According to a recent survey, this year’s number one cocktail trend to watch is… the mocktail. On the surface, this is welcoming news for the sober community. People are realizing the harmful effects of alcohol and offering more alternatives that go beyond the billionth cup of coffee or Redbull at a nightclub. Sober people with a history of substance use disorder deserve delicious, artisanal flavors, too. And boy, do flavors abound.
Last year, Grub Street ran an article titled “The $15 Mocktail is Here,” and included concoctions such as a “rosé” made of flowers steeped in hot water plus some other sorcery. In New York, you can buy a $16 booze-free “old fashioned.” Self, Elle Decor, Town & Country, and even Food & Wine have published lists of “mocktails you’ll actually want to drink.” If mocktails are mainstream, you know they better be palatable.
Mocktails: A great option for sober people
Pinky, who’s been sober since 1987, said she’s thrilled to have options beyond the “tired old ‘sobriety special’ cranberry and soda.”
“I don’t order them often, but it’s great when you’re at a restaurant or nightclub with a talented bartender to get something more creative than cranberry and seltzer,” Pinky said. “[My boyfriend and I] recently ate at a bar where the bartender made my boyfriend a mocktail he figured he’d like. And it was spot on!”
Sober people with a history of substance use disorder deserve delicious, artisanal flavors, too.
Clair McLafferty is the author of “Romantic Cocktails“ and “The Classic & Craft Cocktail Recipe Book.” In addition, she’s the bartender-at-large at The Essential in Birmingham, Alabama, where she’s witnessing the mocktail phenomenon first-hand.
“Believe it or not, there’s a growing movement towards moderation or all-out sobriety within the bartending community,” McLafferty said. “I have seen more no-ABV [Alcohol By Volume] cocktails on menus recently, and there’s a growing awareness of how including these drinks is a way to show hospitality to all people who might want to hang out at a bar.”
But what about those who struggle with sobriety?
Still, there may be a darker side to mocktails, especially for those who are struggling with their own sobriety. Glenn Broadley, Founder of MADDVirgin Drinks, has witnessed loved ones battle alcohol use disorder, and he is aware of how staying sober can be a delicate balancing act.
“If someone ever asks me if people in recovery can drink my virgin wine, beer, and cocktails, I always caution them about the potential to fall off the wagon,” Broadley said. “Even though it is not in my best interest to do so as an entrepreneur, it is in the best interests of the consumer. Many people in recovery that I have met have told me that sometimes, it’s something as simple as water in a wine glass that can trigger a return to drinking alcohol again. In equal numbers, however, virgin [alternatives] are a great solution to being able to socialize in events where alcohol is present.”
“It’s not about never getting to drink again, it’s about never having to drink again.”
And for many people with alcohol abuse disorder, the threat of relapsing is very real. In an eight-year study of nearly 1200 people with addiction, approximately one-third of people who were sober for less than a year remained sober. Their chances of staying sober increased the longer they abstained, though. For those who could stay sober for a year, their chance of relapsing was 50 percent, and after five years, the chance of relapse was 15 percent.
How to approach mocktails cautiously
Alexandra Kilpatrick, who has been sober for three years, said she loves mocktails, but approaches them cautiously.
“For me, it’s helpful to check my motives: Why am I drinking this?” Kilpatrick said. “Even if it doesn’t contain alcohol, it could trigger me to drink if it looks and tastes similar to a cocktail. I mostly limit mocktail drinking to weddings and other fancy events, where my options are usually either water or asking the bartender to make me a mocktail.”
The implications of the word “mocktail” itself
Then there’s the implications of the word “mocktail” itself. On Merriam-Webster’s website, the first definition of the word “mock” is “to treat with contempt or ridicule.” Of course, it also implies imitation or mimicking. Even that may be problematic, though.
Why does a cocktail have to be the norm, whereas something lacking booze isn’t the standard? One of the biggest issues with the term “mocktail” is that it implies that the only acceptable alternative to drinking alcohol is an exact replica — just without the deadly substance. Moreover, why are alcoholic beverages considered the norm for adults, and not the exception? Why are “adult beverages without alcohol” almost non-existent and not in their own category? It seems that, as John Mulaney jokingly put it, people can only think of adult drinks in terms of alcohol. Anything else seems bizarre or, in the case of “mocktails” themselves, an imitation of the alcoholic beverage.
Yes, people in recovery deserve alternatives. But what if not drinking was the norm? What if not needing a depressant to face everyday life was the norm? Our society has normalized alcohol to the extent that asking for a beverage without alcohol is the exception.
Whenever someone asks you to “meet up for drinks,” you automatically assume they’re referring to cocktails and not tea, right? Advertising has conditioned us to think this way. In fact, advertising for alcohol has increased by 400 percent over the past four decades.
Looking beyond having to drink again
Haley Van Cleve, who has been sober for six months, frequently references the words of Holly Whitaker, the founder of The Temper and our parent company, Tempest: “It’s not about never getting to drink again, it’s about never having to drink again.”
“This distinction is so important to me,” Van Cleve said. “While I’m grateful that restaurants and venues are at least acknowledging the existence of sober folks by offering mocktails, they also leave a bad taste in my mouth (sometimes literally). Mocktails feel like being handed a sad runner up prize — something you know you should feel a little ashamed about. My sobriety is hands down the best choice I’ve ever made, and I don’t need to pretend I’m drinking to feel good about that choice.”