Better-for-you cocktails have arrived
Take it back to the very basic formula—the original. To be a cocktail, a drink must have at least a spirit, a sweetener, a modifier, and ice. Manhattan=whiskey, vermouth, bitters. Negroni=gin, vermouth, Campari. Moscow Mule=vodka, ginger soda, Instagram. Just kidding—lime. It’s lime. But today, many drinkers are looking for something else that in many ways contradicts the high-ABV (alcohol by volume), high-sugar offerings listed above. They’re looking for wellness.
“Wellness cocktails” became a thing a couple of years ago, and yes, the thing has found its way to Rochester. In short, a growing number of people are choosing not to imbibe, temporarily or permanently, for numerous reasons (many relating to physical and emotional health). But that doesn’t mean they’re content with ice cream socials and library luncheons. They want something fashionable to drink while they’re out on the town, and the old soda water and lime in a Collins glass is getting a bit dry.
Who hasn’t woken up after a heavy night, mouth stale, eyes pasted at half-mast, and promised themselves and everyone they all-caps texted the night before they’ll never drink again? But is that realistic? So much of our social life revolves around booze—it feels weird to get dressed up, join a conversation, and not have a drink in hand. And yeah, there’s an argument to be made that in itself is unhealthy at a societal level, but that’s a bit tiresome in a drinks column, isn’t it? Instead, let’s talk alternatives.
Right now, alternatives are big business. Last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev created a chief nonalcohol beverage officer position and is looking to increase the company’s NA volume to twenty percent by 2025 (currently ten percent), according to the Financial Times. And it’s not just beer. Seedlip, self-described as “what to drink when you’re not drinking,” bills itself as the world’s first distilled nonalcoholic spirits.
Founded late in 2015, the brand invokes a centuries-old tradition of distilling garden herbs for nonalcoholic remedies. What’s the remedy for in this case? The ubiquitous and sickly-sweet “mocktail.” Now selling three different spirits, all nonalcoholic and sugar, sweetener, and calorie-free, Seedlip claims to offer a solution to those who aren’t drinking alcohol but want the convivial, adult experience of sipping something complex and flavorful. And the company’s model seems to be addressing a thirst (ha) in the market—Seedlip is available in more than twenty-five cities around the world (one of which is Rochester—order it at Swan Dive or Skyway) and has won multiple awards.
Though not many of our city’s cocktail bars serve Seedlip, that doesn’t mean they aren’t taking the wellness cocktail trend seriously. Abby Quatro, bar manager at Branca Midtown, says that while fresh citrus is a staple of most good cocktail programs, she’s enjoying exploring the world of fresh vegetables as well—the natural sweetness of cold pressed juice allows her to create balanced cocktails like the Pepper Spray, which features yellow pepper cordial and habanero tincture, with minimal added sugar. Donny Clutterbuck, bartender and caretaker at Cure, also places an emphasis on fresh ingredients for cocktails and their nonalcoholic counterparts, including a house-clarified and carbonated grapefruit soda. Good Luck also has featured a zero-ABV cocktail called the In Utero since it opened in 2008. The wellness trend is represented in bars all over Rochester—if you’re looking to get in the pink while avoiding the pink elephants, ask about other “wellness ingredients” like kombucha, turmeric, chiles, aloe vera, coconut water, and essential oils.
There are those who consider the entire wellness cocktail trend a bit of an eye roll. In its annual “Which Drink Trends Should Disappear” column, Punch called out NA spirits specifically, one contributor saying, “Want nonalcoholic spirits? Drink water.” Snark notwithstanding, this trend isn’t going anywhere and is likely to pick up steam as more drinkers (and the bartenders serving them) focus on physical and emotional health.
In fact, the Rochester Cocktail Revival, which features more than twenty cocktail bars in the downtown area and takes place June 3–9, is giving a nod to this topic. Seminars will focus on mental health within the bar industry, as well as the use of cannabis and CBD oil (another popular wellness ingredient) in cocktails. And, by the way, attendees will also be doing a solid for the city—a portion of proceeds benefit Gilda’s Club Rochester.
Incidentally, Donny Clutterbuck isn’t drinking at the moment. He says it might be for a few months or the rest of his bartending career or something in between, but right now, it feels like the healthy thing to do. If you can’t trust a skinny chef, can you trust a sober bartender? In this case, yes. Sometimes, bars aren’t healthy places, physically or otherwise. And yeah, it’s tempting to say if you want wellness, go to a spa and enjoy the cucumber water. But really, half the joy of drinking is holding something cold that clinks in your hand - something you can toast with, something you sip when you have nothing to say, something that punctuates what you do have to say. If you find it best to do that with a low- or no-ABV beverage, I’ll drink to that.
Pete Wayner is a food- and beverage-centric content creator based in Rochester.