Going Zero Proof

The search for nonalcoholic refreshment in the Land of Liquor

If you don’t drink, there are always a few reliably awkward occasions. The wedding toast, when your water glass collides with someone’s champagne flute. The entire holiday season, which becomes one long, grim march of plastic cups filled with sparkling apple cider. At a restaurant, when drink orders are taken and the train of convivial, lubricated conversation is about to leave the station without you. And, especially in the South, the moment the brown liquor comes out and the sitting around telling lies begins.

You’d think that for those of us who don’t drink—for reasons of personal taste or health, or from waking up in the wrong place once too often—the whole cocktail-nation revolution thing would seem annoying. But it has actually been a revolution for us, too. I have never had a better time not drinking. No longer must one mumble, “ginger ale, please” at the bar. Now you can have as lively a conversation with the bartender or the waiter about the complexity of your drink as the woman sitting next to you contemplating a Ramos Gin Fizz with vanilla powder.

There are house-made tonics and infused syrups to consider, muscadine grapes and cucumbers to muddle, round or square ice cubes to play with. The best bartenders can take your request for something made with lime, cucumber, and soda and hit it with the perfect balance of simple syrup and serrano chiles, or strain into a martini glass flavors you never imagined would work together. Bar trays that once held only maraschino cherries and green olives are now filled with preserved satsuma peel and sprigs of fresh thyme. A new generation of bitters offers flavors like cardamom, curry, and coffee made in small batches with the same focus a chemist once gave to a cough elixir. (For those who don’t take even a drop of alcohol, there are some bitters now made without an alcohol base.)

All of this puts more responsibility on those of us who don’t drink to think more about what might pair well with what we’re eating, focusing on drinks that are more savory than sweet. I have had great pleasure drinking a dry Meyer lemon soda with a dish of tilefish and spring vegetables, and find certain oolong teas go well with beef that has been braised with a hint of star anise. Sassafras and pork belly is also a winning pair.

See? Even if we don’t drink alcohol, we can still sound as snobby as the next food geek. And all we ask is that you don’t, under any circumstances, call our drink a mocktail.