Should Mocktails Cost $16?

When we gripe about mocktail prices, it’s because we’re thinking about what’s not in them. It’s easy to see a mocktail’s price point and think “I have just ordered a cup of juice for $16.” This is the plight of the mocktail. It has to contend with the myriad of motivations for cutting out alcohol and the additional complex social choices behind why we drink…and don’t drink. Some menus have started to say “zero proof,” over “non-alcoholic,” and while that does just sound a lot cooler, zero proof does not mean zero dollars. Why?

Why Mocktails in the First Place?  

At TABLE, we got into a discussion about why we drink and what we drink. Kylie Thomas says “I go out with my friends to get a little buzz, and while I don’t like the taste of alcohol, there’s no reason for me to order a non-alcoholic drink at the bar.” She goes for a dirty Shirley Temple or a vodka cranberry, “anything fruity to cover up the alcohol taste.” Kylie’s take is not uncommon. A lot of people do go out because they like going out, but don’t actually like drinking. The alcohol part of the experience offers is a social contract of shared vulnerability and commitment to a good time. (I asked Kylie why she drinks if she doesn’t like alcohol, and she summed it up as simply “fun.”) So, she never orders a mocktail.

But recipe developer and stylist Anna Franklin and I wish we could drink ten specialty cocktails without destroying our livers. Anna wishes she could have more aperol spritzes and margaritas, flavor-based drinks to have with meals, because her feeling is the opposite of Kylie’s: “I don’t like getting drunk, but I like the taste of tequila and aperol.” I ran into this problem just this past weekend at Indianapolis’s Bluebeard. After two amaretto sours while out to dinner, I desperately wanted grappa as a post-meal digestivo. I knew, however, that if I took that route I would end up drunk by myself at 7:30. As far as I know, there is no non-alcoholic grappa, and even if there was, it probably wouldn’t be as good.

Keith Recker used to order a “squash” at the bar with family in the UK, which is a muddled fruit, syrup, and sparkling water drink that allowed a kid to go out with the adults and still feel like a part of things. But no “squash” was advertised as a cocktail. Or a mocktail for that matter.

The Price is Right

The person ordering a mocktail wants to enjoy the social culture of going out without drinking. To be fair, there are practical reasons that a lot of mocktails are the same price as their alcoholic counterparts. Non-alcoholic spirits have a much shorter shelf-life and often require a more labor­ intensive “reverse distillation process” to get the alcohol out of certain things. If you’re a mixologist and you’re looking for non-alcoholic rum, you’ve likely already spent something close to $32 on 750ml.

The aforementioned Ritual Zero Proof non-alcoholic rum notes in their description that “the same velvety decadence of dark rum without the alcohol or calories.” Ok, but I could see an argument that the velvety decadence of rum is alcohol and calories. Is there some psychological thing going on where to feel like you’ve indulged, you have to spend the money you’d be spending on drinking the real thing? There may actually be something to that.

Beyond the non-alcoholic spirits, the recipes themselves are often relatively complex. You have to use a lot more of the flavor elements to get the taste, since ethanol in the alcohol products we ingest carries flavor really well. Without the alcohol, you have to get inventive with the chemistry. When mixing together discordant flavors, you run the risk of creating murky juice.

Mocktails on a Budget?

Here’s the other side: Why do you need to use these expensive non-alcoholic spirits? They’re sort of the Impossible Burger of alcohol. A lot of people who don’t drink don’t even like them. Well, there are options. In Pittsburgh, Goodlander Cocktail and Brewery offers an Oolong Seltzer, a Roselle (hibiscus, lemon, spices, sugar, seltzer), and a Cucumber Lemonade all between the prices of $7-$11. You can also get these in growlers and use them as mixers. I’m a strong advocate of the Oolong seltzer. If you’re at the nightcap stage of going out and thinking “Drinking more is a bad idea, but I want to order something,” that Oolong Seltzer is great.

For at home mocktail-making, bitters are your friend. Throwing together mineral water, ice, and bitters at home is a much lower net cost. Bitters & Soda makes a really solid base for a refreshing, at-home summer drink with no alcohol at $10.79 for a six-pack. They tap into the desire of the would-be cocktail consumer for something classy by advertising as “a premium sparkling non-alcoholic apéritif that gets its smart, refreshing flavor from a Gentian tincture cultivated in the South of France.”

A good mocktail honors that there are reasons to drink beyond just getting drunk and tries to give its customers that. I’d like to suggest, though, that a mocktail should just be good as its boozy cousins. Not good in exactly the way an alcoholic drink is good, but good on its own terms. If means it needs to cost $16, so be it. There needs to be more middle ground between soda and juice and expensive non-alcoholic spirits. When it’s what you want, a good mocktail is worth a shot. Even without the shots.

Story by Emma Riva / Styling by Anna Calabrese / Photograph by Dave Bryce

Ready for a mocktail? Try our Lavender Kombucha Mystic Mocktail.

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