Bartending used to be simple. Measure a jigger or two of liquor into a glass filled with ice and top it with a healthy splash of tonic, soda or just plain water. Toss in a lemon peel and serve with a cocktail napkin.
For more specialized drinks like whiskey sours and margaritas, you could fall back on those dependable pre-made, bottled “mixers.” And if you were really good, you could easily whip up an exquisitely balanced Manhattan or the “perfect martini,” shaken, not stirred, for the wiseguy with the James Bond complex at the end of the bar.
Today, life is a whole lot more complicated for bartenders. Not only has the universe of alcoholic mixed drinks expanded—what the heck is a Black Monday or a Blue Lagoon, anyway?—but it's been augmented by a whole new category of alcohol-free “mocktails.”
In the past, such concoctions were pale imitations of traditional mixed drinks—glorified lemonades masquerading as “virgin margaritas” or the vodka-challenged “Virgin Mary” standing in for the Bloody Mary like a spinster sister substituting for the family vamp at the church social. The customers for these oddball selections were teetotalers, designated drivers, Jehova's Witnesses or penitent drunks.
Well, call it the “New Prohibitionism,” but suddenly abstinence is in. An aging—and therefore more responsible and health-conscious— population intersecting with greater societal awareness of alcohol-related pathologies has led to swelling demand for alcohol-free drink options. Combine that with heightened consumer expectations of ever more—and more exotic—beverage choices, and you get an explosion of new alcohol-free “bar drinks” that not only dwarf the traditional repertoire of the average bartender but put greater pressure on the purchasing and inventory control functions for anyone keeping a bar stocked.
On the bright side, the exotic new virgin drinks command premium prices, something not possible with traditional mocktails where the absence of the alcohol component pretty much mandated a discounted price—if not an outright freebie.
For onsite operators of course, bar strategies are far from the core of their businesses. Alcohol is not a prominent part of the menu at schools, hospitals or workplaces. Yet, many colleges do operate campus taverns and faculty clubs, hospitals maintain private dining rooms and administrative lounges and corporate dining departments often are called on to cater functions where maintaining a bar is part of the assignment. In all these cases, an expanded mocktail repertoire offers a fairly easy expansion of premium service, boosting customer satisfaction along with revenues.
For everyday establishments like clubs and campus bars, signature drinks—ideally available in equally appealing alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions—help boost sales, add profit and serve as marketing vehicles. In addition, non-alcoholic alternatives expand the potential customer base, especially on college campuses where most of the undergraduate student body is under the legal drinking age.
Even leaving aside the alcohol, today's well-stocked bar has the SKU requirements of a small bodega. Dozens of bottled and canned mixers can vie for underbar space with a veritable fruit stand of sliced, diced, quartered and peeled produce that will be dunked, squeezed, pureed and mashed in dozens of drink combinations. Indeed, the bartender's guide, once a slim little volume easily committed to memory, is coming to resemble The Joy of Cooking in its heft.
Consumers are ultimately driving this, of course. Accustomed to an exploding variety of choices in the grocery beverage aisle, the c-store cooler and even the corner coffee kiosk, they expect no less at the bar.
Manufacturers—not just traditional bar-mix makers but retail beverage bottlers, especially those in the “New Age” category—have not been slow in responding. More products mean more shelf space and potentially greater market share, after all. And recipes for proprietary concoctions that require a manufacturer's own branded products as key ingredients (and the fact that the resultant drink often bears the name of the product) increase the attraction from a marketing perspective.
In a way, it's the perfect marketing storm (the perfect “markettini”?) where consumers, operators and suppliers all win.
Alcohol-Free Drinkology 101
Need a good one-stop-source for non-alcoholic beverage recipes? You could do a lot worse than The Original Guide to Alcohol-Free Beverages and Drinks, by Robert Plotkin (BarMedia, Tucson, AZ, 2002, $15.95 for paperback).
Given that Plotkin's other titles include such professional tomes as The Professional Bartender's Training Manual, The Bartender's Companion and The Professional Guide to Bartending: An Encyclopedia of American Mixology, the guy obviously knows his way around a martini shaker.
The Original Guide discussed here offers hundredsof simple but delectible recipes for non-alcoholic beverage concoctions,-along with a fascinating tutorial on a variety of related subjects, such as “Creating the Ultimate Alcohol-free Bloody Mary,”“How Apple Cider Is Made” and “Garnishing.” Also included are the histories of dozens of brand name drinks/ingredients like Martinelli's Sparkling Cider, Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drinks and ReaLemon Lemon Juice. Plotkin is also not shy about using branded ingredients in his recipes and even offers an index of manufacturer contacts for more info.
The book is divided into 14 chapters discussing categories like alcoholfree versions of mixed drinks, lemonade drinks, coffee drinks, smoothies and even one on kid's drinks, theoretically extending the book's relevance even to FSDs in the K-12 segment who want to try offering some special treats for special occasions or for themed meals.