Behind the Bar

Creating the Best Cocktail Experience For Non-Drinkers

Three mocktails in tall glasses.
Bar guests shouldn't have to partake in drinking alcohol to feel welcome and comfortable. Photo via iStock/Gerry O'Leary

There are many reasons someone might abstain from drinking. Aside from the obvious (religious beliefs, pregnancy, health concerns, etc.), there are also elimination diets, designated driving, calorie watching, seasonal trends like drynuary (the practice of starting fresh for the new year, and not drinking for the whole of January), or simply not wanting to. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in 2013, 70.7% of people over 18 report having consumed alcohol in the last year, meaning that non-drinkers represented close to 30% of the adult population.

But they still visit bars and restaurants, and expect to have just as good a time as their drinking companions, so we spoke to Nacho Jimenez, the head bartender at The Daily in New York City, for his take on accommodating sober patrons and enhancing the non-drinking experience.

You’re in the hospitality business

Jimenez says he’s witnessed a bad attitude in the industry toward people asking for non-alcoholic drinks. “I don’t believe in that. I believe that if you come to my bar, and you ask for a non-alcoholic cocktail, it’s my job to provide you with the best.”

Non-drinkers still want to socialize and go out with their friends and, according to Jimenez, they should feel just as welcome in a bar. “The way I look at it, you’re in the service industry, you’re in the hospitality business. Your job is to stand behind the bar every day, and to provide the best experience with everything that you have.”

Ask questions

At The Daily, patrons can ask for a virgin version of one of the seasonal cocktails on the menu, or just tell the bartender what they like. Jimenez will usually let people know the range of ingredients he currently has, and inquire about likes and dislikes in terms of fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs, whether they’re drinking alcohol or not. “For me, the best way to do my job is to get as much information”. For non-drinkers, it’s especially helpful to check if they have allergies, so you know everything you need to know to create the best drink for them.

Bartender wearing glasses, smiling widely and handing a cocktail to someone.Nacho Jimenez treats guests drinking alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails with the same level of consideration and attentiveness. Photo courtesy of The Daily.

Watch out for the sugar content

“Non-alcoholic cocktails tend to be super sugary and sweet”, says Jimenez, “and if they’re not drinking because they’re trying to be healthy, it defeats the purpose.” In his experience, non-drinkers are often after a refreshing cocktail, so it’s best to keep the sugar content in mind when replacing the spirit with other ingredients.

You can be just as creative

It’s still a cocktail, whether it contains alcohol or not, so don’t let the request for a virgin drink hinder your creativity. Jimenez points out that you have the same possibilities in terms of ingredients, garnishes, and glassware available to you. “It shouldn’t be any different in the way you present the drink. Everything that you have available to make a cocktail, you can use it for a non-alcoholic one as well.”

Make them feel special

Jimenez often notices a certain guilt coming from people requesting a non-alcoholic drink. A lot of them, he says, will immediately justify themselves, and offer up the reason they’re not drinking. To put them at ease, Jimenez likes to go the extra mile: “my motivation is to make their drink a lot prettier than anyone else’s at the table.” He uses the freshest and most colorful ingredients, and makes the garnishes lavish and beautiful. The drink usually gets the whole group’s attention and, in fact, it’s common for a drinking member to be so impressed with the cocktail that they’ll request an alcoholic version of it for the next round. According to Jimenez, this is what is job is all about: making everyone feel welcome and comfortable so they can enjoy themselves, regardless of whether they’re drinking or not.

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