About a year ago we hosted a little cocktail party at our house with few friends, and upon invitation one of them said that he wasn’t drinking at the time and asked whether we would be serving any non-alcoholic options. Now I always had reserved some coke or club soda for those who don’t feel like drinking or who just want to have something non-alcoholic between the drinks, but this time I thought that would be kind of lame, especially now that I knew beforehand that there was a need for non-alcoholic options. So I wanted to do something better, something that would match the quality of cocktails, both taste-wise and visually. I had a problem though. I really had never tasted a mocktail, as non-alcoholic cocktails are called, that would meet my standard of not just drinkable but actually enjoyable beverage – Something that would be a joy to behold and would satisfy your desire of culinary discovery. For my taste, all the mocktails I had tasted were either too sour or too sweet, and oddly enough, sometimes both at the same time! – Just an assault to one’s senses that really killed all the little dawning curiosity I had had about mocktails.
So, challenge accepted, I thought. Once I started researching about the matter, it quite soon became clear to me, that sweet and sour are indeed usually the main framework of taste in mocktails, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Such is the case with many classic cocktails as well, like Whiskey Sour, Tom Collins, Sidecar and what have you. These two archetypes of flavour are the foundation, the jing and jang, the light and shadow of the world of taste, always battling over dominance and the role of the mix-ologist is to bring balance between these two and by doing so, create peace. On the palate, that is. Now peacemaking is a tricky business. You have to make sure that each side feels heard and represented, you will have to make some compromises and quite often introduce new ideas into the mix. Let’s see how these principles apply to mocktail making.
Balance is a very subjective concept, and since we’re not trying to achieve world peace here, that’s all just fine. Our goal, your goal, is to create a beverage that feels balanced and peaceful on your palate. What this means in practice is, that you have to find the balance between say sugar and lemon juice. When I go about creating a new mocktail or cocktail recipe, I usually start by adding equal parts of both of these elements, and then start adjusting the balance between these two. As mentioned, this is a very subjective thing, some like it more to the sour end, I tend to prefer it more to the sweet end, but not even nearly every time.
On introducing new ideas. You could just keep mixing lemon juice and sugar, but that gets boring quite fast, and hardly anyone would take you seriously as a mix-ologist, least of all yourself. That’s why, new ideas, different flavours and combinations need to be introduced. There are many ways to do this, but I personally have found the most effective way to be the combination of these three ingredients: 1) flavoured syrup, 2) juice and 3) the “water it down”, like tonic or club soda. You can make endless combinations with these three elements, but I would suggest you to start from the combination you know work, such as lemon & ginger, blueberry & lavender and strawberry & basil. I personally like to introduce also an element of bitterness, it gives the drink a more sophisticated taste and can be easily achieved for example with grapefruit juice or tonic water. Try that out and you’ll notice that bitter and sour are actually two different things. And keep in mind that the simpler the drink is, the better the quality of the ingredients should be. Granted, they should always be good, but in simple 2 or 3 part recipes you can’t hide anything.
So eventually I was able to overcome my antipathy for mocktails and a whole new world was opened to me. A world of endless possibilities, discovery and refreshment. I no longer view mocktails as secondary to alcoholic beverages, often I actually prefer the first. I feel no need to make an alcoholic version of a great mocktail, nor do I necessarily feel like mocktails should imitate the taste of a certain cocktail. They stand very well on their own merit, head high next to their alcoholic partners. Mocktails are cool. Go Mocktails!