Zero-Proof Drinks Make Herbs, Flowers and Vegetables the Star

Shirley Temples are all grown up, thanks to the rising popularity of complex, sophisticated “zero-proof” craft cocktails, also called temperance cocktails or mocktails.

Every CVI Vegetable Showcase event begins with a signature cocktail inspired by the evening’s featured ingredient from The Chef’s Garden. But, non-drinkers needn’t feel left out, because CVI wine steward and mixologist Liz Studer always stirs up a non-boozy mocktail option that’s every bit as special as the hard stuff.

Studer said she draws inspiration from non-alcoholic beverages served in “temperance taverns” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Those drinking establishments became watering holes for people who vowed to abstain from intoxicating alcohol. So, rather than rely on strong spirits, innovative  temperance bartenders turned to aromatics and botanicals such as dandelion, burdock, sassafras, mint, herbs, edible flowers and vegetables.

With so many potential ingredients from The Chef’s Garden at her fingertips, Studer has the raw materials she needs to infuse simple syrups and herb teas, to create vibrant vegetable juices, and muddle in intense flavors.

TCG: How does “zero-proof” modernize the image of non-alcoholic bar options?

LS: Zero-proof beverages have come a very long way in the past few years. It used to be that those only offerings at a bar would be soda, a Virgin Mary, or Shirley Temples. Now, bars have tossed the maraschino cherries (for the most part) and, instead of simply excluding the spirit in a particular drink to make it non-alcoholic, they have made a push to craft beverages that are delicious in their own right. Right now, we are seeing a cultural shift towards moderation, and more health-conscious social dining and drinking. Zero-proof beverages are a great way to be more inclusive. Everyone at the dinner table, or bar, should be able to have the same kind of experience, with thoughtful, beautiful, well-prepared, delectable drinks.

TCG: When creating ingredient-specific custom beverages for a CVI event, how do you bridge the cocktail and the mocktail to tie them together? Or don’t you?

LS: For every event that we host here at the CVI, I craft a specialty cocktail based upon the star vegetable or theme of the night. With the CVI being an extension of The Chef’s Garden, every drink has some element of vegetable, herb or flower in the preparation. It could be a syrup or a juice or a garnish or a thousand different things. I recently made a cucumber sour mix for margaritas and was able to use that same sour mix with soda water for a cucumber spritz.

Proportions change to balance the drink, and the mouthfeel is different, so sometimes you have to play with it a little bit more to get it just right. Maybe it’s muddled herbs or a dash more syrup, but the overall goal is the same ─ design a delicious beverage, with or without alcohol, that will start our guests night off on a high note and that will lead perfectly into the chef’s first course.

TCG: Where do zero-proof drinks fit into today’s high-end beverage space?

LS: Some of the country’s best restaurants are embracing the idea of “temperance pairings.” Ronny Emborg’s Michelin-starred restaurant Atera comes to mind as one of the first to incorporate non-alcoholic beverage pairings. Cultivated drinks to enjoy alongside haute cuisine allow those who are not partaking in alcohol to have the same high-end dining experience, bite for bite and sip for sip. Also, bartenders are becoming more akin to culinarians in their approach to drinks. Working alongside the chefs, they can explore flavor and creativity a bit more than they can with a really stellar single malt on the rocks, for example.

TCG: How do botanical ingredients balance a drink in the absence of alcohol?

 LS: In alcoholic cocktails, normally you start with a base spirit. You can blend other ingredients with your base, but the sheer strength of the underlying flavor scheme remains the same. In the absence of the spirit, some other element must take center stage. Botanical ingredients offer a plethora of colors, flavors, and aromas to stand in, and can be layered to create depth. Here, the understudy becomes the star. Now, this applies to cocktails turned into zero-proof mocktails, but it should also be said that botanical ingredients can and should be the focus right from the beginning. It’s a matter of shifting the mindset.

 TCG: Do you find zero-proof beverages more or less challenging that alcohol-based drinks?

LS: This is a great question. I actually find zero-proof beverages to be more challenging. Wine grapes and styles have been paired with certain foods for such a long time that the basics are becoming relatively common knowledge. Cocktails have seen a renaissance by recreating and riffing on classics. When we develop wine and spirits programs, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, and further their ideas, albeit in our own way. When it comes to non-alcoholic beverages, though, innovation has most definitely not reached the same level. There just simply have not been that many people who have championed the zero-proof craft beverage movement. Fortunately, this does open up a huge opportunity for those willing to forge the path. Through the garden. Or the forest. Or the sea. Or wherever their vision takes them!

TCG: What unique advantages or possibilities do zero-proof drinks have compared with alcoholic ones?

LS:  Well, the obvious advantage to zero-proof drinks you can try all ten on a menu and not fall out of your chair! Some chefs hold the belief that strong spirits dull the taste buds and olfactory senses, thus diminishing the overall dining experience. Zero-proof beverages would be just the opposite, used as a tool to further enhance the dining experience. For me, the advantage is in the challenge! The red-headed ‘Shirley Temples’ of the bar have now been brought to the forefront, and these purposefully-crafted drinks have been a way to further hone my craft, flex my creative muscles, and continue learning. Every day.