For some people, the height of summer means frosty beers, pink wine, or slushy neon margaritas. For others, July is a month to skip booze altogether. The “Dry July” movement encourages everyone to try a month off the sauce.
During periodic breaks from alcohol, which many health experts recommend, it’s easy to stay at home to avoid temptation. Hibernation works for that other popular month for abstaining, “Dry January,” but it’s silly to miss out on summer fun, when happy hours and other festive get-togethers are frequent.
Luckily, you don’t have to. Thanks to an increasing number of local restaurants and bars, you can go out, drink well, and win your Dry July. Some of Philly’s best barkeeps are on the leading edge of a major trend as alcohol-free drinks are finally growing up, dropping the name “mocktail,” and getting a place of honor on local craft cocktail menus.
ITV, bar and sister spot to chef Nicholas Elmi’s Laurel restaurant on East Passyunk, features a “Spirit Free” section on the menu. For bar manager Jenee Craver, these drinks are no mere afterthought — they get the same consideration as any other menu item.
“Creating these drinks is a different kind of challenge: How to give it body without alcohol?” she said. ITV’s Just Beet It drink is made with beet juice, lemon, ginger and just a touch of an unexpected ingredient: yogurt. This inclusion suggests a smoothie, but that’s not how this cocktail drinks at all.
“We add just enough to give it some texture, soften the spicy ginger, and balance the sweetness of the beets with a pure sourness,” Craver said. Poured over an oversized ice cube in a rocks glass, it looks like a standard craft cocktail and tastes rounded, complex, and refreshing.
Elmi’s other bar, Royal Boucherie in Old City, also includes nonalcoholic cocktails on its menu. “We’ve created considered nonalcoholic cocktails that pair well with food,” bar manager Dominic Carullo said.
Royal Boucherie’s most popular “temperance cocktail” is the Easy East Side, a booze-free variation of the classic east side cocktail. It’s bright with lime and fragrant with fresh cucumber and mint. Served in a coupé, the drink is indistinguishable from the rest of the round being served at a table.
Bartenders at Fork, also in Old City, have been creating alcohol-free cocktails upon request for years, but the restaurant introduced a “zero-proof” section to the drink menu at the beginning of 2018. “We want to make sure people know we’re offering something for everyone,” general manager Thaddeus Dynakowski said.
Fork approaches all its drinks the way it does the food: with a relentless focus on seasonality. The zero-proof cocktail list changes about every six weeks to highlight of-the-moment ingredients. Recently, the Rhuby Mule brought local rhubarb, ginger, and lime together for a quenching and balanced drink that’s the right amount spicy and tart.
“Since we began listing these drinks on the menu, we’ve seen at least a 50 percent gain in sales,” Dynakowski said. He thinks interested diners are more apt to order a listed menu item than make an off-menu request for something alcohol-free. “It makes guests more comfortable,” he said.
BYOBs are an obvious choice for those who want to enjoy going out while taking alcohol out of the equation. Cadence, a new BYOB in Fishtown, offers a selection of nonalcoholic drinks — many tea-based — to complement its creative New American food menu.
The nitro Mokuren Matcha is the most spectacular and sophisticated nonalcoholic drink option in Philly right now. Japanese matcha is brewed at room temperature, then blended with a touch of oat milk before it’s infused with nitrogen gas to create a frothy, fizzy, bright-green elixir that’s served in a champagne flute or wine glass.
“It pairs well with some of our lighter food options, like the crab salad or monkfish dishes,” said Cadence co-chef, and co-owner Samantha Kincaid. To complement her desserts, she likes Spirit Tea’s Ruby 18, a tannic black tea with the aroma of caramelized honey.
“The nuances in tea are on par with wine, and it’s equally complementary to food,” Kincaid said. Tea also solves the most common problem of mocktails: cloying sweetness. Most diners eschewing alcohol welcome any booze-free options on the beverage menu, but sodas (even nice house-made sodas) are not the alternative that savvy diners really want.
Dry July comes and goes, but the nonalcoholic drinks trend is just picking up steam. Brooklyn is about to get an entirely alcohol-free bar with Listen Bar. Austin, Texas, has its own zero-proof popup bar, Sans Bar. Next year, two major publishers will release books on the subject of alcohol-free cocktails. This month’s Tales of the Cocktail, the annual conference for the spirits industry, will offer spirit-free drinks mixed by celeb bartender Julia Momose during its opening party.
“Spirit-frees are here to stay,” Carver said.