Virgin cocktails in Chicago
Restaurants and bars turn to the cocktail arsenal to create balanced, alcohol-free drinks.
Shirley Temples and virgin daiquiris: The canon of nonalcoholic cocktails is hardly a wellspring of inspiration. But a new class of spirits-free mixed drinks turns away from the sugary leanings of “mocktails” and reaches toward the ingredients and techniques that have in the past decade become tenets of cocktail culture. Which is to say that, sometimes, these drinks can be very simple: At the bar at Lush’s West Town location (1412 W Chicago Ave, 312-666-6900), a drop or two of bitters (with flavor profiles like cherry bark and vanilla, or molasses, clove and sassafras) from Wisconsin-based Bittercube serves a similar function in a glass of club soda or sparkling mineral water as it might in a cocktail, adding an aroma to the drink. At Balsan (11 E Walton St, 312-646-1400), bartenders seek out seasonal ingredients (such as in the Raspberry Fizz, pictured, which will be on the menu this summer) as well as flavor profiles that complement the restaurant’s food. “The pineapple-sage lemonade has that sweet note,” and pairs well with charcuterie and cheese, explains manager Allicia Janutol.
A focus on food-and-drink synergy is also the heart of the extensive nonalcoholic beverage-pairing option ($22) that chef Grant Achatz and Jeff Donahue (the floor manager at Next and the Aviary) have developed for Next (953 W Fulton Mkt). Take, for instance, their approach to the duck course: “We’re thinking about flavors that pair well with duck, starting with cherry,” says Donahue, who was formerly the beverage director at Province. “So we have a cherry syrup; we thin that out with an infusion of cherry blossoms and Lapsang souchong tea, which is a smoked tea from China…and a little bit of blood orange. That is topped [to order] with Sanbitter, which is an Italian aperitif soda produced by San Pellegrino. Flavor profile–wise, you can kind of think of it as Campari and soda, just minus the alcohol. It pairs really well with the food, but it also reaches the level of complexity that you would find in a wine: [With] each sip, you can find more nuance and more depth of flavor and character.”
The challenge of creating nonalcoholic drinks has even, on occasion, brought the process full circle: “We don’t look at it as a hindrance or a limitation,” says Achatz, who would scramble to create nonalcoholic pairings at Alinea for guests who weren’t able or chose not to drink. “Ultimately, what we find is when you’re faced with a problem, and you come up with a solution, that solution is often very creative, and it leads to something else. It might even inform a Champagne cocktail.”