How to order a non-alcoholic adult beverage

Many people tell me that when they first take a break from alcohol, they really hate ordering something non-alcoholic to drink. If you've never paid attention to non-alcoholic offerings before, you might be surprised to realize just how limited your options are at many restaurants. While club soda and lime is almost always available, it can get pretty boring, pretty fast. Here are some tips if you're looking to branch out.

1. Be realistic about where you are.

First and foremost, don't walk into a dive bar and expect that they can whip up an elderflower mocktail. If they serve Bud Light and Coors you're unlikely to find artisanal sodas behind the counter. That said, if you're at a restaurant that puts a lot of emphasis on high-quality food you may be surprised what they can do for you. I once got a seven-course, non-alcoholic drink pairing that wasn't on the menu just because I asked the waiter what was possible.

2. Don't fret if the menu doesn't list a single non-alcoholic option.

This is way more common than you might think. I've read down plenty of menus only to discover that they don't list a single non-alcoholic beverage. You don't have to revert to club soda and lime at this point. It just means you'll have to get a little creative.

3. It's not the waitstaff's job to come up with a non-alcoholic drink for you.

If you wouldn't ask the kitchen staff to whip something up for you to eat without giving them any guidelines, it's probably not a good idea for you to ask the bartender to do the same. You can certainly hope they're mind readers, but don't be disappointed if you get a Shirley Temple.

4. The cocktail menu is your friend.

As a first step, read through the cocktail menu. You can ask the bartender to re-purpose many of the ingredients she's using to mix cocktails. You might even be able to order some of the non-alcoholic bottled mixers on their own (e.g., ginger beer). Here are some things to look for:

  • Muddled fruit, especially berries, or cucumber. Note, that the fruit in Sangria won't do you a lot of good, it's usually made ahead of time in large batches.
  • Fresh herbs such as mint, basil, thyme.
  • Fresh squeezed juices.
  • Not too-sweet tonics: Fever Tree Tonic, Q Tonic, and Fentimans
  • Unusual sodas: Dry Soda has several unusual flavors including Lavender, Rhubarb, and Juniper Berry. Fentimans boasts English Elderflower and the delightful Dandelion & Burdock. 
  • Bitter sodas: Sanbitter by Pelligrino, Fever Tree Bitter Lemon, and, if you can find it, Moxie.
  • Ginger beers (starting with the least sweet): Q, Fever Tree, Cock ‘n Bull, Reeds, and Bundaberg
  • Shrubs: Fruit-and-vinegar syrups that are usually tart and tangy. Some good brands are Shrub & Co., The Hudson Standard, and Liber & Co.
  • Infused syrups
  • Egg whites (hey why not!)

5. Make a reasonable request.

Don't go crazy here and ask for a million different ingredients. Tending a bar is not easy and bartenders are often swamped. Some examples:

  • Muddled blackberries with elderflower soda and mint
  • Fever Tree Tonic with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
  • Ginger beer on the rocks with lime juice
  • Bitter lemon with muddled cucumber

If all else fails, most bartenders are happy to whip up a fresh lemonade.

6. If it's really important to you, plan ahead.

If you're going out with friends for your birthday and you'll be disappointed if the restaurant doesn't have anything non-alcoholic for you, by all means do some research ahead of time. More and more places are starting to actually cater to the non-drinking crowd. If you're invited to a party or dinner, show up with something you want to drink, and don't expect that the host will have anything for you other than water.

Not drinking doesn't mean that you're stuck with club soda and lime. Have fun with it and try new things.