chain from the sustainability-minded Kitchen Restaurant Group, has been experimenting with non-alcoholic (or “Zero-Proof,” as he calls them) cocktails for years. Next Door’s even devoted an entire menu section to these tipple-less tipples, citing his clientele’s interest in cleaner living, their mass appeal and his staff’s affinity for them as motivating factors.

“Our goal was to offer guests a non-alcohol alternative that was healthier than soda and more appealing than simple iced tea,” he says, naming his Strawberry-Lemon Fizz (strawberry puree, agave and lemon, topped with soda water) and a crisp take on a Lime Rickey among his top sellers. “It’s fun for our bartenders to create something new, and when they nail it, there’s such widespread appeal across all ages. It’s also gratifying to be able to create something that’s good for guests.”

According Ben Branson, creator of the just-launched “world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit” Seedlip, the market for booze-free alternatives to quality cocktails is an increasingly thirsty one. He recently launched his no-booze spirit in the liquor section of a popular U.K. department store. It’s also on the menu in such lauded bars as Chicago’s The Aviary, New York’s Eleven Madison Park and perennial “World’s Best Bar” The Dead Rabbit (also in Manhattan).

“A thousand bottles sold out in three weeks, and then the next thousand sold out in three days,” Branson tells me over mock gin and tonics at Tales of the Cocktail, the jam-packed spirits convention held each year in New Orleans. “I was like, ‘Shit, I need to take my cell number off the website, because this is getting crazy.’”

Seedlip is basically distilled liquid steeped with fresh botanicals, much like gin. Unlike a traditional spirit, the liquid he uses hasn’t undergone primary fermentation, and thus doesn’t turn into concentrated alcohol when put through a still. The end result is a distillate with all the aromas, flavors and mouthfeel you’d expect in an herbal liqueur, but without the mind-altering burn. It works beautifully with tonic and shrubs, as well as in classics like sours and martinis. Branson sees his product’s success as indicative of a cultural shift away from mindless binge drinking and toward a more refined, intentional philosophy.

“I think we’ve hit the right time. For younger people, especially, the role alcohol plays in their lives is changing. It’s not the same priority that it once was,” he explains. “In the U.K., pubs are closing at the rate of 15-20 per week, but casual dining and neighborhood restaurants are seeing crazy growth. People are willing to drink less and spend more.”

For Branson, Seedlip wasn’t just a business opportunity. He’s never really been a drinker, so he’s all too familiar with the woes of trying to find a non-alcoholic beverage that can hold up to a spiked one.

“Around the time I was mucking around at home with distillation, I went out for dinner at a really nice restaurant in London — great food menu, amazing cocktails,” he recalls. “I asked the waitress, ‘What have you got that’s non-alcoholic?’ She just looked sad. I was like, ‘You’re not excited about this, and I’m definitely not excited about what I’m choosing.’ All we want is for people to be able to get a good grown-up drink if they’re not drinking. That’s all we’re asking, to just balance the scales.”

If you think this trend is AA-goers only, think again. Like Normandin, Branson views his target market as populated not only by sober folks, but also by people looking to avoid sugar or anyone who wants a night off from the sauce. And he’s dedicated to appealing to drinkers.

“Open up the menu at the Ritz in London and you’ve got a low-alcohol section and a no-alcohol section, and we’re in both,” he says. “We’re not on some crusade, like, ‘Everyone stop drinking!’ We’re more like, ‘Everyone keep on drinking, and when you’re not drinking or feel like drinking less, try this.’”

Lauded as the godfather of the L.A. cocktail scene, barman Vincenzo Marianella designed the non-alcoholic menu at The Independence and currently heads up the bar program at Copa D’Oro, both located in Santa Monica. When coming up with recipes, Marianella relies on his extensive cocktail knowledge for each creation.

“I love cocktails, with or without alcohol. I like the different layers of flavors and how they combine,” he explains. “I like to look at what’s in season and base non-alcoholic drinks around those ingredients — quality ingredients and balanced proportions are key to the perfect NA cocktail. They’re most popular during lunch or brunch, so I make them light and refreshing to complement the dishes.”