Sons & Daughters is a one-starred Michelin restaurant in San Francisco that offers, in addition to its $225 tasting menu, a $95 beverage pairing. Sounds reasonable? Well, consider the nine beverages are all nonalcoholic.
Cured Mount Lassen trout might come with a coriander shrub with white and purple currants. Maine lobster is paired with lactic-fermented green strawberries, raw carrots and strawberry vinegar, and Umpqua Valley lamb has beetroot juice with blackberries smoked over applewood.
The spirits-free pairing is actually one of the less expensive options in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s Kiln offers pairings designed by a former lead sommelier at Atelier Crenn for $125, and Healdsburg’s SingleThread mixes another for $150 to accompany 10 courses of Michelin-starred cuisine.
Harrison Cheney, executive chef at Sons & Daughters, says he shouldn’t need to defend the price tag of his pairing – despite it having the buzz equivalent of a deep breath of mountain air.
“We’re lactic-fermenting gooseberries. We peel and wash and weigh and season them, then let them ferment for five days,” he says. “We’re juicing carrots and bringing them together in seasoning. There are a lot of processes, and they’re almost mini-courses in a way.”
Fancy nonalcoholic restaurant drinks is nothing new. It’s been at least a decade since Copenhagen’s Noma supposedly started the trend. But they’re reaching heights never before seen in fine dining. That goes triple in the food-obsessed Bay Area. If you don’t have a stonefruit-infused kombucha mocktail on the beverage menu, it’s almost like you don’t have a real menu at all.
“I think mocktails are a must-have on any beverage menu. I require two to four crafted, no-ABV cocktails on all of our menus,” says Dean Wendel, executive director of food and beverages for Concord Hospitality, which runs dozens of U.S. hotels, including The Exchange in Sacramento.
“These need to be well-thought out and curated to fit the guest. Gen Z is not a huge alcohol-consuming group, but they do want to socialize. You have to be able to offer them something intriguing to keep them there.”
Blossom & Root, a new fine-dining vegan restaurant in Danville, serves a sparkling “Mermaid” lemonade that turns Caribbean blue when mixed with spirulina syrup at the table. In the near future, it might have mocktails with dark-green ice cubes thanks to a healthy infusion of chlorophyll.
“We’re sort of moving toward a future right now where new generations aren’t really focused on drinking alcohol,” says general manager Carmelo Pullaro. “So we need to make some drinks for everyone that are enticing, flavorful and full of ingredients that normal alcoholic cocktails would have, and still make your mouth water and your mind go ‘Wow!’”
Being a vegan operation, mocktails help Blossom & Root avoid the pitfalls of the alcoholic-beverage industry. Warning: You might want to skip this part if you enjoy drinking wine.
“They’re still using old-world tactics. I know some wineries are using a fish bladder to filter the wine,” Pullaro says. “Then there are winemakers who use bone char to refine the wine. It’s actually quite hard to find wines that are vegan.”
Wildseed, a vegan restaurant in Palo Alto and San Francisco, carries an extensive menu of mocktails, including a N/Agroni with corn silk and smoked thyme and a Passion Sour with nonalcoholic rum, lime and a cloudlike topping.
“We use aquafaba, the chickpea liquid, which if done correctly in cocktails, gives it the fluffiness and soft texture of egg white,” says senior general manager Leilani Powers. “That’s one drink that’s intended for somebody who wants to feel like they’re drinking alcohol, but doesn’t want to feel the effect.”
These beverages aren’t just about accommodating different tastes, says Powers. They also make economic sense.
“More and more people are choosing healthy lifestyles and not to drink alcohol, so I do think it’s important to be flexible and change with the times,” she says. “That part of our beverage program is growing each year. I would say it’s now probably about 35 percent of our entire sales on the beverage side.”
As mocktails gain popularity, tastes have become more exacting. For a while you couldn’t make an authentic-tasting, no-alcohol Sazerac or Manhattan because a key ingredient, cocktail bitters, contains alcohol. Enter Ian and Carly Blessing, former French Laundry sommeliers who last year founded All the Bitter in Chico. It’s one of perhaps only three companies in the U.S. making nonalcoholic bitters – there’s one in New Orleans, another in Colorado – and business is booming.
“Nonalcoholic cocktail bitters were something the marketplace was in desperate need of,” says Ian Blessing. “We started off developing recipes in our home kitchen. Now we’re moving into a larger space in our own 3,000-square-foot facility, and we’re adding more tanks, more employees, everything.”
The tinctures are made from a base of vegetable glycerin, water and apple cider, and require many more raw botanicals and longer steeping times than traditional bitters.
“These products were probably always needed, but for whatever reason they just started to come around in the last couple of years,” he says. “And now that these options exist, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s no longer acceptable to offer a Shirley Temple or some muddled mint in a glass of pineapple juice and Sprite. That’s fine for your 7 year old, but I’m a 37-year-old grown man.”
Boozeless bitters – and N/A wine and spirits alternatives – aren’t just for teetotalers. Eighty percent of people buying these alternatives still drink alcohol, says Blessing.
“They’re not sober,” he says. “They’re simply people who are trying to drink less, who are maybe pregnant, or aren’t drinking for Dry January or Sober October, or work tomorrow at 9 a.m., or are training for a marathon. There are a million reasons why you might want to continue your evening and want another beverage, but don’t want more alcohol.”
That thinking extends to the upper echelons of the brewing realm. Wendy and Felipe Bravo are the founders of the Fox Tale Fermentation Project in San Jose, which last year was named best new craft brewery in the country by Hop Culture magazine. Aside from brewing their regular beers, the Bravos mix a line of nonalcoholic Mock Tales using ingredients such as fermented blackberries, violets, damiana tea and nettle syrup.
“What I get from our customers is a lot of gratitude that we put so much intention into these drinks – that it’s not a second thought like, ‘Here’s a Topo Chico,’” says Wendy Bravo. “They don’t feel like they’re missing out on something. I think that’s the most important part of it – people feel like you care about them, and they still belong in this social situation whether or not they drink.”
The elixirs are popular at Fox Tale, contributing up to 15 percent of total sales. “Folks in their 20s sit with Mock Tales throughout the night and go through quite a few of them,” says Bravo.
Of course, all this prompts the question: If they’re not drinking, what are Gen Z kids doing for fun these days?
“Hah – getting high,” jokes Felipe Bravo.
“Bunch of legal weed,” laughs Wendy Bravo. “Who knows? But it is cool to see a lot of young folks coming in who are happy with not drinking. And it feels like that’s a very positive thing – it feels empowering.”
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