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Welcome to Mocktail Culture, the Least-Fun Way to Get Ripped Off

Fancy, pretentious and wildly expensive nonalcoholic drinks are ready to take over the restaurant and bar scene in 2020 — giving us even fewer ways to drink for cheap

For a while there, it looked like the Summer of Seltzer might rage on forever as the preeminent drink trend in America, with waves of White Claw and Truly subsuming the masses into its crisp, bubbly grasp. 

In many ways, it made sense that the culture would fall in love with lower-calorie, easy-to-drink, endlessly memeable hard seltzer. But in a different context, our desire to overspend on cans of mostly literal water and air (and a tipple of clear beer) felt a bit like an industry con job. (The worst: I recall standing horrified in a West Hollywood bar sometime last fall, witnessing a trio spend $24 before tip on three cans of Truly.)

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But, as it turns out, there was a different nascent drink trend waiting quietly in the long shadow cast by the Seltzer Wars®. It’s not low-calorie. It’s not memeable. It doesn’t even have booze in it. But the industry experts agree: Fancy mocktails are ready to take over the market in 2020, one bar and restaurant at a time. 

You’ll see them on a menu listed as “non-alcoholic cocktails,” “elixirs” or maybe even “tonics,” but the premise is the same. These aren’t just glasses of mixed-up juice and sodas. They’re concoctions, crafted with the same quality and care as the Hemingway daiquiri your neighbor at the bar is sipping on.

It’s why new-school mocktails in 2020 tout ingredients like butterfly pea flower, lion’s mane mushroom and whatever the fuck “ceremonial cacao” is. And, commensurate such craftsmanship, these mocktails command a price far higher than your average glass of non-booze swill: Prices ranging from $8 to a staggering $16 are normal in big-city bars. 

Given the fact that young people are drinking less alcohol than ever before, the rise of the craft mocktail makes sense. When made right, they’re just as delicious, and photogenic, as their boozy brethren. To me, what’s a shame is that the trend is already being defined by absurd pricing and pretentious language that seems to borrow from the pseudoscientific world of “wellness” juice brands. 

With cocktail prices ballooning over the last decade, a lot of people have been asking for an alternative. Is the answer really a $13 juice that you drink at midnight? 

Mixed drinks are expensive primarily because of the alcohol — it’s far more expensive than fruit juices or fancy sweeteners — and the huge markup you can put on any boozy drink, given that people want to pay extra to get drunk in public rather than in their home. Given the fact that alcohol is the prime moneymaker for any kind of hospitality business, you can see why everyone would try to pivot to selling mixed juice at regular-cocktail prices, whether it’s to a health nut or a teetotaler who wants to fit in. It seems crazy to justify the cost of a drink that’s marked up to near-cocktail prices despite missing actual alcohol, but that’s the illusion involved. 

This is obvious when the drink is almost insultingly simple, like an $8 raspberry-lemon-pineapple mocktail at a Downtown L.A. bar that sounds like something I stirred together in my kitchen while stoned on a Sunday night. You’re better off spending more on fantastical non-alcoholic drinks that sound like something you’ve never dreamed of tasting before, like, er, “carbonated clarified comice pear juice with Mount Olympus tea.”

Clarifying and carbonating fruit juice is 1) a pain in the ass that 2) you’ll almost certainly never attempt at home. I’d argue those two criteria make spending hard-earned money on this stuff more palatable. 

Star chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten are getting in on it, which is a testament to the new-school mocktail’s rebirth as a medium for this sort of whiz-bang culinary creativity and good ol’ aspirational capitalism. But it’s few and far in between that you’ll find establishments really innovating in this way.

Mostly, we’re wading into a trend of modified Shirley Temples designed to make more money. With the right spin, we’re all liable to forget a nonalcoholic margarita is just limeade, and a virgin mojito is friggin’ water with mint, lime and ice. 

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Of course, people who want to cut alcohol deserve delicious drinks made with care. And of course, people have figured out a way to gentrify that very simple idea into something low-key grotesque.

The experts keep telling us that 2020 is the year of the adult mocktail. I’m just hoping that I’ll still be able to get a $4 glass of sparkling water with bitters and a splash of cranberry at my local bar without having to argue about it.