There's nothing to mock about the growing trend of alcohol-free cocktails

Until January, I'd only vaguely noted the existence of mocktails on bar menus. I'd take a fleeting glance at the few “non-alcoholic” options, and then onto the main attractions — usually bourbon or rye.

A large group of friends had descended upon The Citizen's Trust some Friday night, right after the holiday-themed decor and crowds disappeared from the Downtown bar. The new menu was duck-themed, and a friend who generally abstains from alcohol suddenly appeared with a Japanese tea mug containing something warm and floral. I stole one sip, and then another. It tasted like drinking salted plums, sweet and earthy.

I confess, I don't actually remember what alcoholic beverages I ordered that night, only the tea: the hokily named “Like a Duck.” Because if it looks like a duck, right?

While the craft cocktail scene in Columbus is growing exponentially, when it comes to non-alcoholic drinks, Central Ohio is only just getting in the game. But we're a quick learner. In just the last year, several craft cocktail bars began debuting inventive, exciting mocktails that stand rightly alongside their boozy companions.

Josh Gandee, beverage director at Watershed Kitchen & Bar in Grandview, began adding N/A options onto their menus last summer. Before, bartenders would make mocktails upon request, but once N/A drinks appeared in print, Gandee said demand skyrocketed.

“I feel like if you give it the same presence that you give on a regular cocktail menu, people are going to take it as serious as cocktails,” Gandee said.

P.J. Ford, bar manager at The Light Of Seven Matchsticks in Worthington, said there are plenty of reasons people order N/A drinks: They're pregnant, taking some time off from drinking, using certain medicines or simply don't drink.

There's also good reason for bartenders to invest in N/A options. Both Ford and Gandee said they now think more about wellness and taking care of their own health, and don't always want to be drinking behind the bar.

But how do you replace the depth of flavor of distilled spirits? How do you balance ingredients so the drink doesn't become a “sugar bomb”? It's no small task.

“I don't think mocktails are any kind of step back from creativity,” Ford said. “I think it's an obstacle to find new ways to be creative.”

Bartenders often use cold brew coffee or tea as a base, or even buy distilled, non-alcoholic spirits like Seedlip, which are gaining popularity. The rest is creating layers: fruit juices, cordials, herbal syrups, shrubs (sipping vinegar) and bitters (some of which are already N/A).

So it should be no surprise that a craft mocktail could ring you between $6-$10. Despite having no liquor, N/A drinks may actually cost more to make. (That's why “Like a Duck” is no longer on the menu at Citizens Trust, to my recent disappointment.) But Citizens Trust manager Logan Demmy said N/A drinks are now an essential part of any bar worth its salt.

“I'm not looking for them to generate revenue,” Demmy said. “I'm just trying to make sure that everyone that comes to the bar can have a great and amazing cocktail experience.”

Here are N/A cocktails currently featured at a trio of local bars.

Watershed Kitchen & Bar

“Max & Erma's Sundae Bar”

Ramble cold brew coffee, turbinado sugar, cherry vanilla bitters, banana whipped cream and sprinkles, served in an Irish coffee mug

For Watershed's new themed menu, “Midwest Nostalgia,” Josh Gandee said team members searched for flavors with which they grew up. “Max & Erma's Sundae Bar,” created by bartender Lauren Noel, gets its base from a cold brew specially made by Ramble Coffee in Worthington. The banana whipped cream is made in-house, but the sprinkles are just like the ones you remember as a kid.

If coffee isn't your cup, Watershed has plenty of other options: Five of the menu's 30 cocktails will be N/A. I'd also recommend “Sage Advice,” similar to a Japanese High Ball, and “Shrub-a-Dub-Dub,” which features locally grown beets.

Light of Seven Matchsticks

“Al Green Tea”

Olive oil-washed sundew green tea, lemon juice, orange marmalade syrup, cardamom bitters, egg white, served in coupe glass

The Light of Seven Matchsticks will be featuring N/A cocktails for the first time on its upcoming summer menu. To match the tanic bite of an aged spirit, P.J. Ford started with a sundew green tea that's been mixed with olive oil, brewed sous vide and then frozen.

Because of the bar's literary theme, Ford said it's important N/A drinks display the same level of elegance. “That's another reason I think an egg white cocktail is kind of nice,” he said. “It looks classy. It has a certain feel to it.” Like a gin fizz, the final result of his “Al Green Tea” is frothy and bright.

The Citizens Trust

“Westerville Swizzle”

Jalapeno, cucumber, lemon cordial, lime juice, mint, Seedlip Spice 94, distilled Worcestershire sauce, served in a highball glass

Logan Demmy has included N/A cocktails on every menu since The Citizens Trust opened, and the upcoming “Salt Fat Acid Heat” menu is no different. The jalapeno in “Westerville Swizzle” mimics liquor's burn, but it builds flavor with Seedlip, a distilled, non-alcoholic spirit that offers hints of allspice, cardamom and citrus.

One of Demmy's aims is to slow things down. “You want the cocktail to have an overall experience,” Demmy said. “When I serve a drink on crushed ice, I think a lot of times it is that longer, more refreshing drink. It's something that you're going to sip.” Save room to try “Apple of Mine,” a bright pink take on the classic “Clover Club.”