8 Tips to Up Your Non-Alcoholic Holiday Hospitality Game
Give your sober guests (or sober self) the same amount of thought and care as your imbibers this holiday season, with tips from bartender and host extraordinaire, Josh Harris.
November 26, 2018 ● 7 min read
By Roxanne Webber | Illustrations by Kate Haberer
It's holiday party season. Officially.
But after a year of much-needed coverage around mental health, sobriety, and support in the food and beverage industry, we found ourselves craving a better answer to one question: How should we proactively create the same generous hospitality for all your party guests—sober or otherwise? To find out, we turned to a beacon of good times and warm welcomes, Josh Harris, the co-founder of the spirits consultancy firm the Bon Vivants in San Francisco, and co-owner of acclaimed Trick Dog bar and newly opened Bon Voyage.
Harris has been sober since the age of 22, and it hasn’t stopped him from achieving mad acclaim and accolades in the cocktail world. Rather, his thoughtful perspective on where these two worlds meet has carried over into the dynamism of his spaces, his work for charity, and consultancy for others.
“Bars are for a lot more than just serving people alcohol,” he says. “I believe that bars are places where people can meet up, and talk, and chat, enjoy the company of friends. Everybody is welcome to have whatever they want. You can sit and drink soda and bitters all afternoon if you are coming in with good vibes and good people.” Here, he schools us on how to offer the best hospitality to your guests throughout the holiday season.
Keep It Bitter
“One of the problems with non-alcoholic drinks is that they are often made to taste like soda or juice and often lack the flavor maturity that people put forward in their alcoholic drinks,” says Harris. Just because people aren’t drinking alcohol doesn’t mean they don’t want something complex and adult. The complex flavors you get in a good drink? Often times those are due to the addition of bitter elements. There are several ways to add those without the booze: Good quality tonic water, bitter lemon tonic, and chinotto (an Italian bitter soda) are just a few readily available options out there. (Since cocktail bitters are usually made with an alcohol base, check with your non-drinking guests if they are okay with them prior to throwing in a few dashes.)
Give It Parity
Offer a non-alcoholic option that involves the same degree of care and point of view that your alcoholic options have. “As I am sure you've either witnessed or experienced in some way, I'll be at somebody's house, and they're like opening up the wine cellar with rare bottles and [getting] out the Pappy Van Winkle, and they've made three different beautiful cocktails…and then they've got like a two-liter of soda that they opened a week ago,” says Harris. Good hospitality is about thinking about your guests and caring for them. Don’t make the N/A guests an afterthought.
Know What You Have to Offer
“I was at a restaurant a handful of months ago. They didn't have anything without alcohol listed on their menu, or any of their menus, so I asked, ‘What do you have without alcohol?’ And literally, it was like I hit this lady with a stun gun,” Harris says. Whether you’re running a restaurant or bar or just hosting friends, just simply knowing what you have on hand and being able to answer the question goes a long way towards making people feel cared for.
Tea Is Your Secret Ingredient
As an alternative in many cocktail recipes, Harris says replacing the alcohol with tea can often work to create something complex and adult. “You don’t even have to brew it,” he says, noting that there are so many good bottled teas on the market now that you can easily grab a few and put them in the refrigerator. For example, replace tea for the measurement of rum in your favorite mojito recipe and you still have a festive drink that can be served with all the aplomb as the boozy traditional version. Or shake some Early Grey with the ingredients for a whiskey sour instead of the liquor and you’ll still have a complex frothy beverage.
Don’t Call a Bunch of Attention to Your N/A Guests
“People choose not to drink for a number of different reasons, a number of different ways, times in their life, durations. And I believe that calling attention to that is [more often than not] something that makes more people [who] are sober uncomfortable,” says Harris. There are a few ways he suggests making an N/A drink something that doesn’t single people out: One is to give your N/A concoctions actual names so that people ordering or asking for one have the same experience as someone ordering a drink with alcohol. “I don't feel like we want people that are choosing not to drink to have to have attention called to them in a way that might amplify their self-doubt or whatever they may be dealing with that night, or that year, or that month, or whatever it is. That's based on experiences that I had when I was young and sober; I wanted to walk in, and to have an interaction with the bartender that's the same as the interaction that everybody else was having.”
