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'Dry January' has never been easier, thanks to these expert tips for booze-free cocktails

In addition to its full liquor bar, boxing gym GRIT BXNG offers a number of healthy mocktails, like this mushroom-based drink. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - Four friends walk into a bar. It’s crowded, but they manage to snag a prime table. Upon settling into their seats, they start to browse the drink list, each making noncommittal remarks about which options sound best. “You know,” one of them finally says, “I’m actually not going to drink tonight. But the rest of you should go ahead and order something!” Soon, they begin to realize that that they had all agreed to “meet for drinks” without any intention of actually consuming alcohol, assuming that the other three at the table would start a tab to justify their presence at the bar.

There’s no punchline to this set-up because it’s not actually a joke. It’s a real scenario that I found myself a few weeks ago with my friends when we decided to catch up after work at a wine bar. Meeting for a drink was always something that we did, but on that particular evening, we each had our reasons for not wanting to partake. Unfortunately, those reasons didn’t come out until we were already seated at our table. Instead of scrambling to find somewhere else to go, I ended up ordering a glass of wine that I didn’t really want so that we could continue to hang out.

Even if we had decided to go elsewhere, I’m not sure exactly where we would have headed. We had met up in a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s home to every type of bar or restaurant you could possibly want, but we weren't hungry or thirsty. Sitting silently at a movie theater wouldn’t have allowed us to catch up that we were craving, and any other sort of activity seemed as though it would have required prior planning.

After Lorelei Bandrovschi accepted a friend’s dare to take a month off drinking, she found herself having a similar experience.

“When you say, ‘Let’s meet for drinks,’ what you’re really saying is, ‘Let’s hang out for a flexible amount of time without having a super set plan and reservations and tickets and things like that.’ When I started developing a real preference for not drinking, I noticed that there really weren’t a lot of spaces where that option was as readily available as drinking is,” she said.

Recognizing this blinds pot in our society, Bandrovschi founded a booze-free bar called Listen Bar.

Listen Bar began as a proof-of-concept in South Williamsburg, opening in October 2018 for just five days. Given its immediate popularity, the concept has since developed into a consistent event series with a cocktail menu curated by expert mixologists. The menu highlights several different nonalcoholic spirits and caters to various nutritional needs. A successful crowdfunding campaign on iFundWomen has provided the booze-free bar with the resources to launch a permanent location in the near future.

“I wanted there to be more spaces that could facilitate those spontaneous, easy, casual hangs, where there’s still sort of a rowdy vibe, and you don’t know if you’re going in for one drink or three hours. We call it all bar and no booze,” explained Bandrovschi.

An evening at Listen Bar allows those who don’t want to drink, whether as a lifestyle choice or just for that one night or anywhere in between, to still experience the nightlife scene. A glowing sign reads, “good a** time.” Drinks have irreverent names like “Spicy Tittles.” The events invite guests to participate in activities along the lines of karaoke, tattooing, and dominatrix lessons. And the bartenders are all up-and-coming musicians; in addition to mixing the drinks, they curate killer playlists as a chance to gain exposure and advance their careers.

Across New York City, several cocktail bars are similarly acknowledging that this desire for booze-free libations exists and updating their menus accordingly to include interesting alcohol-free options beyond the standard soft drinks and juice. Some call them mocktails; others refer to them as elixirs. At a Manhattan Tiki bar called Mother of Pearl, the section of nonalcoholic cocktails is cheekily labeled “Virgin Isles.” But no matter what term is used, it’s clear that the innovative options are a far departure from an uninspired glass of seltzer and lime.

Interest in alcohol-free cocktails is perhaps at its peak right now, thanks to Dry January, a public-health-campaign-turned-fad that challenges participants to take a break from drinking for the first month of the year. The potential benefits of successfully completing the Dry January challenge range from weight loss to improved sleep to increased savings. However, if you’re someone who enjoys being a part of the bar scene or gets pleasure from a creative craft cocktail or just wants a casual place to catch up with friends, it can feel like a joyless and difficult, or even impossible, undertaking.

