Last fall, I debuted a special cocktail at Columbia Room, the bar I own in Washington, D.C., that included black ants. It was inspired by chefs like Noma’s Rene Redzepi, who incorporate black ants in their food for their tangy, citrusy characteristics. The drink at Columbia Room was served with or without alcohol, and both versions cost $18.
Dare I say, without having done any scientific research on the topic, that most people don’t want bugs in their cocktails? But, if they do want bugs in their cocktails, then said bug would ideally be from a preferred bug vendor, not a fly trap. Therefore, when I set out to make a cocktail with black ants, I found a quality source and had to pay accordingly. The cost for a pound of ants nearly rivaled truffles.
I’m not here to sell you on ants in cocktails. I bring them up for a very simple reason: Good ingredients can be expensive. If you’re buying a quality non-alcoholic cocktail, without or without ants, it should utilize everything within the mixologist’s arsenal: carefully sourced ingredients, top-notch techniques and thoughtful delivery. At this level, you’re not just paying for the alcohol—that could be delivered in a shot, without all the fuss. You’re paying for the entire package. The bar sources and purchases specialty ingredients, and the bartender has the expertise to work with said ingredients and produce an entire show around your cocktail.
In his 1972 book One Drink, the English novelist Kingsley Amis wrote that “serving good drinks, like producing anything worthwhile, from a poem to a motorcar, is troublesome and expensive.” While he likely was not referring to non-alcoholic drinks, the same logic applies. Cocktails are culinary creations and not just a way to administer alcohol while masking its taste. The alcohol in traditional spirits works in tandem with other cocktail components like sweetness and acidity to create balanced flavor profiles.
That’s part of what makes non-alcoholic spirits challenging for distillers to create and, as a result, expensive for consumers to purchase. According to ecommerce site Drizly, the cost of non-alcoholic spirits is slightly higher on average than spirits with alcohol. This is because non-alcoholic spirits often entail traditional distillers to research and develop new processes.
When I spoke to Monique Ten Kortenaar, head distiller at Bols, she recalled how difficult it was to create their non-alcoholic gin, Damrak Virgin 0.0. For one thing, alcohol is a great preservative. When you soak juniper and various botanicals in the alcohol, there is little worry about rot. Not so with non-alcoholic spirits that are, in effect, hydro-distillates. They require you to soak the botanicals for varying amounts of times and employ new technologies. Damrak Virgin 0.0 was harder to make and required more distillations than the alcoholic version of Damrak, Ten Kortenaar says.
Of course, you can make non-alcoholic cocktails without buying non-alcoholic distillates, black ants or any other expensive specialty items. I make a good non-alcoholic sour cocktail that involves lemon juice, ginger syrup, salt solution, aquafaba (chickpea water) and apple cider vinegar. Most of those ingredients are found in a kitchen or grocery store and don’t cost a lot of money.
If you want a good cocktail, you’re going to have to pay for it. The same goes for a good non-alcoholic cocktail.
The same can be said about cocktails without alcohol, too. You can simply buy inexpensive spirits and use them alongside all above mentioned ingredients to make yourself a perfectly cheap cocktail at home. You’d have to learn to make ginger syrup and salt solution, though, and then determine the ratios and shake it just so, and also maybe buy your own bar stools. (Drinking at home and at a bar have always proved to be different experiences and rightfully should be.)
Non-alcoholic cocktails are cocktails, and sometimes those cocktails are expensive. The reasons why can range from the cost of ingredients, to the complexity of the processes required to make them, to the stability of said ingredients, to the environment itself; but very rarely does the pricing involve a maniacal will to rob customers of money.
I cannot defend the cost of non-alcoholic cocktails to someone who goes to a bar with the sole desire for inebriation, but then again, neither can that inebriate claim their concern is about quality cocktails, at least not entirely. If you want a good cocktail, you’re going to have to pay for it. The same goes for a good non-alcoholic cocktail.
I sympathize with the rising cost of any drink or food item these days. Cheap is becoming a lot less cheap. But I also know everything that goes into a cocktail, and I don’t think that should be subsidized by the bar.
It’s up to those of us behind the bar to communicate just how far we go in trying to create the best possible cocktail, whether that’s rummaging through our cupboards, or searching to find novel ingredients. The best news is that talented mixologists can continue to surprise and delight us with their cocktails regardless of the exact ingredients used, be they bugs or a bottle of gin.
Published: January 19, 2022