You don't need a reason. Whether you're a teetotaler, in recovery, pregnant or taking a Dry January-like break from alcohol, you shouldn't feel out of place ordering a drink sans the booze when you're at a bar.
Or, at least, that's the philosophy taking root at some of Austin's most prominent cocktail bars. While making complex mixed drinks with fine spirits and fresh ingredients, these bars (and restaurants, too) have come to recognize they will miss out on serving a large chunk of potential visitors if they don't also offer nonalcoholic options of the same caliber.
Called "mocktails," zero-proof drinks or virgin cocktails depending upon who you're talking to, nonalcoholic beverages often have their own section on the drinks menu at these places. Even if they don't, skilled bartenders can still whip up something at your request. And no, it won't just be Sprite served in a fancy glass. Nonalcoholic cocktails can be just as multifaceted as those with booze, relying on more than one ingredient for their flavor profile.
For Justin Lavenue, co-owner of the Roosevelt Room on West Fifth Street in downtown Austin, offering the option of nonalcoholic drinks is a necessity to welcome new customers. Lavenue pointed to one study where almost half of American adults said they hadn't consumed an alcoholic beverage within a month's time.
"That means that we would only appeal to 50 percent of the population if we didn't offer the non-drinking population of the city something that they would enjoy on a night out," Lavenue said. "In addition to that, even guests who drink regularly sometimes want to enjoy a well-crafted beverage sans alcohol."
To that end, the Roosevelt Room has spirit-free tipples like the Glitter & Marigold. One look at the stunning sunshine-colored cocktail and you wouldn't guess it completely lacks alcohol. Featuring orange juice, orange flower water, pistachio extract, vanilla bean, cream and cinnamon powder, the ice-filled Glitter & Marigold comes in a striking ridged glass with a metal straw and an orange peel garnish that has been shaped into a delicate rose. It looks like a rum-heavy tiki cocktail.
And that's the point: to give people who don't want to drink the chance to still feel included during nights out with friends and significant others who might be imbibing.
Just a couple of blocks from the Roosevelt Room is Garage, a cocktail bar tucked into the lower level of a parking garage within the McGarrah Jessee building. Two of its key operators — owner William Ball and operations manager Philip Speer — are sober, after struggling with alcohol dependency, so the hideaway spot has an "unleaded" section of drinks that is only growing in size. (The sections of the cocktail menu here are all titled with car-related terms, such as "custom" and "refurbished.")
This spring, the unleaded section will have up to five cocktails, increasing from the three usual options.
"We don't want people to feel excluded," said Paul Finn, Garage's general manager and beverage director. Though the downtown spot is in the food and beverage business, he said, "what we are really providing is an experience, a safe haven, hospitality."
Like the Roosevelt Room, Garage aims to make sure the nonalcoholic beverages look virtually the same as the ones with booze. They are created similarly, as well.
But one key thing is different. Bartenders come up with cocktails using a particular spirit, such as bourbon or tequila, as the jumping-off point, with additional ingredients built around it to draw out or enhance particular flavors. Without spirits, "we have to rethink the inspiration and come up with something better than just some juices poured into the same glass," Finn said.
Lavenue said he starts nonalcoholic cocktail creation by getting an idea of the flavors he wants to achieve in the drink. From there, he can settle on a main ingredient that will serve as the base, along with complementary or accentuating ingredients to give the cocktail "balance and seasoning."
Of course, it helps when a product comes along that is intended to mimic spirits without having any alcohol in it at all. On Garage's most recent menu, the Curious Orange drink might give you temporary pause. It has Thai chile, orange, lime, a honey-ginger syrup and ginger beer — as well as something called Seedlip Garden, listed first. Seedlip, according to its website, makes the world's first nonalcoholic "spirits" — actually distilled herbal blends meant to substitute for liquor in mixed drinks.
