Any good host knows that a holiday party isn’t a holiday party without a variety of beverages to offer guests.
Just as one might prepare fancy cocktails or provide interesting beer and wine choices, offering nonalcoholic options that go beyond the typical soda or juice can make the difference between a roaring good time and a flat evening for guests who want to avoid getting tipsy. Yet finding drink options sans booze that aren’t cloyingly sweet or served directly from a bottle can create a challenge.
At the Steeping Room, a restaurant and tea lounge with locations at 44th Street and Lamar Boulevard and in the Domain, co-owners Amy March and Emily Morrison aimed to have something for everyone on their drink menu. They created a list of "Tea-Tails" in addition to their hot and cold tea offerings. At first glance, many of the drinks look as elaborate as one might find at the nearest craft cocktail bar. It’s not often you find drinks that don’t contain alcohol crafted with such care and creativity.
When conjuring the concoctions, March and Morrison use a process similar to that of the modern craft bartender. March says her skill in this area sprouts from her culinary background, where success comes in the form of bringing together disparate flavors with elegance to craft a perfect dish. Having the ability to consider all the different potential components that can create a fancy nonalcoholic drink — the base, the bitter, the sweet, the aromatic and garnishes — and finding a way to get them to mesh together into a final balanced product is key.
The first step is choosing the base liquid. "Find crisp, clean bases, good flavors to build on. That’s a good way to create a successful drink," March says. Tea makes for a great base because it has an inherent dryness that other liquids do not have. Other options range from simple club soda or tonic water to spicy ginger beer (which contrary to its title, doesn’t have any alcohol), tame sparkling cider, or drinking vinegar. "Look at different bubbly mineral waters, different teas. How can we bring in a base palate flavor and build off of it without the alcohol? There is a good amount of potential there. People don’t have to be segregated to just Coca-Cola."
Depending on the amount of sugar already in the base ingredient, consider whether the drink needs an additional sweetening agent. "A little bit of sugar can lift both floral and fruit notes, so it’s a useful tool," March says. "I think of it as a tool to highlight, versus becoming the first flavor in the drink." Simple syrup infused with spices or fruit, agave nectar, or a tea-based syrup are great ingredients to play with. Always keep balance in mind. The less over-the-top sweet the drink is, the more likely a guest can enjoy more than one.
Next, bring in additional flavor elements to complement and enhance the base. Spices can add a bitter personality, citrus juice can lighten and lift heavy flavors, and herbs can bring an earthy touch to the mix. Most of them can be incorporated through the syrup, or directly muddled, stirred or shaken, just as an alcoholic cocktail would be. March likes using a variety of aromatics to increase the diversity of flavors in her drinks. "Floral elements, like rose water, orange flower water; things that are more perfuming, if used sparingly, provide an undertone, something that makes it a little unique."
Finally, most of the best alcohol-based cocktails are completed with a garnish. Don’t shy away from this element in the nonalcoholic drink as well. A whiff of orange zest or bundle of fresh mint can tickle the senses and create a remarkable gateway into the drink. "Fresh nutmeg to grate, cinnamon sticks, mint, fresh citrus rinds to rub on the glass, all of those things are really important," March says. Pull out a single flavor from within the drink and decorate the top of the glass with an enticing burst to add that detail.
At the Steeping Room, the best example of this process is an exquisitely balanced "Mojteato," a riff on the rum-based mojito. "I wanted a mojito without alcohol, so we started with club soda, and we muddle our mint with a little simple syrup, and then we whisk in a little matcha to bring in the tea side of it," March says. "Instead of using a heavy iced tea, we use the tea powder, which makes it emerald bright, but it also makes it extremely clean and brings a crisp and slightly sharp flavor. There’s a sweet, creamy side to matcha, but there’s also that slightly astringent flavor that matches with the club soda. And then bringing in an aromatic like mint. It’s meant to refresh. It’s meant to be fun."
For your own inventive holiday drinks, March recommends finding inspiration in the fresh flavors of the season, which can be discovered at the local farmer’s market. "There are great satsumas right now, lots of fresh pomegranates. Flavors I like this time of year are orange, ginger, caramel, and cinnamon, if I want to go with that natural seasonal flavor," she says. "Make a cinnamon extract or syrup. Bring in some star anise or clove."