O.C. bars and beverage shops say cheers to Dry January
If you are among the many Americans giving up alcohol during the monthlong sobriety challenge known as Dry January, you should have a solid two weeks without alcohol under your belt by now. And you might be looking for an alternative to that soda water.
“I feel like people need balance in their lives and self-regulation after the really gluttonous time that is December,” said Gabrielle Dion, a longtime bartender and owner of Mixing Glass and Market in Costa Mesa.
Dion is an authority on cocktail culture, but she isn’t opposed to people taking a break from booze. “I think it could be good any time of year, taking a week off or a couple weeks off to reset yourself,” she said. “I do know people that have made a lifestyle change for it completely, and we are all for that if that is what is healthy for you.”
Mixing Glass recently moved from its original home at the OC Mix into a larger space on Harbor Boulevard with an expanded inventory split between two areas.
One side is a bougie bodega and deli, with everything shoppers need to create a chef-forward cheese plate or snack board with carefully curated grocery items like Gjusta pastries, Mejorado tortillas and produce fresh from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Dion refers to one of the coolers as the “stoner closet,” stocked with frozen pizza, frozen burritos from Burritos La Palma and Sad Girl Creamery ice cream. Customers will also find wines and natural wines from small producers and craft beers.
The other side of the space is the spirit room, with bottles artfully arranged and back-lit, just like patrons would see at a bar.
“We’ve been doing this for nine years, and we source everything with a mindset of small and independent, but it also has to taste good and be good quality,” Dion said.
Mixing Glass and Market also has ingredients for making the perfect zero-proof cocktail at home.
“I know that a lot of people have been using nonalcoholic spirits — that is a very big, up-and-coming category,” said Dion. “But we’ve been making mock-tails for years before this category started popping up.”
Amaro sodas or amaro soft drinks, for instance, are made by infusing soda with botanicals, like citrus peels and herbs.
“They are kind of like La Croix for a bartender,” Dion said of the nonalcoholic version from Casamara Club that Mixing Glass stocks. “They have all natural flavorings. They also have a little bit of sea salt and a little of sugar just to make balance and make the drink enjoyable.”
Using a shrub, like the small batch ones Mixing Glass carries from Cool Hand Co., are another way to bring complex flavors to a zero proof beverage.
“A shrub utilizes vinegar, in this case organic apple cider vinegar, and that provides acidity to a syrup,” said Dion. “If you are just making a syrup, then you just have sweetness, but when you make a shrub, using vinegar as a preservative offers acidity back to it.”
When Dion makes a mock-tail, it is always based on fresh ingredients with balance in mind, and she recommends substituting water or tea in place of the spirit.
“When you just shake juice and syrup, you don’t get very much volume and it is off-balance,” she said. “So consider adding a little bit of tea, like an oolong or just plain water.”
Another base alternative is aloe juice, made from the aloe vera plant, which is what Solstice Restaurant in Irvine uses in place of booze from most of the drinks on its zero-proof cocktail menu.
“Aloe juice helps digestion and skin and has electrolytes,” said Solstice manager Brittany Scott.
Aloe juice is available in a sweetened and unsweetened version.
“They even have cranberry-flavored ones in health stores,” Scott said.
Aloe juice has the substance and mouthfeel of liquor, which makes for a more believable dupe.
Since opening in March 2021, Solstice has featured a selection of zero-proof drinks or un-cocktails that get as much attention as the rest of the menu, Scott said.
“We take the same approach and style of our culture from our food and beverage into our zero-proof cocktails,” she said.
That means seasonally inspired and ingredient driven with a focus on low waste.
“If the kitchen uses a whole pumpkin, we might find ways to use a piece of that in our cocktails,” said Scott.
The Un-French 75 is a take on the classic champagne cocktail that uses aloe juice in place of gin and club soda instead of bubbly.
Many of the drinks are virgin versions of alcoholic counterparts on the bar menu.
“We have the regular Vodka 2 on our menu, and we also offer the un-version,” said Scott. “So we have about four regular cocktails that you can also get as a mock-tail.”
While aloe juice and skipping the spirits have health benefits, Dion points out that people have different reasons for laying off liquor.
“When I was pregnant in 2012, I went to a very well-known craft cocktail bar in San Diego and asked for a mock-tail,” Dion recalls.
She was served a disappointing lemonade and from then on made sure the bars she was managing at the time (Vaca in Costa Mesa and Broadway in Laguna Beach) had thoughtful, well-made mock-tails on the menu.
Khan Saab Desi Kitchen in Fullerton also has well-made mock-tails from its fully zero-proof bar, founded in order to adhere to Islamic dietary laws, or halal. Part of meeting the terms for halal restrictions as defined in the Quran is not consuming alcohol or any food that has touched alcohol.
“My family, when we go out to a restaurant, if they serve halal meat but they have a bar, they will be skeptical about eating there,” said Ahmad Hosseini, Khan Saab’s resident mixologist.
When the Michelin-recognized restaurant opened in 2020, it was the first 100% alcohol-free bar program in Orange County and the fourth in the nation.
“We were thinking we can provide something to the community that hasn’t been done before, and that is how the bar program started here,” said Hosseini.
As a mixologist who doesn’t work with alcohol, Hosseini said he pays special attention to taste and technique.
“When it comes to mixology, with me at least, I think it is a mixture of different flavors combined together, it doesn’t have to include the alcohol,” said Hosseini.
Khan Saab highlights the flavors and cooking of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the drinks are just as innovative.
Popular drinks include the Dirty Sprite made with lime juice, salt and mint and served in a martini glass. The Mango Mojito, which borrows a flavor profile from the traditional mango lassi, uses mango nectar and jaggery, a cane brown sugar usually made with date or palm sap popular in Southeast Asia.
The smoked Negroni is also a show stopper that is presented at the table in a smoke dome.
“The smoked Negroni, that is the spiced one,” said Hosseini. “We smoke it with cloves and flavors that combine spices from our kitchen.”
An off-menu drink special that is only available when Khan Saab can source the difficult-to-find falsa berry is the Falsatini.
“Falsa is a berry that is found on the Eastern side of the world, in the same family as the blueberry and raspberry,” said Hosseini.
Sometimes referred to as a sherbet berry, the falsa is rich in antioxidants, and Hosseini uses it to make a blended drink that isn’t unlike a smoothie.
Hosseini said he is happy to present drinks that match the caliber of food offered at Khan Saab, and the team is actively exploring more options, like nonalcoholic wine, to add to the menu.
“Right now we have so many options with nonalcoholic beverages we can create almost anything we want,” Hosseini said.
Whatever your reasons for participating in Dry January, Mixing Glass’ Dion assures you it doesn’t have to be the buzzkill it is often made out to be.
“You can have an amazing mock-tail and still feel like you are still enjoying a cocktail and socializing with friends,” she said.
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