The value of NON ALCOHOLIC Cocktails
Frank Bruni, NY Times Column

Cocktails With a Twist: Zing but No Alcohol. A column that celebrates drinking should pause every once in a while to celebrate not drinking, given that alcohol is a two-edged sword:

catalyst for delight and engine of destruction; handled with restraint by some people, abused and best avoided entirely by others. It’s a drug, with all the attendant dangers, and it’s not the only way to experience liquid pleasure in a restaurant or bar. Others exist and warrant praise.

With that in mind, I set out the other night for the Flatiron district and the restaurant Craft, the linchpin of the chef, restaurateur and reality-TV star Tom Colicchio’s formidable empire. Craft turns 10 next month and remains a handsome setting with a gorgeous bar, all sufficiently inviting reasons to drop in. Here’s another: like a smattering of other restaurants around town, Craft has begun to pay particular attention to mixed drinks without any liquor.

Nearly a year ago it hired Sean Patrick McClure, who had tended bar at the restaurant Daniel, and asked him to upgrade the cocktail program. Part of what he has done since then is add several booze-free drinks to the nonalcoholic section of the beverage menu, a category that includes boutique sodas and sparkling ciders.

“All the time, people come in who are pregnant or who don’t drink, and if their dining partner is doing something like a full tasting menu with wine pairings, I don’t want them to have to suck down Coke all night,”

Mr. McClure told me.

And so he can offer them the yuzu and rose spritz, which is the first of Craft’s nonalcoholic cocktails I tried. It exemplifies the amount of care that can be lavished on such a drink, because its signature ingredient, fresh yuzu juice, isn’t all that easily found. Mr. McClure has his mailed from Washington State. Yuzu, an Asian citrus fruit, is audaciously zingy, like a lemon with a mischievous streak, and my eyes widened the second I took a sip.

Mr. McClure laughed. “That’ll wake your tongue up!” he said.

And how. But the drink tempers the yuzu with rose syrup, which has sweetness and a floral gentleness, and club soda, for the promised fizz. It abides by one of the most important principles of conventional cocktail making: balance. Still, drinkers not inclined toward sourness should be careful. That yuzu packs a punch.

I was fonder still of Mr. McClure’s kumquat-and-fennel smash. In this drink, too, he answers the question of how to heighten interest in a nonalcoholic drink by turning to unexpected ingredients. To a base of orange juice and tonic water he adds agave nectar, kumquat and fennel. The fennel provides licorice notes in a less emphatic manner than absinthe, for example, would: tantalizing sparks instead of an all-consuming flame.

Many restaurants, especially ambitious ones, have been creating and serving distinctive nonalcoholic mixed drinks for years, but there seems to be a bit of an upsurge of late. Bartenders and restaurant beverage service directors say that reflects the increasing adventurousness and high standards that gastronomes bring to all aspects of a dining experience, from the bread service to the coffee. Drinks are part of that, and many people uninterested in wine, beer or hard liquor don’t want to make do with something they could get at a bodega.

“It’s just so nice when you’re not stuck with soda water and a squeeze of lime,” said Erin Ward, the corporate beverage director for the Carmine’s restaurant chain, which has locations in Times Square and on the Upper West Side. Carmine’s added two featured nonalcoholic concoctions to its menus during an overhaul of the cocktail list five months ago, demonstrating that high-end restaurants aren’t the only ones paying fresh attention to drinks.

One of those concoctions, the Bitter Sicilian, combines pomegranate syrup, lemon and lime juices, nonalcoholic bitters and soda. The other, the Pineapple Julep, muddles its namesake fruit and then mingles it with muddled mint, lime and lemon juices and simple syrup, for a sweet-sour-minty medley. Both were put on the menu with an eye in particular on the lunch crowd at the Times Square restaurant.

“There’s a line out the door at 11:30 every morning,” Ms. Ward said, “and the people coming at that time might not want to be tying one on just yet.”

Ten or so blocks north, the Modern, the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, recently expanded its selection of special soft drinks with sodas made from artisanal syrups supplied by the P & H Soda Company in — where else? — Brooklyn (the Greenpoint section, to be exact). The flavors, including chamomile-grapefruit and hibiscus, go well beyond anything your neighborhood grocer ever stocked. P & H is also selling syrups to the cult pizzeria and restaurant Roberta’s, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

“It’s happening pretty quickly,” Anton Nocito, the soda company’s proprietor, said of the rising popularity of soft drinks as distinctive as their spiked cousins.

Bartenders I talked to preferred inventing nonalcoholic cocktails from scratch to trying to make so-called virgin versions of actual cocktails, though they will take a stab at the latter upon request.

I asked Mr. McClure what sorts of ingredients might be credibly, or at least sensibly, substituted for certain spirits in such booze-free alternatives. For gin, he said, he might use orange-blossom water: something with both the floral and citrus notes that some gins have. For rum he might turn to maple syrup. Tequila, he said, would be impossible.

“To make a mock margarita?” he said. “Wow. I would steer someone elsewhere because I would be treading on thin ice to make a margarita Mocktail.”

He did, though, venture a Mocktail corollary to a cocktail on Craft’s list called the Bee Sting. The genuine sting has bourbon, fresh ginger, a cardamom-honey syrup, lime juice and Regan’s orange bitters. The faux sting used apple cider in place of bourbon and, to adjust for the cider’s sweeter effect, cut down on the syrup.

I sampled them side by side. I won’t lie: I preferred the one with bourbon, whose dark, haunting currents and body the cider couldn’t match. But the other drink — let’s call it the Bee Stingless — was plenty pleasurable on its own. I could have been happy with it, and so could anyone else steering clear of alcohol, which is sometimes a necessity or at least an excellent idea.