(NYTIMES) - For those who do not drink, who are not drinking right now or who maybe drank too much the night before, a non-alcoholic beverage made with well-balanced, interesting flavoUrs and thirst-quenching properties can be hard to come by.
Consuming trendy sparkling waters by the case may be enough for some, but it can be nice to have something more, a drink just this side of extra.
Enter the non-alcoholic cocktail, otherwise known as the mocktail.
The drink fills a void for those who yearn for the crisp, complex notes of wine or a cocktail but do not necessarily want the alcohol content - or the heaviness that makes some drinks a challenge on a hot day.
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"Sometimes I'll be drinking a glass of wine and just absolutely crush it because it's so good, balanced and refreshing, then think, 'I wish there wasn't alcohol in this,'" said Ashley Santoro, the wine director of the Standard East Village, who enjoys the occasional non-alcoholic cocktail.
But no matter how innocuous it may be, the mocktail cannot seem to shake its reputation for being overly complicated, too sweet - and a little showy.
John deBary, the bar director at Momofuku, thinks perhaps all it needs is a little rebrand.
CUCUMBER AND TONIC
½ cucumber, preferably hothouse
4 thin slices of lime
2 sprigs mint tonic or soda water, to taste
Peychaud’s bitters, to taste
1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the cucumber lengthwise until you have long, wide ribbons.
2. Place a few slices of lime and mint leaves in the bottom of a Collins glass, or other tall glass, and, using a wooden spoon, lightly muddle them to release the juices in the lime and oils in the mint. Add a few strips of cucumber and fill the glass with ice (crushed, if you’ve got it).
3. Top with tonic water and a few dashes of bitters.
Yield: 2 drinks
SALTED LEMON-GINGER SPRITZER
¼ lemon, seeds removed, coarsely chopped (skin, peel and all)
Small pinch of kosher salt or fine sea salt
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 tsp freshly grated ginger (optional)
Ginger beer or ginger kombucha, to taste
Lemon wedge or slice of fresh ginger, for garnish
1. Place the lemon and salt in a large wine glass and using the back of a spoon, lightly muddle to break up and release some of the oils and juices.
2. Add lemon juice and ginger (if using) and top with lots of ice and ginger beer.
3. Garnish with lemon wedge or fresh ginger.
Yield: 1 drink
¼ cup strong hibiscus tea, chilled
1 Tbs agave nectar or honey
1 Tbs unfiltered apple cider vinegar
Soda water, to taste
Slice of grapefruit or lemon, for garnish
1. Combine hibiscus tea, agave nectar or honey, and apple cider vinegar in a large rocks glass.
2. Fill with ice and top with soda water. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit.
Yield: 1 Drink
"For starters, we need to come up with a better name," he said. "The word mocktail makes me die a little inside every time I hear it."
DeBary is not alone in that perception. Atlanta magazine's food editor, Julia Bainbridge, eats and drinks out almost nightly, but, for her, taking periodic breaks from cocktail consumption is also part of the job.
"In my profession, my idea about what's a healthy level of intake can get skewed," she said. "So it's important to step back every once in a while." The word mocktail, however, is still a hard sell.
To her, it sounds "something like the Flirtini from an old Sex And The City episode, but without the booze - juice, basically, with a cocktail price tag."
But non-alcoholic beverages are undergoing a makeover at some restaurants, getting just as much attention as a cocktail or wine list. At Momofuku Ko in the East Village, deBary designed the bar menu so that several of the offerings could be easily made with or without alcohol.
"The goal with this is to let people who want to order these drinks feel like they are participating in the same experience as everyone else," he said.
Bainbridge said Agern, a Nordic restaurant at Grand Central Terminal that is temporarily closed after a flood in March, had also been churning out superlative alcohol-free beverages, incorporating savory, unexpected ingredients.
"There, I've found some of the most sophisticated set of mocktails I've seen yet," she said, like "a fennel shrub, a drink made with grapefruit juice and verjus, and another made with whey."
For deBary, mixing alcohol-free drinks interesting enough to compete with a classic cocktail means building beverages with ingredients that mimic the heat and nuance of the harder stuff.
"Ginger is a steady go-to, tonic water, teas and concentrated cold brews as well," he said. "The key is to avoid making anything overly sweet and finding a way to incorporate bitterness and spice."
Another pivotal ingredient, yielding a similarly unique tang, is vinegar.
"Even if I order a green juice, I still crave the elements of what make wine or spirits so delicious, especially acidity and salinity," Santoro said.
"At home, I make a lot of shrubs and drinking vinegars with added salt because there's only so much acidity that lemon or citrus will give you."
When building a mocktail of your own, take a page from our experts. Start with assertive and complex flavours: Think whole, tart lemon muddled with a pinch of salt, or floral hibiscus tea perked up with funky, fermented apple cider vinegar. Then, top with something bubbly and refreshing, whether spicy ginger beer, botanical tonic water, fizzy soda water or lightly effervescent kombucha.
There is no alcohol to be found, but, if it is done right, you will be too pleased to notice.