The nonalcoholic cocktail has come of age.
Mocktails, as they’re frequently called, have been with us forever in various forms. They may be as basic as a Shirley Temple or as familiar as a virgin strawberry daiquiri, but the absence of booze is the common denominator. For bartenders and servers, the mocktail is an upsell: Rather than a customer who spends $2 for a Coke, that same patron can indulge in a $5-$6 nonalcoholic cocktail and thus ease the financial pain teetotalers inflict on restaurants and bars. And, after the craft cocktail explosion of the 1990s emphasized connoisseurship over inebriation, mocktails became more sophisticated.
The world of nonalcoholic drinks recently catapulted into hyperspace with the invention of Seedlip. It started when Englishman Ben Branson stumbled on a copy of The Art of Distillation, the 1651 classic by John French. To his surprise, many of the early distillates were alcohol-free concoctions made and consumed for their health benefits. Branson began experimenting, and eventually came up with the world’s first true nonalcoholic spirit (or, as they call it, “what to drink when you’re not drinking”).
There are two varieties of Seedlip, Spice 94 and Garden 108. The former is a blend of Jamaican all spice, cardamom, oak, lemon, grapefruit, and cascarilla; the latter combines peas, hay, spearmint, rosemary, and thyme. These elements are distilled separately in copper pot stills before blending, filtering, and dilution—virtually the identical process someone would follow to make any other white spirit. Both are completely free of alcohol, sugar, and calories.
When it comes to artisan mocktails, the response has been dramatic. Upscale hotel bars, where customers spend freely on food and drink, are the epicenter of the high-end virgin cocktail movement. At London’s Dandelyan, named the World’s Best Cocktail Bar in the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana is offering drinks such as the Million Dollar Smile (Seedlip Spice, roasted sweet potato, off-cut cordial, and grass) and Peach Cider (Seedlip Garden, peach reduction, and peanut oil). The American Bar at The Savoy Hotel serves five options including the Garden of England (Seedlip Spice, cranberry juice, lime juice, coffee tonic, and Potash Farm roasted hazelnut syrup).
The trend is catching on in America, too, at venues such as Redbird in Los Angeles and the legendary Bemelmans Bar at New York’s Carlyle Hotel. Other rarified destinations serving Seedlip include The French Laundry in Napa and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, along with NoMad, The Dead Rabbit, and Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan.
The folks at Seedlip recommended trying their products in a highball with Indian tonic, so I complied. The Spice 94 has a deep, fragrant nose, and when combined in a cocktail the taste is herbal and refreshing, with a touch of mint on the finish. Garden 108 exudes aromas of freshly chopped salad. In a highball, the garden peas are the dominant flavor, along with herbal accents and delightful vegetable notes.
Seedlip ($40-$45 for a 700-ml bottle) is currently stocked at select locations of Dean & Deluca and Terrain, but is also available nationwide at food52.com and seedlipdrinks-us.com. Distill Ventures, an entrepreneurial branch of the wine and spirits giant Diageo, made a minority investment in Seedlip in 2016. It marked the first time in Diageo’s 257-year history that the company got involved in a nonalcoholic product—further proof the world is changing.