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Cheers to Booze-Free

Low- and no-alcohol cocktails are shaking up drink menus across the city – just try not to call them mocktails.

Low- and no-alcohol cocktails have become a priority on menus across the city, with dedicated low-ABV (alcohol by volume) and zero-proof or “mocktail” menus taking up prime real estate. Many don’t like the idea of calling them mocktails, though. 

“We’re not trying to mock anything,” said several people in the hospitality industry. Corina Fleet, beverage director of The Other Bird hospitality group, sees them being of equal importance. “We want our customers to feel included and valued, no matter what they’re drinking or why.”  

Fleet is even considering reformatting how the menu reads, where zero-proof and low-ABV drinks aren’t in their own distinct category, but the alcohol content is still easy to find and understand. 

Creating an “inclusive” menu, alongside making customers feel valued, were common themes with everybody I spoke to. But many also shared their own personal reasons for creating zero-proof menus, ranging from supporting those in the sober or sober-curious communities, to creating a safe space, having healthier alternatives, and making it fun for people who are choosing not to or are unable to drink for various reasons. 

These drinks are fun and flashy, says Anthony Cipollo, Undefined’s general manager, sharing that customers love that their drinks are perfect for the ’gram. 

More and more people are “approaching (drinking) with intentionality,” said Alex Drumm, a bartender at The Argyle for two and a half years. “There’s been a drastic shift in drinking culture since I’ve started working here.” 

People are having one cocktail, then turning to non-alcoholic drinks for the rest of the evening, or only consuming non-alcoholic drinks from the start. Whether it’s driven by Health Canada’s alcohol guidelines changing in 2022, how alcohol affects sleep quality, both short- and long-term health risks, or cost and competition, the low and no-alcohol drink trend seems like it’s here to stay. According to, the interest in non-alcoholic drinks has been climbing nation-wide over the last several years and that growth is expected to continue, to the tune of 2.2 per cent annually until 2027. 

As Drumm and I chatted, he pointed out three customers sitting at the table closest  to me. All three were drinking non-alcoholic drinks and their reasons for doing so differed, from participating in dry January, to being at work, to simply not feeling like drinking alcohol. They were there for a work meeting and noted that having more places serving good non-alcoholic drinks made it more interesting to have meetings outside of the office that didn’t include a coffee shop. 

Mocktails have long had a reputation of being overly sweet and belonging on the kid’s menu, alongside a Shirley Temple. But this just isn’t true anymore. Yes, there are places still using a base of juices and syrups to create their non-alcoholic drinks – more as an afterthought on the menu. 

Bar Sazerac owner Kyle Ferreira – known as the “father of bartending” in Hamilton – makes his own zero-proof spirits, liqueurs, and aperitivos to go into low- and no-alcohol cocktails.  PHOTO: Marta Hewson for HCM

But not the places I visited. Many of the drinks I tasted were innovative, complex and creative, with thoughtful and considered house-made components, like the subtly sweet and spicy ginger beer at The Merk, the pineapple shrub at Mystic Ramen, and the grapefruit cordial at Undefined doing most of the heavy-lifting among their dedicated non-boozy drinks. 

Mystic Ramen on King William Street even makes a zero-proof old fashioned, which for the record, is traditionally 99 per cent bourbon or rye whiskey. 

Heather Elson, one half of the ownership team at Mystic Ramen, is able to capture the flavour of the classic cocktail quite well, even if it is on the sweeter side. She uses a mix of ingredients that mimic the background flavours of the spirit, including a blend of the funky and smoky lapsang souchong tea and the toasty bitterness of barley tea.

“I’m not a fancy bartender,” she said. This drink proves otherwise.

Outside of what was made in-house, the thoughtful curation of ingredients often made me have to double check that what I was drinking didn’t, in fact, include alcohol. The tropical sour served by Drumm at The Argyle, for example, was as convincing as they come. The Merk’s Peared Off and Rapscallion’s coconut matcha sour, both things I wouldn’t have typically ordered, were decidedly enjoyable, and worth writing home about.  

Low-ABV cocktails also have a dedicated space on several of these menus. ABV is the percentage you see on your can of beer, bottle of wine, or spirit. And in the cocktail world, it’s used to determine the alcohol content in a drink served. Most standard drinks are around one and a half ounces of distilled spirits, making for around 40 per cent ABV. 

For the low-ABV menus, most establishments are looking to at least cut that amount in half. For example, the refreshing and subtly floral L&T (Lillet & tonic) at The Argyle, now on my all-time favourites list, comes in at 17.5  per cent. While Rapscallion’s sweeter apricot spritz, uses bitter Campari, an apricot simple syrup, and alcohol-free Gruvi Dry Secco, for a much lower 5.5 per cent ABV refresher. A traditional Aperol spritz, also rings in at a low 7.5 per cent ABV as it is.

