It’s safe to say that the cocktail has never enjoyed a finer hour. At any bar of note, it’s possible to find the classics re-jiggered with local spirits, house-made bitters, and a macerated fruit. There are new drinks too: some refined, some haphazard, all featuring an infusion of plants we previously thought poisonous, herby simple syrups, rich foams, a dollop of cream, or a few dots of brilliant, chartreuse oil. The mixologists are having their heyday, and we are all the happy beneficiaries.
Unless of course you do not drink alcohol, and then you may feel all but left out of this period of madcap invention. Although most bartenders will happily create something on the fly, relatively few offer a list of house-made non-alcoholic drinks as part of their beverage program. That said, there are a few places in town that do and that approach it with the same thoughtfulness and creativity they bring to their cocktails.
Cafe Maude in South Minneapolis is well known for its menu of non-alcoholic refreshments ($4). We especially liked the cayenne kick of the Le Tigre (above), a sour grapefruit punch reminiscent of a Bloody Mary yet not too breakfast-y. Just as it sounds, the Bitter Orange Ginger combined orange bitters with a ginger beer for a delicious drink that was spicy, balanced, and not too sweet. Similarly, the Ray Guy combined angostura with root beer, but with less success because the latter drowned out the delightfully medicinal qualities of the bitters.
The Rubber Ducky (ab0ve) came out brilliant blue and squeaky cute with a marshmallow Peep floating on the top. Unfortunately, it tasted of lemonade and bubble gum — so painfully, puckery sweet we couldn’t imagine pairing it with food. Save that one for the kids!
The soda fountain list at Eat Street Social offers a bevy of beautiful drinks ($5). The Raspberry Ricky (above, left) was the color of rubies and topped with what looked like a gorgeous hat pin, but turned out to be a couple of raspberry chews. It featured lime and bitters, which seemed to enhance the tart side of the raspberry for a refreshing, lightly sparkling drink that was not at all punchy. Also fruity: The Social Fritz (above, right) came with a hedge of lemon peel around the rim, giving us a nosefull of citrus oil with each sip. It was a lovely hue of magenta and combined blueberries, grapefruit, and lemon bitters for a sweet-tart fizz with a bit of a tongue curl at the end.
The Root Beer (above) was a delight. Served in a hot toddy glass, it came with a thick head of foam that tasted of bitters, molasses, and licorice root, a nice companion to the sweet and sassafras-y cream soda beneath it. But our favorite, at Eat Street and overall, was the Ginger Yip. An unlikely sounding combination of ginger syrup and cream over crushed ice, it was mild and smooth and reflected more of the vegetal, root side of ginger than the spice. It was interesting, delicious, and not especially sweet, a rare bird among non-alcoholic drinks.
In our travels, we noted that booze-free drinks are less expensive and tend to come in pint glasses. A few of our drinking buddies said that they would prefer to sip just a little of something. For them, we have the refreshing Virgin & Tonic ($5) at Pat’s Tap (below, right). Here is a concoction of lime and “virgin syrup” — which features some of the herbs used to make gin — served in a tumbler. It resembled a gin and tonic, but with less quinine and sugar, and a bit more of something. We couldn’t place it. Smoke?
On the subject of odd: The Pear Shrub ($5, above, left). On the first tongue-curling sip, we thought, “acquired taste.” And then it just got better, until we had finished the entire drink and decided that balsamic vinegar and pear puree were a natural combination. It looked like a puce smoothie and tasted like butterscotch caramels and club soda. You just have to try it. We were less fond of M’Lady of Fire, which mixed mango juice, chili peppers, and lime in a tall glass rimmed with spicy salt. The mango had surprisingly little depth even with the lime, so all we got from it was a tongue-coating, followed by a whole lot of heat — and it burns, burns, burns m’ lady of fire.
The refreshments ($3) at Icehouse were far less adventurous — disappointingly so, in consideration of the fabulous cocktails the restaurant offers — but pleasing nonetheless. The Ginger Lemonade was not too sweet and emphasized the flowery side of the lemon and the full zing of the ginger. On a similar theme, the Mint Limeade (above, right, pictured with the Red Ricky) favored the mint and had some depth (a hint of vanilla) to it, too. We found it sparkly and refreshing. We also enjoyed the house Ginger Beer, which was nicely sweet and as spicy as they come.
The drinks ($4) at Masu Sushi & Robata were not only phenomenal, but also seemed designed to pair with the food. The Singing Mountain (above, left) combined tart, dry rhubarb with a twiggy green tea, for a flavor that was both earthy and super delicious. We went nuts for the light and refreshing Dance Party Punch (above, right), which billed itself as aloe vera punch but tasted like some kind of mysterious fruit, maybe pineapple guava. Both of these drinks were interesting but simple and not too sweet, which seems key for pairing with all but the most gonzo food.
Most of the restaurants we visited called their non-alcoholic drinks “refreshments” rather than “mocktails,” which does seem a faddish and unsatisfying name. What’s not a fad is the thing itself: There will always be people who do not drink alcohol yet still desire an interesting drink to pair with their appetizers and dinner. Let’s hope the trend builds, and refreshment lists become as ubiquitous as sparkling water.
In the meantime, if you come across a worthy non-alcoholic drink menu in the Twin Cities, please leave us a suggestion here. Recipe? Even better.