The Seedlip products help to provide much-needed structure to nonalcoholic drinks despite their subtlety, Finn said. (Subtle perhaps because of what's in them: The Garden variety is "a floral blend of hand-picked peas and homegrown hay" along with "traditional garden herb distillates in celebration of the English countryside.") The bottles are expensive. Garage is one of the very few bars in Austin to use them — but maybe not for long.
"We have also started working on our own non-alcohol distillates and hope to have a spirit-free 'gin' ready by summer," Finn said, adding that the bar plans to infuse the distillates with ingredients like juniper, coriander and citrus. "Infusing a non-alcohol distillate is a lot trickier than infusing alcohol, so it's taking time to get it just right. Once we have that, though, we can literally make hundreds of classics based on the gin model. The flavor will be there, but the alcohol will not."
Other places in Austin are also shaking, muddling and stirring nonalcoholic options or otherwise creating shrubs, sodas and other one-ingredient booze-free drinks. Here's where else to go for zero-proof fun.
Houndstooth Coffee: Until last year, when the coffee company's first cafe (the East Austin location) opened with a liquor license, Houndstooth Coffee had only been able to make mixed drinks sans booze but with one important starting ingredient — coffee. You can still find nonalcoholic coffee cocktails there, such as the Ginger Oh, Snap, recently featured in Imbibe magazine: cold brew concentrate, ginger beer, fresh lime juice and maple simple syrup.
Wild Chix & Waffles: Without spirits, bartenders can still rely on classic cocktails for inspiration. In the case of the casual Burnet Road restaurant, that's the mojito, a drink normally made with white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water and mint. The Almost Mojito at Wild Chix & Waffles is made with mint, cucumber puree and lime, and it tastes like your mouth is embarking on a relaxing spa day, rum completely forgotten.
Launderette: Named after the former purpose of the tidy building that now houses chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki's neighborhood restaurant, Launderette has at least two "mocktails" on the menu that rely on the tart grip of shrubs — a combination of fruit, sugar and vinegar — for their flavor. You'll find that drinks like the Grapefruit Fresno, with white balsamic, apple cider vinegar, fresh grapefruit, Fresno chiles and lime, will make the argument you really don't need alcohol at all.
Odd Duck: The sibling restaurants Barley Swine and Odd Duck have a rotating list of house-made sodas on the menu, and rest assured they're better than the soda you can buy in mass quantity at the store. Odd Duck's lemon-lime option is lightly carbonated and more resembles a cocktail than a Coke. That's partly because of the lemon and lime peels that garnish it in a narrow Collins glass and because it's not as sugary, as a citrusy simple syrup combined with soda water.
Holy Roller: An edgy diner, Holy Roller has become as much known for its playful cocktails as its all-day brunch dishes. Teetotalers aren't forgotten, either. The acidic combination of shrubs, such as cherry and sorrel or grapefruit and habanero, with Austin-favorite sparkling mineral water Topo Chico, will give you a full-flavored, nicely effervescent drink. You can also order bluntly named mocktails like Spicy, Sweet or Citrus.
Fresa's on South First: What could possibly go better with tacos and wood-grilled Latin American fare than the vibrantly colored agua frescas this patio-heavy spot (also from Ortiz and Sawicki) makes in flavors like hibiscus and sandia? Well, nothing.
Midnight Cowboy: The dimly lit speakeasy squeezed between the many shot bars of Sixth Street introduced a new travel-themed cocktail menu, shaped like a passport, late last year. Within its pages is a small list of "nonalcoholic excursions" that include the 40th Parallel, made with Seedlip's Spice variety, spiced peach tea, apricot honey and Topo Chico. It'll help you pace yourself as you make your boozy way around the world.
Hillside Farmacy: One of Austin's original farm-to-table concepts has almost a half-dozen house-made sodas on the menu, such as the Pickpocket, with strawberry, basil and balsamic. Fruity, tart and herbaceous all in one gulp, the soda is $4 if virgin, $8 if you decide to add booze. The rum or whiskey recommended for this one almost aren't necessary; the bubbly concoction has enough to offer entirely on its own.