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Rob Scope, manager of Refuel restaurant in Vancouver, has introduced a series of handcrafted, non-alcoholic cocktails to his menu. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)
Rob Scope, manager of Refuel restaurant in Vancouver, has introduced a series of handcrafted, non-alcoholic cocktails to his menu. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)

Hold the booze: Virgin cocktails come of age Add to ...

No booze? No problem. Bartenders are taking the mockery out of mocktails and treating non-alcoholic beverages seriously.

There once was a time when Robert Scope might have cringed at the idea of making a virgin cocktail. "If you work at a bar or at a club and somebody orders a non-alcoholic drink, you're kind of like, 'Huh?' " he says. "I've got all these great cocktails on my list, why don't you want one?"

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But these days, the bar manager at Refuel restaurant in Vancouver's yoga-loving Kitsilano neighbourhood is putting as much effort into his non-alcoholic beverages as his boozy ones , thanks in part to British Columbia's stricter new drunk-driving laws and a growing recognition of an untapped demand. On his new alcohol-free menu, the same principles apply - using fresh and often local ingredients, balancing the flavours and making sure it looks as appealing as it tastes.

He mixes a purée of locally grown pears with vanilla bean syrup and soda to make a liquor-free version of his popular vodka Pear Vanilla Rickey. He combines ginger ale with cucumber, fresh lemon, lime and basil to create a Virgin Cup No. 1, a sobertwist on the traditional Pimm's cocktail. And he creates a syrup of local grapes, then adds soda and plum bitters to make a Seneca Nehi, a fresher, more refined cousin of the Shirley Temple.

Virgin cocktails have finally come of age. Just as bartending has become more sophisticated, with drink masters creating hand-crafted cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages are getting more respect, too. That's good news for teetotallers who've been thirsting for something more exciting than what's offered on the kiddie menu.

"We need to make sure everyone can enjoy themselves and not just have water," Mr. Scope says, noting that in trying to offer something for every customer, he and his colleagues realized this was a neglected niche.

Since British Columbia toughened its drunk-driving laws last year, bars and restaurants there have started to expand their non-alcoholic offerings to cater to those worried about exceeding the 0.05-per-cent blood-alcohol limit. Previously, drivers caught in the 0.05-per-cent level faced a 24-hour licence suspension and possible vehicle impoundment. Under the new regulations, those caught with blood alcohol levels between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent face an immediate three-day driving ban and a $200 fine . A slow shift in the public's attitude toward alcohol has also contributed to a greater demand for virgin drinks in general.

According to Kelly Higginson, general manager of Ki restaurant in Toronto's business district, non-alcoholic cocktails are particularly popular during lunch hours and among the restaurant's health-conscious clientele. Virgin cocktails have replaced the three-martini lunch.

"Times have changed a lot. [The demand for]productivity being what it is, it's more reasonable to have a fresh, non-alcoholic cocktail at lunch, or even at dinner," Ms. Higginson says.

Customers are also more inclined to spenda little extra for a hand-crafted drink that uses fresh ingredients than to order a commercially prepared beverage, she says. Over the past five years, she's seen a dramatic drop in customers' consumption of pop - a decline she attributes to changing culinary tastes. "It's just like everything with food; things are going fresher, more seasonal, less sugar, less processed," Ms. Higginson says.

Ki's non-alcoholic list, for example, changes seasonally to reflect the rest of its menu. For instance, the menu currently has a spiced winter cider of orange pumpkin cider and ginger beer, and a Ginger Peach virgin cocktail made with aromatic sage syrup, peach and ginger juice topped with soda, for $6 each.

Frankie Solarik, co-owner of BarChef on Toronto's Queen Street West, says one of his favourite non-alcoholic creations is a yet-to-be-named mix of fresh pineapple juice, honey and black pepper syrup, fresh lime and muddled basil.

"It's trickier to get an extremely complex non-alcoholic cocktail, in comparison to an alcoholic cocktail, but it's still totally possible," Mr. Solarik says. "It just depends on the tools that you're working with."

Bartenders typically start with liquor as a base, and build their flavours around whatever liquor they're using. Without that boozy foundation, it can be a bit like building a cake using only various frostings; it's more challenging to create the same depth and complexity of flavours.

Among Mr. Solarik's arsenal are simple syrups mixed with aromatics such as lavender, lemon rind, rosemary, cinnamon, star anise and clove.

Virgin drinks still don't come close to surpassing the sales of alcoholic cocktails. But far from turning his nose up at them, Mr. Solarik says, these days, providing alcohol-free options is a measure of a good bartender.

"It shows a true person that's passionate about their craft if they've put as much passion into creating a non-alcoholic cocktail as they would an alcoholic cocktail."

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

 

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