The recent rise of non-alcoholic cocktails on bar menus is a very positive development, according to the bartenders who design these lists and take these orders. “Just because someone isn’t indulging in alcohol (for whatever reason that might be), doesn’t mean they don’t deserve something celebratory and fun,” said Thomas Mizuno-Moore, the senior beverage manager of Aba in Austin, Texas, and Miami.
Creating thoughtful and well-balanced beverages that don’t include alcohol gives bartenders an exciting challenge and guests some appealing booze-free options. But it has led to some debates among industry insiders about what to call these drinks. And to the dismay of many bartenders, “mocktail” seems to be the most popular term out there right now.
‘Mocktail is approachable.’
In the interest of fairness, we’ll start by giving space to some bartenders who don’t hate “mocktail” as a menu term. Hilary Sheinbaum, the author of “The Dry Challenge,” a book about how to successfully have a Dry January, isn’t crazy about the term “mocktail.” But she acknowledged that the word is “shorter in length and has fewer characters and therefore can easily fit on a beverage menu if space is limited,” compared to alternatives like “non-alcoholic cocktails.”
Daniel Watson, the bar manager of Urban Farmer in Philadelphia, likes “mocktail” and called the term “clever and uncontroversial.” He also pointed out that “it’s approachable, [as] guests don’t always know what the terms ‘proof’ and ‘ABV’ mean.”
‘I f’ing hate it.’
But most of the bartenders we consulted have a deep dislike for “mocktail.” One of them is Iluggy Recinos, the beverage director for the Exxir portfolio of bars, including Paradiso, Casablanca and Tipsy Elf in Dallas. “I f’ing hate it,” Recinos said in an email. “I think it takes away from the love and labor of service, as well as the craftiness of bartenders.”
“‘Mocktail’ implies that the beverage in my hand isn’t a proper drink.”
For many bartenders, the distaste for “mocktail” comes from the presence of “mock” in the term. “To ‘mock’ isn’t very inclusive. It suggests something to tease or laugh at, or something that’s not authentic or real,” said Daniel Goslin, general manager of Helen in Birmingham, Alabama. “The word comes with implications. ‘Mocktail’ implies that the beverage in my hand isn’t a proper drink. And when I order a mocktail, I feel like I am being judged and assumptions are made as to why I am not drinking. A stereotype has certainly been created around the word.”
‘I think it became a buzzword very quickly.’
People know that “mocktail” means “a drink with no alcohol,” but not much else. “I actually thought the word was clever at first, but I think it became a buzzword very quickly that didn’t have a lot of meaning behind it,” said Stacie Stewart, the beverage director of Edward Lee’s upcoming restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, set to open in early 2023.
“It’s kind of like ‘mixologist’ in that everyone has an opinion as to what it means,” said H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco. “Mocktail” is generic and trendy (and therefore likely to feel dated in a few years), and it causes many bartenders to long for a clearer term to better communicate exactly what they hope to accomplish with their non-alcoholic cocktail menus.
“The term ‘mocktail’ definitely doesn’t sound like it belongs attached to a drink that can cost upwards of $15.”
Also, because “mocktail” has become so ingrained in our vocabularies these days, it can add to the concern among bartenders that the term feels childish. “The first time a 10-year-old in a tiara told my host that she hoped for our sake that we had a mocktail menu, it really gave the word a bad taste for me,” Stewart said.
‘I’m very happy to see the term replaced by more positive titles like zero-proof and no-ABV.’
So if bartenders aren’t fans of “mocktail,” which phrase would they like to use instead? Julie Reiner ― a pioneer of the mixology movement, owner and founder of Clover Club and Leyenda, and partner of the iconic and newly-revamped Milady’s in New York City ― said she’s “very happy to see the term replaced by more positive titles like ‘zero-proof’ and ’no-ABV.”
After all, as Aaron DeFeo, the owner and operator of Little Rituals in Phoenix, put it, “The term ‘mocktail’ definitely doesn’t sound like it belongs attached to a drink that can cost upwards of $15.”
The terms “zero-proof cocktails” and “no-ABV cocktails” may require bartenders to explain the meaning to guests who aren’t familiar, which may prevent them from being a good choice for high-volume venues. But at a craft cocktail bar or a restaurant with a carefully-executed cocktail menu where bartenders are already used to talking patrons through their choices, these terms allow alcohol-free guests to participate equally in the cocktail experience.
“Imagine walking into a bar, ordering a drink, and [having] the bartender ask you if you want that full- or zero-proof. If the [non-alcoholic] drink looks like a proper cocktail and tastes amazing, this will help draw a wider customer base, because no one will feel left out,” said Chris Tunstall, a veteran bartender and founder of the A Bar Above mixology brand. “Moreover, if you are a guest choosing to drink zero-proof cocktails, you don’t have to answer extremely personal questions about your reasons you aren’t drinking and can avoid the weird peer pressure that exists around alcohol.”
‘Non-alcoholic cocktail is a grown-up term for someone making a healthy personal decision about their beverage.’
“Our bartenders are professionals. They craft flavors in a glass rather than on a plate,” Goslin said. “They are artists of the beverage, the libation, the elixir. None of which ever really require alcohol to be considered a cocktail.”
Many of the experts we spoke to feel like a straightforward, ambiguity-free term is best for guests and bartenders alike. That’s why “non-alcoholic cocktail” is a widely-favored alternative to “mocktail.”
“I personally think the term is ‘non-alcoholic cocktails,’” said Kristina Roth, founder of the non-alcoholic cocktail brand Mixoloshe. “Like beer, but for cocktails. (‘Let me have a mockbrew,’ said no one ever.) ‘Non-alcoholic cocktail’ is a grown-up term for someone making a healthy personal decision about their beverage for one night, every night or anywhere in between.”
Michael Lindgren, the bar manager of Butcher & the Boar in Minneapolis, likes the directness of “non-alcoholic cocktail.” “It’s utilitarian-sounding, but ‘non-alcoholic cocktails’ is my go-to, especially when writing a menu,” he said. “More creative terms like ‘zero-proof’ can be missed by guests, especially ones who have minimal experience with alcohol. On any menu, it’s important to not make the guest feel uneducated or dumb, so the more obvious you can make it, the better. Calling them ‘cocktails’ also implies a degree of care from the bar about the quality of the drink, because guests know we take our cocktail program very seriously.”
Sarah Clark, the beverage director of The Dearborn in Chicago, took this concept one step further, preferring the term “craft non-alcoholic beverage.” “There is so much thought, care and consideration that goes into the inception of these drinks,” Clark said. “The name of the drink category should reflect that. The final product is not an accident, it was crafted for the guest.”