One Saturday night in December, just after sunset, Megan Horton sat enjoying a drink at the bar of Nubeluz, the 50th-floor lounge atop New York’s newest Ritz Carlton hotel.
He had come to town from San Francisco, where he worked in customer service for Apple, and was in the mood to splurge.
With the city skyline visible around him, he watched the bartender make Emerald Coin, a drink made of honeydew, lemongrass, lemon, and celery, and served it in a mug glass.
Drank next to a friend and other stylish patrons and smiled at the ambiance.
The only difference: There was no alcohol in his cocktail.
Ms. Horton, 43, has stopped drinking regularly for the past few months, mainly because she now craves alcohol. “I’ve been partying for years, but now I don’t want to drink,” she said. “Something has changed in my brain.”
When she came to New York for a weekend girls trip last month, she was planning to order seltzer on her way out. “I like the ambiance and I can have fun without drinking,” she said. However, he quickly realized that most establishments, including the city’s most popular bars, have a sophisticated and comprehensive list of non-alcoholic cocktails.
The night before, Oscar Wilde, a quirky Victorian-themed bar on West 27th Street, had a juice bar.
Can you see the difference? Non-alcoholic spirits like Gnista, Kentucky 74, Seedlip, and Lyre sit next to their drunkard friends. Credit… Krista Schlueter for The New York Times
He didn’t even care that the non-alcoholic cocktails at Nubeluz were $20, a few dollars less than the alcoholic ones. “It was so much fun being able to have a cute cocktail with my friend,” she said. “Besides, I’d pay anything to be happy that I don’t have a hangover the next day.”
Across New York City, locals and tourists alike enjoy elaborate, expensive, and soulless cocktails. Far from your everyday “mocktail”, these are dreamed up by professional mixologists, made with premium ingredients, including distilled soft spirits, and presented in sparkling glass containers with garnishes.
“It’s not just a bartender who mixes cranberry juice and adds ginger ale and calls it a fancy cocktail,” said Chelsea DeMark, who creates drinks for bars, including Thompson Central Park. Opened about a year ago, the hotel offers a drink called Bee’s Knees with a Twist, which costs $19 and includes soulless gin, lime and honey (alcoholic cocktails range from $21 to $28).
To the naked eye, these non-alcoholic cocktails are indistinguishable from the ones that will get you drunk.
Miguel Lancha, head of the cocktail program at Nubeluz, which opened in September, said multiple guests had mistakenly ordered soft drinks off the menu. “I would say they were generally pleasantly surprised when they found out that their drinks were free of alcohol,” he said with a laugh.
Some sober customers are excited about these options because it allows them to continue to enjoy the experience of going to a high-end cocktail destination. But others say the cocktails don’t taste good, aren’t healthy enough, or aren’t worth the high prices.
They still sell.
According to Ms. DeMark, every five non-alcoholic cocktails are sold in Thompson Central Park, along with alcohol.
“Our non-alcoholic cocktails now make up almost five percent of our sales,” said Tony Mosca, food and beverage manager at the famous Upper East Side hotel Carlyle. “It shows there’s a market for it.”
“We see people looking for an alcoholic beverage, but they may have a secondary drink that may be non-alcoholic,” he added.
Carlyle’s piano bar, Bemelmans Bar, already has four non-alcoholic options, including non-alcoholic tequila, lime juice, orange syrup, and Pepito “The Bad Hat” with soda, which costs $26. According to Mr. Mosca, four more will be added later in the year.
Mixologists say they can now offer non-alcoholic cocktails as they have new ingredients.
“There used to be no soft drinks, so non-alcoholic cocktails would just be juice and soda,” said Mr. Lancha. “The materials available now to make the drinks are very modern and are getting better every day.”
For example, Ritual Zero Proof, a company that produces non-alcoholic spirits for cocktails, makes alternatives to whiskey, gin, tequila and rum. Seedlip is another company that makes non-alcoholic distilled spirits with a variety of flavor profiles, many of which match traditional liquor types. (There are also many brands that make non-alcoholic wine and beer.)
One of the reasons non-alcoholic cocktails are so expensive is because their ingredients are expensive. Non-alcoholic spirits can be sold for around $40 a bottle. “They’re trying to distill just like a spirit,” said Ms. DeMark. “They cost us a large amount of coins and you often have to use more than regular spirits to get the same results because the flavor isn’t that strong.”
Some bosses might say.
Sandie Gong, 33, who works for a tech company and lives in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, ordered soulless cocktails at five different bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan when she got pregnant last year. “I remember one of the first drinks I drank was an Aperol spritz, but it tasted like it was all made of sugar,” she said.
Didn’t just try the cocktails. “I bought a $25 bottle of non-alcoholic red wine, it tasted like it was spoiled,” he said.
“I just love the taste of alcohol and these drinks don’t taste like that,” he said. “I just want them to create a synthetic alcohol that tastes like alcohol.”
Indeed, mixologists say one of the challenges of non-alcoholic cocktails (and another reason why the price is so high) is that zero-proof spirits can be more difficult to work with. They’re also new, so there’s been little time to fix them. “Think of all the history whiskey has had,” said Mr. Lancha.
“You can shake a gin and it still tastes like gin, but if you do it with a non-alcoholic spirit, you may lose all the flavor,” said Ms. DeMark. “We tried to make a non-alcoholic vermouth where we cooked the grapefruit and herbaceous ingredients and added some vinegar. It’s tough and it didn’t come out the same every time.
He said he currently feels lighter, fruitier options like Tiki drinks are easier to use than darker ones like old-fashioned and Manhattans. “If you’re interested in the richer, deeper profile, we still have a long way to go,” he said. “That rich, warm, wintery cocktail is hard to come by.”
Another complaint from customers is that drinking non-alcoholic cocktails still feels unhealthy.
“Most non-alcoholic cocktails in restaurants are like sugar-filled children’s drinks,” said Lisa Morse, 55, a clinical psychologist in New York City.
She tries to avoid alcohol as it gives her a headache and affects her sleep. He tried many soulless concoctions in bars and restaurants — “I love the experience of drinking a cocktail without the negative health effects of alcohol,” he said — but he didn’t feel good about what it was putting into his body.
Instead, she started making cocktails at home by mixing seltzer with Ghia, a drink-free, low-sugar snack (about $40 a bottle). “If we have people for cocktails or dinner, it’s fun to have a drink and share the experience,” he said.
Bartenders say they can make “cleaner” or simpler drinks as the quality of zero-proof spirits improves.
“We don’t have a good sip of alcohol yet like a glass of cognac or whiskey,” said Mr. Lancha. “I think we’ll find out soon.”
Mr Mosca said he hopes to soon be able to serve Carlyle’s martinis without alcohol. “This is definitely something we need to work on,” he said. “Never say never.”