Unlike the chef at the saucier station, the bartender typically whips up her artwork in plain view, with no chance to taste what she’s serving before it’s passed across the counter. In other words, she needs to know what she’s doing, and there are some beguiling corners of YouTube — near the intersection of booze and science — devoted to those at the cutting edge of the craft. Patrons at The Botanist in Shanghai, China, can consume pear liqueur and rose water from a suspended lightbulb. There’s a bar in Las Vegas that will, with proper notice, encase a wedding suitor’s engagement ring in a martini glass made out of ice for a proposal cocktail. Gracias Madre in Los Angeles once offered a tequila blanco mix in a bong, served with hemp seeds smoked tableside.
There’s been a lot of buzz about one trend in particular that stands out, and it’s popular in bars from Melrose to Manhattan. That trend: mixing a drink without alcohol.
For what’s got to be the first time in years, concoctions like cold brew coffee juleps and juniper tonics are proliferating faster than small-batch pale ales, giving clever bartenders room to show off house-made syrups and smoke clouds and edible flowers. There are sophisticated spirit-free brands like Seedlip and Kin Euphorics online, too, hawking botanical distillations like “Grove 42” and “Hibiscus Rhodiola,” each promising a blissful, boozeless buzz, sans the headache, to all who sip it. So, whether you’re trying to pace yourself with a “NoGroni” on a marathon night out or you’re just thrilled we’ve all found occasion to ditch that uber-problematic “virgin” terminology, here’s to the mocktail, and to a handful of the Little Rock bars doing it justice.
Raduno’s “For Your Health” and “Cherry Basil Tonic”
First things first: Raduno’s bartenders definitely win the zero-proof game for having a dedicated mocktail menu. They also win for understanding that leaving out the booze doesn’t mean you have to pile on the sugar. Quite the opposite, in fact — the bite of the Barrit’s Jamaican-style ginger beer in the pizzeria’s “For Your Health” (opposite page) drink mimics the bite its alcoholic equivalents get from tequila or rum, and the Yerba mate syrup, lemon juice, local mint and flowers are bracing in the best of ways. The beauty queen of the Raduno mocktail menu, though? That’d be the Cherry Basil Tonic (left), with a jolt of Fever Tree tonic and an ombre effect that happens when the crimson Pink House Alchemy dark cherry grenadine therein fades to a clean, crisp coral at the top of the glass.
Heights Taco & Tamale’s “Tesote”
Like Raduno, Heights Taco & Tamale has carved out a permanent space for handcrafted mocktails on its hardback wooden menu, where you’ll find a housemade “Mexican Fruit Punch,” an invigorating cucumber-water-based delight called “Mercantile Soda No. 1” and the “Tesote.” For the “Tesote,” the Heights spot starts with an ultra-concentrated black tea — steeped until it’s dark, bartenders Sarah Burns and Shayla Lewis told us — and adds to that a mint simple syrup; a blend of pineapple, orange, lemon and lime juices; and honey and cinnamon.
Petit & Keet’s “Dandelion”
A deep, abiding love for pineapple is a definite prerequisite for this drink, but if that sounds like you, Petit & Keet might be your new happy hour spot. The “Dandelion” (top left) is summer in a martini glass — lemon, lime, pineapple and cucumber, served with the cuke peels as garnish, flopping over the rim like they’re drunk on springtime chlorophyll.
Allsopp & Chapple’s spirit-free “Piña Colada”
Even in its former life as Ira’s, this Main Street venue was known for a strong bar program. That hasn’t changed with Executive Chef Bonner Cameron at the helm; he’s fashioned the Rose Building restaurant and bar after its literary roots as a bookstore. Holding the gin on the bar’s “Great Gatsby” is a strong contender, but bartender Jared Browner mixed up a decadent (and somehow still frothy and light) spirit-free Piña Colada (top right) from an almond-rich Orgeat syrup, pineapple juice, lime and a house-made bourbon vanilla coconut cream. A drink that’s engineered to be both milky and acidic might sound digestively dreadful on paper; this cloudy summer concoction is anything but.
Ciao Baci’s “Strawberry Season”
This drink (bottom left) does not, as far as we know, bear this name officially, but it may as well. Bartender Mailyn Schneider makes the most of strawberries sourced from Dunbar Garden when they’re available, pairing a strained puree with fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Thanks to a clever strawberry-and-mint garnish, you can smell the berries before you taste them, and as soon as that thermometer outside hits a brutal 98 degrees with 80 percent relative humidity to boot, this ruby red drink — and maybe some gazpacho — is all a reasonable Little Rock resident will want for supper.
South on Main’s pecan, ginger beer and cranberry juice
South on Main’s go-to mocktail (bottom right) is based on a pretty safe assumption — that most of its competitors don’t keep a ready supply of pecan simple syrup lying around. As it turns out, the pecans the restaurant uses to top salads and whatnot produce a delicious byproduct when they’re candied in-house, and that pecan-infused syrup gets paired with cranberry juice and Gosling’s ginger beer for a killer mocktail. “We’ve never had a formal mocktail menu,” bartender Scott Foltz told us, “but I always like it when I’m behind the bar and someone orders one.”