Another simple tip: don’t give people their N/A drink in “other” glassware. If your N/A guest would like a Coke, don’t put it in a big clowny pint glass while everyone else is drinking Old Fashioneds out of elegant rocks glasses—give them that nice short glass of ice, too.
Consider Non-Alcoholic Beer
If sober guests are comfortable with it (some may not be, warns Harris, who says that he personally enjoys it), non-alcoholic beer is a really good option to stock, since it’s both an interesting N/A cocktail ingredient or a stand-alone drink that takes up very little space in your refrigerator. “Buying a six pack of non-alcoholic beer is a very low commitment, but the payoff on how happy you will make the person who is looking for that to find it is huge,” he says. You can also use it to mix N/A cocktails, such as a shandy spinoff.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Another idea to keep the N/A options flowing naturally is to set up your drink station with a non-alcoholic base and a bunch of fun options to add to it for both the drinkers and non-drinkers. “You could put together something like an apple cider punch mix (see directions below) and surround it with a bunch of boozes and then, say a non-booze like Seedlip Spice,” says Harris. It’s festive, easy for you as the host, and makes it really organic for drinkers and non-drinkers alike to grab the drink that suits them.
Juices & Shrubs
There are lots of nice juices on the market that you can buy small containers to keep on hand for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks alike and not kill yourself fresh juicing everything. Pineapple, pomegranate, and unfiltered apple juice are all good options to buy in advance, says Harris. “Then maybe you have some limes and you can just hit the drink with a shot of lime to balance it out.” Shrubs are also a good option notes Harris, as they add some acidity to your drink plus the more complex vinegary notes and fruit. They're easier to make than you'd think, but there’s plenty of quality versions you can buy at the store, too.
Here are some specific products Harris recommends for stocking your newly flexible bar:
Seedlip: A new non-alcoholic distilled beverage similar to a mock gin. There are several flavors available, it mixes like alcohol in consistency, and adds a lot of herbal and botanical aromatics like gin does to a drink.
J. Gasco Bitter: A bitter soda from Piemonte Italy that adds some of the same flavors to a drink as say a Campari or Aperol, without the booze.
Fever Tree Bitter Lemon Tonic: Has the bubbly bitterness of a good tonic water, with a hit of Sicilian lemons. (See Harris’s go-to below utilizing it.)
Erdinger Non-Alcoholic and Old Milwaukee Non-Alcoholic Beers: These are the two N/A beers that Harris carries at his Bar Trick Dog in San Francisco. The Erdinger is an all around flavorful and interesting beer so serve alone or try mixing with it. The Old Milwaukee comes in a can and is a nice cheap option if you are doing something more casual and serving other canned brews.
Chinotto: Another soda option that drinks more adult; this one finishes bitter and is made with oranges from the myrtle-leaved orange tree. There are lots of brands out there, some drink sweeter and fruitier, and some more bitter and Campari/Aperol-esque. Experiment and find one you dig.
Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray: An herbaceous savory/sweet soda that Harris likes to have on hand for something that’s a little more complex than your average soda.
Shrubs: You can find a ton of homemade shrub recipes online that are pretty simple to put together, or find a quality premade shrub such as Shrub & Co.
Aaand, here are a few combinations to get you thinking:
One of Harris’s go-to’s: Fill a Collins glass with ice, good quality tonic water, a half lime’s worth of juice, and a generous amount of bitters.
Mix San Bitter with Bitter Lemon Tonic in a Collins glass filled with ice and garnish with whatever you prefer with your Negroni, like an orange slice.
Test drive Seedlip by simply mixing with a shrub, and topping with soda. “Seedlip is great mixed with a little extra sweetness, so the shrub works great.”
Festive apple cider punch mix: Harris says this is one of his holiday go-tos that yields Old Fashioneds one day and a hot drink the next. Take some good unfiltered apple juice and combine with equal parts sugar in a pot. Add dashes of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, and star anise that you’ve lightly toasted, and cook down the whole combo into a syrup like consistency. That gives you a spiced apple syrup that’s your base for all your alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. For the Old Fashioneds, just sub in the syrup for the sugar in your favorite recipe, and for your sober guests sub in Seedlip Spice for the requisite whiskey. The next night, add black tea to the syrup to lengthen back out the mixture into a cider consistency, then warm it up and serve with the Seedlip Spice or spiked with the guest’s choice of alcohol for the drinkers in mugs.