Alcohol-Free Cocktails?

The French have a surprising respect for virgin drinks.
Bloody Mary

During my highly enjoyable research jaunt through Paris’ fanciest hotel bars (for “We’ll Always Have Cocktails” in the September 2008 issue of the magazine), I forewent the usual Martini and gave bartenders free rein—the best strategy when dealing with top-tier mixologists. But to my surprise, the following exchange occurred more than once:

Bartender: What can I serve mademoiselle? [He means me.]
Me: Oh, a cocktail, anything; you can choose.
Bartender: Very well. With or without alcohol?
Me: [In Scooby Doo voice] Bwaaah?

I always thought the nature and purpose of a cocktail was to contain alcohol. When asked whether I wanted my alcohol alcoholic, I felt as if I had gone into a car dealership, requested a car, and been asked, “One that moves, or one that is stationary?” But in the French version of the Bar Americain, an alcohol-free drink isn’t a consolation prize; it shares equal status with the poison.

This respect for and attention to the “non-alcoholic cocktail,” which claims its own section of the cocktail list at the bars of some palace hotels (including the Crillon, the Plaza, the Meurice, and the Ritz), should thrill non-drinkers accustomed to making do with an apologetic cranberry-seltzer. One might suspect that the virgin cocktail list is a recent, carefully market-researched provision for the quantity of starlets famously fresh from rehab; but French tradition has always favored lower-alcohol beverages before a meal (e.g., champagne rather than gin), and the non-alcoholic option might simply be an extension of this.

Order a Pomelo Cooler at the Meurice and you’ll get a frosty Collins glass with muddled raspberries and strawberries anchoring a mixture of fresh grapefruit, lemon, and soda. The garnish, a mint-and-berries-crammed peg that would pass for Carmen Miranda’s best Sunday hat, says “I’m a substantial drink,” not “Sorry I’m not full of ethanol.”

Or you can take the savory route. At the Meurice, I prefer a tomato and carrot juice blend with lemon, Tabasco, and celery salt that amounts to a virgin Bloody Mary without feeling like a consolation prize. Bartender Colin Field at the Ritz mentioned that he’s at work on an alcohol-free Martini, which, as far as I can figure, is an olive.

But for those of us who like to spend time in beautiful bars, sip something interesting, and keep the mental cogs whirring nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see Field and others taking up the challenge.

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