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Craft nonalcoholic scene is brewing in Seattle, just don't call it a 'mocktail'

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Are you sober curious? Perhaps you're more health oriented, or just want to lay off the sauce for dry January. It is currently quite easy to go nonalcoholic in Seattle amid a modern age of mocktails throughout the city's bars.

But if you're up to explore the world of craft cocktails, minus the booze, you should know one thing first: Don't call them "mocktails."

"'Mocktail' is like a four-letter word now," said Seattle Times food writer Tan Vinh. "You would really offend a lot of people who don't drink. Because 10 years ago, you just said mocktail, whatever, and you wanted a virgin cocktail. It has become so popular, it is now considered an art and a craft. So they say, 'We're not a mocktail, which means we're trying to be a copycat of craft cocktails. No, we're a whole new category, a new drink category, with a whole new flavor profile.' So they like to call it 'NA,' nonalcoholic."

While chatting with KUOW's Seattle Now, Vinh expanded on his recent coverage of Seattle's growing NA scene.

"Take Canlis, for example, I would say they spend more time on their NA, or mocktails, than they do on their craft cocktails," he said. "They take purple corn and reduce it down to a syrup, and they add this NA amaro, which is rooty, and they hack it with vanilla beans, and then they top it off with this nonalcoholic sparkling [water]. It tastes a lot like champagne, so you get this really complicated negroni-like drink."

"The problem with these drinks, and bartenders are figuring this out, is what mocktails lack is what I call the 'ump'; it usually tastes too thin or diluted. So now bartenders have a lot more products to play with where they could take a shortcut and open this magic bottle of NA spirit, or they make in-house stuff."

Vinh argues that the craft side of the nonalcoholic scene is the main attraction. There are nonalcoholic spirits, like substitutes for tequila or whiskey, but so far, many don't live up to their name.

These craft NA drinks are a new generation of nonalcoholic beverages, straying far from the virgin drinks of yore, or your parents' mocktails. NA drinks are likely to have bold, uncommon ingredients (that could get pricey). They are crafted as artistically and painstakingly as a high-end cocktail. Over the past few years, such options have emerged onto the menus of bars, breweries, and other watering holes around Seattle and across the USA. Vinh reports that it has added up to a multi-million dollar industry.

"We have a lot of factors working here, one is the pandemic when we drank a lot, so this is an overcorrection," he said. "The reality is, even before the pandemic, there was a movement in terms of, for lack of a better word, mocktails or NA drinks, because a lot of people really don't drink ... before, if you did not drink, you just didn't go to bars, whereas now, it's just more friendly, it's more acceptable, you can go to bars and there are (nonalcoholic) drinks."

"This is no lie, 10 years ago ... a bar on Capitol Hill, true story, someone ordered a mocktail, and the bartender goes, 'Are you pregnant?' That's unacceptable. You wouldn't dare say that now, but that's how weird it was to order a mocktail at a bar. They assumed health reasons or you are pregnant."

Times have changed. As The Seattle Times' food reporter, Vinh goes out up to five times a week, and he notes that these days, he rarely sees a menu without a nonalcoholic drink offered. Such options have long been on menus, he says. Word has gotten out and popularity has grown over time.

"Here's a dirty little secret — a lot of people don't like to get drunk, a lot of people don't like to get multiple cocktails," he said. "So if you don't, then you don't go to bars, but now you do. It's more acceptable."

Read Tan Vinh's full reporting on NA drinks here.

Listen to Seattle Now's full segment with Vinh here.

A few NA, aka mocktail, ideas.

Why you can trust KUOW