Growing popularity of mocktails at suburban bars shows 'they're not an afterthought'

Sharing drinks can be a great way to celebrate a special occasion or just to catch up with friends, but it can make anyone abstaining from alcohol feel left out. Now suburban bars are looking to make sure everyone feels welcome by adding nonalcoholic cocktails, aka mocktails, to their menus.

“If somebody is, for personal reasons or sobriety, trying to make a change in their life, I really want to design cocktails that make everyone feel included,” said Greg Innocent, beverage director of The Hampton Social, which has locations in South Barrington, Chicago, Burr Ridge and Skokie.

The restaurant offers a nonalcoholic sparkling rosé that's perfect for toasting, and it's also served with some added lavender in the Field of Dreams mocktail. The Don't Be So Meme blends berries, lavender, ginger beer and lemon and can actually be turned into a regular cocktail by adding tequila, vodka or gin. Innocent said he wanted to make sure the alcohol-free drinks were just as complex as the rest of his beverage menu.

“You really want to create something that has some substance and flavors that you typically don't have, whether it's fresh fruit or herbs,” he said. “We really want to find balance in our beverages. It's challenging, but it's fun nonetheless.”

A nonalcoholic raspberry mule featuring housemade ginger beer and fresh raspberry puree has been on the menu at Roka Akor, which has locations in Oak Brook, Skokie and Chicago, for nearly nine years, longer than almost any other drink. Roka Akor national beverage director Steve Tindle said that it complements the restaurant's tea program to make sure nondrinkers don't feel relegated to drinking soda.

“It was important to put as much time and thought into the mocktails as the cocktails,” he said. “It's all about using fresh ingredients and making sure that they're very balanced. They're not an afterthought. Sometimes you've got a designated driver and it gives them a more fun option.”

Roka Akor simplified its drink menu when the COVID-19 pandemic started, but Tindle is working on ramping it back up now. He's adding a new mocktail, a spin on an Arnold Palmer made with Rare Tea Cellar tea, lemon juice and matcha powder.

Martini Room in Elgin is also expanding its selection of mocktails next month. Their current offerings are all spins on some of their most popular traditional cocktails. The Mango Tango is a version of the Mangotini made with mango puree, pineapple juice, orange juice and cranberry juice garnished with a cherry, while the Peach Mimosa made with peach puree, orange juice and a ginger ale float and garnished with a strawberry replicates the Kiss Me.

“We have a lot of bachelorette parties and there's usually one or two designated drivers,” manager Matt Harris said. “All our mocktails are served in martini glasses. You can still take a photo and everyone has a martini glass.”

The Hampton Social mixes up specialty mocktails such as the Don't Be So Meme, left, and Field of Dreams. Courtesy of The Hampton Social

Innocent also had party photos in mind when designing The Hampton Social's menu.

“Typically, if there's a baby shower or someone's celebrating an announcement of having a child, everyone else drinks some alcohol and the mother is kind of left out,” he said. “I really wanted to create something that allowed even the expectant mom to be included and be part of the fun. If she's in the pictures, she doesn't look like she's out of place, but she's drinking responsibly.”

Harris wants to develop showier and more complex mocktails because the drinks have spiked in popularity.

“In the last three months we've sold more mocktails than probably the three years prior to that,” he said. “I don't know what it is. Their spot on the menu is very small and not eye-catching, but people seem to like them.”

Innocent believes people might be turning to mocktails after drinking more during lockdown.

“People have come out of COVID with a heightened sense of their health and not wanting to add extra calories and extra sugars to their diet,” he said. “Sometimes alcohol needs to be cut out when people make those lifestyle changes. I commend people who want to take on that sobriety challenge and I want them to feel included when they're out with friends.”

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