Before I exhaust my word count on this particular issue, you must first know a few things about me. Namely, that I am a grown-ass woman with grown-ass interests. I like to dress like a lady. I pay my bills. And, after a hard week's work, I like to join my friends for a nice meal in one of Charlotte's fine culinary establishments.
Herein lies the problem. Though I usually eat a good meal, I hardly ever enjoy a good drink. You see, I don't drink alcohol. None. Zero. Zilch. Not even one sip.
In this town, that is a problem.
When I meet up with my adult friends at a restaurant for an evening out, most of them order a cocktail or alcoholic beverage with ease. Out comes the bartender, appropriate glassware in hand — a snifter, pilsner or long-stemmed goblet — to graciously serve them.
Then there's me.
"Do you have any non-alcoholic cocktails? Mocktails?"
"OK, may I have a club soda with lime, please?" (My go-to beverage of choice.)
Picture it now. Grown-ass woman, all dressed up, hanging with her grown-ass friends. The bartender returns with a large, clunky glass complete with a jumbo sippy straw.
"Here ya go!"
"Umm, thanks?" I grab the glass with two hands, because that's how many I need to handle it properly, and start looking for the kiddie table.
And there you have my chronic problem. I enjoy good food and nuanced flavors. I might even venture to say that I have somewhat of a sophisticated palate. Yet, when I meet my friends out, I am relegated to a non-alcoholic beverage in a "Hey, look at me! I'm not drinking!"-sized glass. This needs to stop.
With all the tinctures, house-made syrups, muddled local fruit and artisanal hubbub surrounding the rising craft cocktail scene, I thought, surely there must be a non-alcoholic equivalent. So, I took to exploring restaurants in search of mocktails: well-crafted non-alcoholic cocktails.
For the health-conscious, establishments like Fern and Luna's Living Kitchen offer a variety of fresh juices by default, but no real mocktails.
Other restaurants like Stagioni, The Asbury, Rooster's and Block and Grinder accommodate the nondrinker and make any cocktail on the menu, minus the booze. Nice, but not a complete offering. Sure, some of these drinks could produce an appropriate mocktail, but it's the forethought that counts. None of these places specifically addressed the nondrinker via its menu offerings.
In my incomplete search (I couldn't possibly make it to every restaurant in town), I found one restaurant with an actual mocktail on the menu. Halcyon, Flavors from the Earth, next to the Mint Museum Uptown, has a mocktail called the Bramble Flower, muddled fresh berries with orange blossom water, sugar and lemon juice. Finally! A restaurant that actually considers its nondrinkers before they even arrive. Bless you, Halcyon.
Mocktails are not unheard of. In fact, there are plenty of cities that have gotten on board with thoughtful craft beverages for folks who do not imbibe. Believe me, there are plenty of us: from sober individuals and pregnant women to the general population of people who want to abstain from being a total waste case.
A recent trip to Asheville for happy hour and snacks at the newly opened Rhubarb revived my faith in such thoughtfulness. At Rhubarb, chef John Fleer's new concept, mocktails are built into the drink menu under a section called "Free-Spirited." Clever, right?
Though a humble selection of two mocktails, it was a considerate and inclusive touch that made a difference in my dining experience. Worth noting is the fact that my mocktail of hibiscus, juniper and tonic was not overly sweet, which can be another problem with non-alcoholic offerings.
Establishments that accommodate nondrinkers often make sugar bombs with too-sweet juices and cloying syrups that, again, infantilize the nondrinker by way of the glass.
Local cocktail aficionado Kevin Gavagan, who runs the roving pop-up cocktail concept Haunt Bar, is a fan of mocktails because he is a fan of craft.
"I think there is a growing interest in flavor," says Gavagan. "Even if it's just a homemade soda, you're giving something to someone that's way more interesting than a Coke."
Gavagan creates non-alcoholic beverages with a variety of drinking vinegars called shrubs, which are infusions of fruit, vinegar and sugar. Shrubs can be added to cocktails or mocktails. Gavagan has a grapefruit, ginger and Thai chili shrub that he uses to make an alcoholic beverage called a Paloma, but also combines it with club soda for a sophisticated soft drink. See, it doesn't take much.
Here's my final plea for local restaurateurs: As our culinary scene continues to blossom, consider the whole population. Food and drink go hand in hand, and nondrinkers want a fancy bev, too — preferably a well-crafted one with them in mind. Heck, we'll even pay you for it.