Skip the hangover but not the holiday fun with one bar's 'placebo' cocktails

It's that time of the year again. Nearly every weekend is filled with a holiday party, and for most people, that means more drinking than usual. But one Parkdale bar is changing the way people raise their glasses this season with "placebo" cocktails.

Parkdale bar mixing up complex non-alcoholic cocktails that taste and look like the real thing

A big motivation behind creating the 'placebo' cocktail, says Evelyn Chick, was to give those not drinking tasty and intricate opinions other than soda or juice. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

It's that time of the year again. Nearly every weekend is filled with a holiday party, and for most people, that means more drinking than usual. But one Parkdale bar is changing the way people raise their glasses this season with "placebo" cocktails.

Made from ingredients such as roots, fruit peels and herbs, these aren't your typical mocktails that are loaded with sugar. Instead the placebo drinks made at Pretty Ugly look, smell and taste like the real deal, just minus the hangover.

"If you're pregnant, or a recovering alcoholic, or don't drink for religious reasons or just don't like it, you should still be able to enjoy a bar," Robin Goodfellow, the owner of Pretty Ugly, says.

Fancy cocktails without the booze 

Goodfellow and Evelyn Chick, the bar's manager, spent a year trying, brewing and mixing different ingredients to get the tastes and textures right so their customers would have non-boozy options.

"You want delicious things even when you're not drinking," Chick says. "Endorphins get released when we taste something very interesting, or we taste something that we like. We want to make sure that people who aren't drinking get that same sort of happiness."

The first placebo they came up with was the fauxmaro spritz, a take on the amaro spritz that's based on an Italian herbal liqueur.

"The first thing that we developed is a fake amaro, which is actually a root extract," Chick says. "We also make our own fake vermouth."

Placebos remove stigma around not drinking

Another motivation for creating complex and savoury non-alcoholic beverages was to make it easier for people to blend into the crowd even if not drinking.

"For most people, drinking is a very social thing. A lot of the times you want to be a part of the social scenario, you want to continue conversations with people, you don't want to be the one who's holding a cup of soda. It's not that you have to drink but [the placebos] makes you feel like you're part of that scenario," Chick says.

A big part of ensuring that feeling of inclusion, Goodfellow says, was getting the name right. The name "placebo" is the brainchild of the pair's close friend, a well-known Toronto chef and recovering alcoholic.

"I hate the word mocktail...So this a mock version of the what you're supposed to be drinking," Goodfellow says.

But these drinks are anything but fake. They're complex, savoury and nearly indistinguishable from the alcoholic version. Chick says the proof is in the reaction she gets from customers.

"A pregnant woman was so happy, she told me she was finally able to enjoy a bar with her husband. And so many people who don't drink, or who are the designated driver for the night, tell me they're excited by all the options on the menu."

Currently, Pretty Ugly has five placebo drinks and the bar is experimenting with more.

About the Author

Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and investigative journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie: natalie.nanowski@cbc.ca