But if you can find your way to one of New York City’s top spots serving booze-free options, the rest of the month might go by a little more quickly. And if you can’t make it to these bars, check out their tips for creating tasty concoctions at home.

Nonalcoholic spirits are a total game-changer.

“For years, I felt like making nonalcoholic cocktails was a pain in the butt. Most bartenders hate it because it’s just juice on top of juice on top of juice, and at the end of the day, you’re just making a fruit punch,” said Jason Kahn, Head Bartender at MADRE in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

But after trying a line of nonalcoholic spirits from a company called Seedlip, Kahn’s eyes were opened to new possibilities. Seedlip currently offers three varieties of its distilled spirits, each made with different herbs and botanicals and intensely aromatic. At MADRE, Kahn has used Seedlip to invent three delectable beverages that include all of the flavors of a well-done craft cocktail without any of the buzz.

They’ve been a huge hit, and not only with customers who don’t drink. Plenty of people who came into the restaurant to order an alcoholic drink find themselves drawn to the ginger beer, carrot juice, and habanero combination of the Ginger Baker or the tropical vibes of the Nada Colada.

Kahn highly recommends the Seedlip brand to anyone looking to experiment with making drinks at home. And that experimentation can be as fancy or as simple as you’d like; while the drinks served at MADRE are carefully constructed, Kahn thinks that Seedlip also tastes great when mixed with soda or tonic. “This is the first nonalcoholic spirit that I’ve used, but so far, so good,” he said.

Listen Bar also uses Seedlip’s spirits in several of the menu items. And for their weekly Dry January series taking place every Tuesday evening this month at the Williamsburg Hotel, Bandrovschi partnered with an Australian-based nonalcoholic spirits company called Lyre’s.

“There are a lot of really cool ingredients out there. Even just having something in your toolbox that you don’t normally play with can heighten the sense that you’re making something special,” said Bandrovschi.

Don't be afraid to add egg whites and other ingredients typically associated with craft cocktails.

On the Lower East Side, Reception Bar serves nonalcoholic elixirs alongside its impressive cocktail list. The menu is a reflection of owner Katie Rue’s Asian American identity, featuring the Korean liquor soju and ingredients such as shimeji mushrooms, Korean green peppers, and pear shrub. For the healing concepts behind the elixirs, Rue draws some inspiration from Korean home remedies, like hanyak, a drink that she was often given as a child to help maintain internal balance. Each elixir on the menu includes a short description of the intended health benefits that come along with it.

The taste of the elixirs, however, is not meant to resemble hanyak (Rue's parents had to bribe her with sweets to get her to consume it as a kid). Instead, Rue, who says that she likes working with limits, tries to capture the complexity of a cocktail without using any alcohol. The Buckwheat Bubbly, for example, is reminiscent of Champagne through its base of sparkling teas, while the Queen Min’s Botanics utilizes egg whites for a foamy texture.

“I wanted to have things that were more elevated and elegant but still drinkable. Why can’t mocktails be like a cocktail and have the flavor profiles that are created by ingredients like egg whites?” said Rue.

Rue also suggests tea as a good starting point for a nonalcoholic cocktail. “If you start with something like seltzer, which is water-based and doesn’t have a lot of flavors, you have to add all of the flavors on top of it. With teas, you already have some of that flavor. Buckwheat can give you a nutty base, while lotus tea gives a floral taste to the drink,” she said.

Think beyond sweet drinks.

Rue primarily uses honey as a sweetener to avoid the overly sweet sensation often associated with mocktails. “Some mocktails that use a lot of sweetener taste great at first, but halfway through, it feels like your teeth are just coated with sugar,” she said.

Listen Bar deliberately avoids the term “mocktails” altogether, to avoid any association with that too-sweet reputation. “Our drinks are alcohol-free cocktails,” said Bandrovschi. “It represents a shift in terms of mindset and terminology from the world of the past, where nonalcoholic drinks were all sugary mocktails.”

