On a Saturday night in December, just after sunset, Megan Horton sat at the bar of Nubeluz, a 50th-floor lounge on top of New York City’s newest Ritz Carlton hotel, savoring a drink.
She was in town from San Francisco, where she works for Apple in client services, and was in the mood to splurge.
With the city skyline in view around her, she watched as the bartender crafted an Emerald Coin, a drink with honeydew, lemongrass, lime and celery, and served it in a coupe glass.
She drank it alongside a friend and other stylish patrons and smiled as she took in the ambiance.
The only difference: Her cocktail didn’t have any alcohol in it.
Ms. Horton, 43, stopped drinking regularly over the past few months, mainly because she no longer craves alcohol. “I partied for so many years, but now I don’t feel like drinking,” she said. “Something has shifted in my brain.”
When she came to New York City for a weekend girls’ trip last month, she was planning to order seltzers when she went out. “I love the ambiance, and I can still have fun without drinking,” she said. But she quickly realized most establishments, including the city’s most popular bars, had a sophisticated and comprehensive list of spirit-free cocktails.
The night before, at Oscar Wilde, a quirky, Victorian-themed bar on West 27th Street, she had one with fruit juices.
She didn’t even mind that the mocktails at Nubeluz cost $20, a few dollars less than those with alcohol. “It was so fun that I could get a cute cocktail along with my friend,” she said. “Plus, I’ll pay whatever to feel happy that I’m not hungover the next day.”
Across New York City, locals and tourists alike are indulging in elaborate, pricey spirit-free cocktails. Far from your everyday “mocktail,” these are imagined by professional mixologists, crafted with premium ingredients including distilled alcohol-free spirits, and presented in sparkling glassware with garnishes.
“This isn’t just a bartender mixing cranberry juice and adding ginger ale and calling it a fancy cocktail,” said Chelsea DeMark who creates beverages for bars including the Thompson Central Park. That hotel, which opened about a year ago, serves a drink called a Bee’s Knees with a Twist, which costs $19 and includes spiritless gin, lime and honey (cocktails with alcohol range from $21 to $28).
To the naked eye, these booze-free cocktails are indistinguishable from the ones that will get you tipsy.
Miguel Lancha, who leads the cocktail program at Nubeluz, which opened in September, said he’s had multiple guests accidentally order spirit-free drinks off the menu. “I would say when they find out their drink has no alcohol, on the whole, they are pleasantly surprised,” he said, laughing.
Some sober patrons are thrilled with these options because it allows them to still enjoy the experience of going to a high-end cocktail destination. Others, however, say the cocktails don’t taste good, aren’t healthy enough, or are simply not worth the high prices.
Still, they are selling.
At the Thompson Central Park, one mocktail is sold for every five with alcohol, according to Ms. DeMark.
“Our alcohol-free cocktails now make up almost five percent of our sales,” said Tony Mosca, the director of food and beverage at the Carlyle, the famed Upper East Side hotel. “It shows there is a market for this.”
“We are seeing people who are looking for an alcoholic beverage, but they might have a secondary drink, which might be alcohol-free,” he added.
Bemelmans Bar, the Carlyle’s piano bar, already has four nonalcoholic options, including Pepito “The Bad Hat” with spirit-free tequila, lime juice, orange syrup and club soda, which costs $26. Four more will be added within the year, according to Mr. Mosca.
Mixologists say they can now offer nonalcoholic cocktails because they have novel ingredients.
“There used to be no nonalcoholic spirits, so alcohol-free cocktails would just be juice and soda,” Mr. Lancha said. “Now the ingredients available to make the drinks are very modern and only getting better.”
Ritual Zero Proof, a company that produces nonalcoholic spirits for cocktails, for example, makes a whiskey, gin, tequila and rum alternative. Seedlip is another company that makes nonalcoholic distilled spirits with a variety of flavor profiles, many of which match up with traditional types of liquor. (There are also many brands making nonalcoholic wines and beers.)
One of the reasons nonalcoholic cocktails are so expensive is that the ingredients are also costly. Nonalcoholic spirits can retail for around $40 a bottle. “They are putting effort into the distillation just like a spirit is,” Ms. DeMark said. “They cost us a good chunk of change, and often you have to use more of them than regular spirits to achieve the same results because the flavor isn’t as strong.”
Some patrons can tell.
When Sandie Gong, 33, who works for a tech company and lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, got pregnant last year, she ordered spirit-free cocktails at five different bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I remember one of the first drinks I had was an Aperol spritz, but it tasted like it was made entirely of sugar,” she said.
She didn’t just try cocktails. “I bought a $25 dollar bottle of nonalcoholic red wine that tasted like it had gone flat,” she said.
“I just love the taste of alcohol, and these drinks don’t taste like it,” she said. “I just want them to create a synthetic alcohol that tastes like alcohol.”
Indeed, mixologists say one of the challenges of nonalcoholic cocktails (and another reason the price is so high) is that zero-proof spirits can be more difficult to work with. They are also new, so there has been little time to get them right. “Think of all the history whiskey has,” Mr. Lancha said.
“You can shake the heck out of a gin, and it still tastes like gin, but if you do that with a nonalcoholic spirit, you might lose all the taste,” Ms. DeMark said. “We tried to make a nonalcoholic vermouth where we cooked down grapefruit and herbaceous ingredients and added a touch of vinegar. It’s tricky, and it didn’t come out the same every time.”
She said she currently feels the lighter, fruitier options like Tiki drinks are easier to make than the darker ones like old-fashioneds and Manhattans. “If you are interested in that richer, deeper profile, we have ways to go,” she said. “It’s hard to get that rich, warm, wintery cocktail.”
Another complaint from patrons is that drinking nonalcoholic cocktails still feels unhealthy.
“Most mocktails at restaurants are like sugar-filled kid’s drinks,” said Lisa Morse, 55, a clinical psychologist in New York City.
She tries to stay away from alcohol because it gives her a headache and impacts her sleep. She’s tried many spirit-free concoctions at bars and restaurants — “I like the experience of having a cocktail without the negative health effects that come with alcohol,” she said — but has left not feeling good about what she put into her body.
Instead, she’s started to make cocktails at home by mixing seltzer with Ghia, a booze-free, low-sugar aperitif (a bottle costs around $40). “If we have people for cocktails or dinner, it’s fun to have a drink and share in the experience,” she said.
Bartenders say that as the quality of zero-proof spirits improves, they will be able to make “cleaner” or simpler drinks.
“We don’t yet have good sipping alcohol, like the equivalent of a glass of cognac or whiskey,” Mr. Lancha said. “I think we will soon.”
Mr. Mosca said he hopes to be able to offer the Carlyle’s martini in nonalcoholic form soon. “That is definitely something we will have to work on,” he said. “Never say never.”