More interesting non-alcoholic options are what people want. After attending an eventful cocktail competition in Toronto last year, Courtney Johnson, who’s built a reputation for herself in the non-alc community, decided to run a similar mocktail competition in Hamilton. Johnson started her Discovering Mocktails Instagram account last year because she was “struggling with” her drinking. All she could see when researching sobriety, she said, “was that being sober was boring.” Through sharing alcohol-free beverages and sober-inclusive events in and around the GTA, she’s made it her personal mission to prove that being “sober isn’t boring, or doesn’t have to be.”

The competition showcased three bartenders from across the city: Shirline Nalepa from the Merk Snack Bar, Mare Walsh from Bon Temps, and Brendan TK from Victoria’s Steakhouse. Walsh, who’s worked in hospitality for roughly 25 years, is the owner of cocktail catering company, Quick Stir, bar lead/restaurant manager at Bon Temps, and now, a brand influencer for the company Sobrii. Highly respected and known for her craft, she was keen to participate in the competition, and use her “voice and platform to educate others on healthier ways to have a relationship with alcohol. Having personally “suffered from alcohol abuse” and witnessing the “abuse, and even loss of life, of too many of my friends, colleagues and community members over the years,” Walsh believes they have a responsibility “to have offerings for everyone without judgment.”  

The event was well-received and the energy was buzzing, according to several who attended. “They mixed their drinks while the song of their choice played and everyone cheered. It was incredible to watch,” says Johnson. Thrilled with the community response, she’s planning another competition for this year and is anticipating much wider participation from across the city’s bars. If you’re wondering who won, everyone produced great drinks, but in the end it was Brendan TK from Victoria’s who stole the show with his TKTK mocktail. 

Making great no- or low-alcoholic drinks is one thing but Bar Sazerac owner Kyle Ferreira is also making his own zero-proof spirits, liqueurs, and aperitivos to go into the drinks. This project started in 2021 when his wife Jennifer Ferreira was pregnant with their second child. He wanted to create a drink that allowed her to feel like she could better participate in the culture. They owned a cocktail bar, after all. 

Her taste preferences lean towards bitter, so Ferreira worked with flavours like “orange, gentian, angelica root, and other herbs and spices” to create a spiced aperitivo that she could add to her soda. This concoction is now firmly on their menu, doubling as the house aperitivo and tonic syrup. You’ll find it in Peppo the Alley Cat, their spin on a non-alcoholic Aperol spritz.

This personal endeavour led Ferreira down the path of developing more non-alcoholic spirits to stock his bar. In addition to the aperitivo, Ferreira says his house-made rum and triple sec have also earned a confident place on the menu, though he’s just scratched the surface, he says. He’s working on developing a more robust sweet vermouth, gin, Aperol, and whiskey. And although it’s in its infancy, the whiskey still made a wonderful addition to the Scrooge McDuck, a riff on a Penicillin, a scotch-based drink developed by New York bartender Sam Ross. 

Ferreira is deeply committed to his craft. He owns and runs a cocktail bar, so I was naturally curious about his motivation for working so hard on the non-alcoholic side of things. Without hesitation, he said that people should question if he didn’t give the same deference and care to creating drinks for all of his customers. 

“I support whoever’s in front of me,” he said. And in his house, everyone should “be comfortable, have a good time, and have something … that works for them.” 

When he was growing up, his mother used to say, “less than your best, you cannot give. And better than your best, you cannot give,” a likely influence to his approach. Known by others in the city as the “father of bartending,” Ferreira is also recognized as an expert by those at arm’s-length to the industry. In addition to his own in-house libations, he’s been asked to develop the base flavour profiles for a Canadian brand that is looking to create a range of non-alcoholic spirits and produce them on a larger scale. Ferreira’s work is only just beginning. 

Whether you’re imbibing or not, there’s much to discover in the city. And many of the drinks will surprise you with their convincing makeup, contemplative curation, and extraordinary flavour and presentation. The most important thing to remember is that you should talk to your bartender. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that everybody genuinely wants you to enjoy your drink and to have a good time. If they know your likes and dislikes, they’re happy to craft something for you on the spot. 

And don’t ever apologize for ordering something non-alcoholic. Those attitudes are in the past. 

You might want to try:

The Tropical Sour, the Spicy-rita, and
the L&T (low ABV) at The Argyle

The Coconut Matcha Sour and the
Faux-Seventy Five at Rapscallion

The Foal and Peared Off at Merk Snack Bar

The Scrooge McDuck and Peppo the
Alley Cat at Bar Sazerac

Aleppo & Grapefruit Faux-Loma
at Undefined

The Coco Beach and Haikara Mugicha
at Mystic Ramen

Bar Sazerac owner Kyle Ferreira.  PHOTOS: Marta Hewson for HCM