“I think starting from a place that isn’t overly fruity or sweet will help elevate the drink from being more of a kid’s drink to actually being a cocktail,” she said. Her favorite drink on Listen Bar's menu, the aforementioned Spicy Titties, lives up to its name with the inclusion of jalapeno.

Mother of Pearl’s Pepper Kennan cocktail also uses jalapeno, as well as red and green bell peppers. “It’s kind of like a palette cleanser,” said Aubrey Slater, Bar Manager at Mother of Pearl.

The ingredient choices at Mother of Pearl are further impacted by the fact that the bar is entirely vegan, with the necessary substitutions often leading to more unique flavors. "We’re forced to think outside the box, like using aquafaba, the water leftover from a can of chickpeas, as a foaming agent instead of egg whites and replacing heavy cream with coconut," Slater said.

When you do go for a fruit-based beverage, stick to fresh ingredients.

For all of the drinks at Mother of Pearl, virgin or not, fresh ingredients are key.

“I think having a bar that specializes in tropical drinks that incorporate so many different fresh ingredients, like mint, pineapple, strawberries, and citrus, lends well to building a proper mocktail program, because you have a lot of variety to play with,” said Slater. The Orchard Island, one of Mother of Pearl’s most popular virgin drinks, includes fresh-pressed green apple juice and a lemongrass syrup that they make in-house.

Slater also employs fruits and veggies to beautify the presentation of the drinks, like the apple fan that comes atop the Orchard Island or the pineapple and peppers on the Pepper Keenan. “The garnish game is strong with mocktails,” she said.

While fruit and a Tiki bar easily go hand in hand, a boxing gym might be the last place you'd expect to find a bar serving up mocktails featuring those same fresh ingredients. But at GRIT BXNG, the studio’s bar provides a little extra motivation to make it through the grueling 50-minute workout. There’s plenty of booze at the bar, but the mocktail varieties might be a healthier choice post-class, and they’re just as tasty as the margarita shots that get passed out to sweaty students following the final round.

“It’s challenging to make a drink that is very healthy but, at the same time, fun to drink. This is basically our drive and our focus when it comes to creating mocktails,” said Laith, GRIT’s bartender.

The kale martini, which can be ordered with or without vodka, is one of their most popular cocktails. It’s an updated version of a green juice and includes cucumber, celery, kale, and lime, as well as lime-flavored Perrier sparkling water. If you’re opting to skip the alcohol, you might consider boosting it with CBD.

There’s also a mushroom-based drink, which incorporates lion’s mane mushrooms, lemongrass, ginger, and honey. Lion's mane mushrooms are definitely making an impact in the wellness space at the moment; though more definitive research is needed, a few studies have found that this type of mushroom may boost cognitive function, among other potential benefits. And whether or not you feel a boost, the beverage is super tasty. Even if you’re not a big fan of mushrooms, you may still find that the drink goes down easily, as the ginger flavor is far more prominent than that of the mushrooms.

Honey is the only sweetener in GRIT’s mushroom drink, and similarly, there’s no added sugar in their take on a virgin strawberry daiquiri. The daiquiri is made with fresh strawberries, fresh-pressed grapefruit juice, a touch of cranberry, sparkling water, and lime.

For making mocktails at home, Laith suggests using fresh ingredients and, most importantly, focusing on flavors that you like. “You want a drink that you enjoy drinking,” he said. “Start with something that’s sour, like orange or lime, and then see how you can make it healthy. Maybe go toward something that’s green, or maybe it’s more ginger-oriented. From there, you could add CBD or toss some electrolytes into your mocktail.”

“All these cocktails that we come up with are just trial-and-error until we get it right. So definitely don’t be afraid to play around with ingredients. Have fun doing it,” he added.

GRIT has observed a 10-15% decrease in alcohol consumption since the beginning of January, very likely as a result of Dry January, and Chief Fun Officer Dylan Zanker said that he expects those numbers to go back up at the end of the month. But as bars continue to explore complex nonalcoholic cocktail offerings and booze-free spaces like Listen Bar begin to expand our culture's definition of what nightlife can look like, some Dry January participants may find that a monthlong challenge effortlessly transforms into a new way of life.