The Mocktail Movement?

Image: Getty (Clear liquid)

There was a time when a non-alcohol beverage was referred to as just that on a menu. Such drinks were also listed under “soft drinks,” “alcohol free,” “virgin,” or “NA.” Well, times have changed.

Now we have the so-called “mocktail,” another in a long line of the increasingly popular portmanteau. It seems that we simply cannot stop combining two words into one and patting ourselves on the back once the new word earns a permanent or semi-permanent spot in our lexicon.

In the past year or so the alcohol-free “cocktail” has garnered a lot of attention. This is partly due to the increase in popularity of low-ABV cocktails and sessionable beers. We’ve posted articles that extol the virtues of the low- and no-alcohol beverage, although our focus has leaned more towards libations with lower proof than those with zero alcohol.

But does every bar need alcohol-free cocktails on their menu?

We all know that not everybody who walks into a bar plans on consuming alcohol. Some people don’t drink alcohol for various reasons. Even in the age of Uber and Lyft, some bar guests still accept the role of designated driver when out with friends. There are times when any one of us may meet up with friends at a bar and simply not feel like having a drink.

Back in the day (which wasn’t that long ago) someone who wasn’t drinking alcohol at a bar ordered water, soda, sparkling water with a garnish, a virgin Daiquiri or other cocktail, or a Shirley Temple. Maybe they ordered a non-alcohol beer. What they didn’t do is expect to see an entire section of a cocktail menu dedicated to faux cocktails.

Look, I get it – palates have become more sophisticated. We’re dealing with more knowledgeable guests every day. Customers expect more from bars, nightclubs and restaurants. People are used to getting their way when it comes to customization. Additions, subtractions, substitutions, bespoke creations… The long, involved, complicated order so prevalent at coffeehouses that it became a meme has now permeated just about every type of hospitality venue.

And just like I understand that customers have changed, I understand that operators are fighting for every dollar. Bar owners want to appeal to and please as many people as they can. But I also understand that it’s impossible to please everyone and that confusing or outright deviating from your brand and concept to make handful of guests happy is a fool’s errand.

Bars have become big business. Brands and investors are pouring money into hospitality groups, successful independent operators, and well-known bartenders. The women and men behind the stick are rising to the same fame as celebrity chefs. The word “mixologist” is a thing.

All of this attention means that even people who don’t drink alcohol want to check out bars getting favorable media coverage. They want to order a drink from the famous, award-winning bar staff. They just assume that alcohol-free versions of the bar’s signature cocktails are on the menu.

But again I ask: Does every bar need alcohol-free cocktails on their menu?

I can make a facile argument. I can point out that the definition of the word “cocktail” has included one or more spirits as a central element since 1806. That doesn’t really address the issue though, does it?

My actual argument is that perhaps only restaurants, hotel bars and high-volume bars in locations popular with tourists truly need to have alcohol-free cocktail sections on their menus. People who don’t consume alcohol for whatever reason will be out with family, friends, coworkers, peers, fellow trade show attendees, etc., and they may (again, for whatever reason) want to order something beyond a water or soda.

Plenty of bar owners, operators, managers and bartenders will tell you that they see very little value in the mocktail. While the public says, “What’s the big deal? Just make a drink without the alcohol,” bartenders know that it isn’t that simple. This is particularly true for innovative bartenders who understand and respect spirits. In a perfect world, every guest would view spirits in the same light, realizing that a bartender who is proud of their craft has no desire to put anything in front of a customer that doesn’t taste and look spot on. The skilled bartender doesn’t want to put anything across the bar that fails to represent them and their bar.

Some bars do see value in mocktails. They consider the drinks on their menus, find out which of those they can make without alcohol while maintaining the flavor profiles and appearances, and are happy to offer them. They may even see an ROI in terms of revenue, guest loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing. Other bars view the mocktail as a way to use up fresh ingredients and avoid waste, coming up with tasty creations that please some of their customers. And then there are bars that see mocktails mostly as a waste of their time and resources that tend to generate low or no tips.

Hospitality can be tricky, and the mocktail certainly represents a quandary when it comes to customer service. How you approach the alcohol-free cocktail will likely depend on your view of hospitality. Is the customer always right? Do you have to please everyone at all costs? Are there customers who need to be fired? Does your bar need mocktails?