Non-drinkers pushing bars for better alcohol-free cocktails

It's not completely commonplace yet, but there is a growing push from some establishments to offer more interesting and complex alcohol-free drink options.

Some bartenders enjoy making cocktails with no booze because they says it allows for creativity

Bars are in the business of serving alcohol, but some consumers are pressing them to come up with more interesting drinks that don't contain booze. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

For years, Carolyn Rebeyka has met friends at the same Regina bar every Friday afternoon for drinks. Sometimes they'd celebrate a birthday or triumph at work, other times they'd just catch up.

Then, about three years ago, her doctor put her on medication and suggested she avoid drinking to better monitor her body's reaction to the drug.

"It wasn't permanent, but I actually kind of liked not drinking," Rebeyka said.

She said she was never a heavy drinker, but enjoyed not feeling the effects of alcohol.

"Even if you had a few drinks, you could still feel the difference the next morning. It's not that you're hung over, but you can tell the difference."

Now, Rebeyka rarely drinks, but going to bars and restaurants is still a big part of her social life.

Like many others who have decided to cut back on drinking, Rebeyka has found there are often few interesting drink options that don't include booze. Many of the traditional options are uninspired (juice, sparkling water) or overly sweet (Shirley Temples, virgin daiquiris).

"The options for alcohol, those are almost unlimited," she said. "It seems like bars don't want to be as creative when they're serving their non-drinkers."

It's not completely commonplace yet, but there is a growing push from some establishments to offer more interesting and complex alcohol-free drink options.

Allows for creativity

Kate Boushel, a bartender at Montreal's Atwater Cocktail Club, said customers come in asking for drinks containing no alcohol "every night," and she enjoys making them since it allows her to be creative. 

"I've had fun and made cocktails that look exactly like other cocktails on my menu, just instead of alcohol, I've replaced it with low-sugar fruit juice," she said.

"I'll do apple juice with a touch of carrot and maybe some thyme syrup, with a little bit of our house tonic. That will be refreshing, light, but it will still be more complex than, let's say, a virgin mojito."

People ordering non-alcoholic drinks often don't want to draw attention to the fact they aren't drinking, and in some cases, they'll request Boushel's help in not blowing their cover.

This often happens with pregnant women, when it's too early to make an announcement.

"With women who are pregnant, funny enough, the bartender is one of the first people who finds out," Boushel said. "They don't want their friends to know, so [they ask], 'Can you make me look like I'm drinking?"'

I don't feel that a bar is a place that only should serve people who want to get drunk- Robin Goodfellow

A similar request also frequently comes from people who are "out and about with business partners, or clients," she said. "Maybe they've had enough, but they want to keep up appearances."

The team at Pretty Ugly cocktail bar in Toronto has gone even further to accommodate patrons who don't drink. They spent nearly a year developing "placebo" liquors: non-alcoholic concoctions intended to replace actual booze. Owner and bartender Robin Goodfellow has developed an alcohol-free amaro, a Campari, and a plum wine.

"I don't feel that a bar is a place that only should serve people who want to get drunk," Goodfellow said.

He said he likes drinking but hates being drunk, and that many of his friends abstain from alcohol.

"You can enjoy the music, the decor, the conversations, the energy of a bar even if you're not drinking."

He doesn't want his drinks to completely replicate the taste of liquor, but instead, to provide an option that "has that feeling of a Negroni or a Manhattan." He said his alcohol-free Negroni is "definitely for a mature palate, someone who maybe used to drink Campari."

'Placebo drink'

Goodfellow has wondered about serving a non-alcoholic cocktail to someone with a drinking problem who might be at risk of a relapse. He has asked his friend who coined the term "placebo drink," chef Matty Matheson, if he thought the offering could be dangerous.

"If I make something really similar tasting to something he used to drink, is that going to trigger his same old habits that he's trying to avoid?" Goodfellow wondered. "He told us no, but ... I would love to hear what people think about that, because that's something I'm concerned about."

Dr. Jonathan Bertram, who's with Toronto's Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, said there's no one answer. Addiction experts have isolated two major triggers that can cause relapse in people with alcoholism, Bertram explained.

"There's the very obvious chemical trigger, which is a result of alcohol initiating a dopamine release in the brain," Bertram said. "But then there's also this sort of anticipatory excitement or euphoria that comes from a person engaging in the ritual of drinking."

In those cases, drinking something meant to resemble an alcoholic drink — or even being in a bar environment at all — can be a trigger.

But that risk is "not an easy thing to standardize or isolate," because it doesn't necessarily apply to everyone, Bertram said. And sometimes, the option of a placebo drink can "make it a lot easier for a person to go out and socially integrate into the drinking exercise without having to use alcohol."

He urged people in recovery to consult their doctors before making the decision.

Social pressure

When Cory Bagdon of Thunder Bay, Ont., decided to take a break from alcohol for a summer while in university about 10 years ago, he found the social pressure to drink was "isolating."

"When I gave up drinking, I would be treated differently," he said. "I'd go out with the same people, but they wouldn't talk to me the same way."

He recalled friends seeming "offended" that he didn't want to drink, and said an acquaintance once got physically aggressive when he refused a shot.

Even now, Bagdon sometimes feels pressure to drink more than he wants to at social gatherings. To avoid an awkward conversation, he'll sometimes order a bottled beer and fill it up with water once it's empty.

"It seems strange that even though I don't want to be a part of the drinking culture, I can't separate myself from the social component of drinking culture," he said.

Goodfellow said his ultimate goal in dreaming up new drinks and running his bar in general is to make it more welcoming for people who aren't interested in getting drunk.

"I very much promote alcohol consumption, done responsibly," he said.

"But I love that maybe we're changing the way non-drinkers enjoy nightlife."