Artfully mixed mocktails offer guests a fun, affordable upgrade from standard nonalcoholic drinks.
This article first appeared in the 1 January 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
A bartender renowned for creating innovative, trend-forward cocktails might not seem likely to be so enthusiastic about making drinks sans spirits, but not Jackson Cannon, bar manager at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston. Cannon's appreciation for the art of mixology fuels a desire to create alcohol-free quaffs that are as revelatory and enjoyable as their spiked siblings.
Menuing style- and substance-filled mocktails such as Cannon's Sophisticated Lady (see recipe below)-a well-balanced blend of muddled cucumber with salt, cranberry and fresh lime juices and simple syrup-makes more sense than ever for operators in the current business climate. Nearly half (47%) of American consumers don't usually order alcoholic beverages when dining out, notes R&I's 2008 Beverage Census, yet sales of traditional carbonated beverages continue to fall, suggesting significant potential for innovative nonalcoholic drinks that expand beyond or build upon traditional fountain choices.
The economy plays a role in beverage selection, too: Among diners who say they're adjusting their restaurant orders to save money, 58% report ordering fewer alcoholic beverages or skipping them altogether, according to R&I's 2009 New American Diner Study. Mocktails are an ideal solution, offering consumers specialty drinks at more-appealing prices than cocktails and delivering strong margins for operators.
"There's some profit to be made there for sure," says Regan Jasper, beverage director and partner at Fox Restaurant Concepts in Scottsdale, Ariz. Margins on mocktails aren't quite as high as they are on soda or alcohol, he notes, but they come close, with cost percentages running in the low 20s compared with the high teens for fountain drinks.
Still, for mixologists who typically count on spirits' richly aged flavors and complex bouquets of botanicals to help build nuanced taste profiles, stirring up great-tasting, sippable nonalcoholic drinks can be a tall order. That's why Cannon, Jasper and their counterparts across foodservice have a wealth of strategies up their sleeves.
- Play off the popularity of energy drinks. At True Food Kitchen, Fox Restaurant Concepts' new globally inspired, health-focused restaurant in Phoenix, Jasper's Medicine Man is meant to provide an energy kick. The foundation for the recipe is super-strong black tea brewed with 10 bags per 12 to 14 ounces of water. The tea is poured over muddled blueberries; mixed with pomegranate, sea-buckthorn berry and cranberry juices; and topped with soda water.
- Add a splash of bubbly. Finishing drinks with carbonation encourages customers to sip more slowly, but it's essential to find the balance that will add fizz without diluting the flavor. To charge up drinks that aren't soda-based, Cannon says, fill about one-tenth of the glass with either soda water, ginger ale, ginger beer (still nonalcoholic but with a fuller flavor than ginger ale) or lemon-lime soda.
- Make mocktails an event. Co-owner and Senior Vice President David Culver of The Buster Brown Bean Company LLC, which operates coffee shops and concessions at the State University of New York (SUNY)-Fredonia, creates themed mocktails to sell at special events sponsored by student groups. He uses the same flavored syrups that his retail shops use for specialty coffee and tea drinks but mixes the syrups with fruit juice, lemonade, club soda or tea to create recipes such as Safe Sex on the Beach, featuring orange and apple juices with club soda and raspberry syrup.
- Consider sweet alternatives. Mocktails based mainly on sweet juices, syrups and sugars can be too cloying. Balance sweetness with fresh-squeezed citrus juices, Cannon advises, and make sure drinks are properly waterized (shaken or stirred so that enough melted ice gets into the drink). At True Food Kitchen, Jasper opts to use natural sweeteners such as agave nectar and honey; he notes that both elements must be folded well into drinks, given that they are heavier and tend to sink. For an alcohol-free piÁ±a colada blended with fresh pineapple and apple juices, he employs coconut milk to both sweeten the drink and make it smooth and creamy.
- Play to your strengths. When Dallas-based Romano's Macaroni Grill saw its customers moving away from traditional carbonated beverages, the Italian-themed casual-dining chain decided that introducing Italian sodas was a no-brainer way to generate new interest in beverages. Romano's restaurants already had the necessary ingredients on hand: club soda and fruity syrups that were used to perk up iced tea and lemonade in bright flavors such as raspberry, Sicilian orange and pomegranate.
- Don't forget about texture. Incorporating egg whites or cream yields drinks that have more body and a smoother finish. To mix drinks using egg whites properly, recommends Cannon, start with a dry shake (shaking the ingredients together without ice to blend them) and then shake the drink again with ice if necessary. (Make sure on the menu to call out the use of raw eggs.) At SUNY-Fredonia, Culver mixes cream with lemon-lime soda and French vanilla, strawberry and peach syrups for a concoction called Pink Ice.
- Service with style. Specialty glassware or plasticware is essential for elevating mocktails above ordinary juices and sodas. Macaroni Grill pours its colorful Italian sodas into tall pilsner-style glasses and garnishes them with a lemon wheel. For his mocktail-themed events at SUNY-Fredonia, Culver purchased plastic martini, margarita and shot glasses and finished the drinks with a citrus twist.
RECIPE: Cannon's Sophisticated Lady
Cucumber, divided - use 3 slices
Salt - pinch
Cranberry juice - 2 oz.
Lime juice, freshly squeezed - 1 oz.
Simple syrup - 1 oz.
Place 2 cucumber slices and salt in mixing glass; muddle. Add cranberry juice, lime juice and simple syrup; shake over ice. Strain into a martini glass; garnish with remaining cucumber slice.