Flavours of smoke and leather, flowers and spice, sweet fruit and bitter shrubs: today’s cocktails have branched way, way out from the rum ’n’ Coke basics of not that long ago, as can be seen in the book-length beverage lists being passed around tables all over town. But what is there for the nondrinker, the person who has a long drive home or religious scruples or terrible hangovers or simply a regrettable tendency to end up under the host after a slew of pisco sours?
Not much—but that’s changing. Although nonalcoholic cocktails have yet to see the same kind of growth enjoyed by craft beer or bitters, there is life beyond the virgin caesar.
Here in Vancouver, it’s arguable that ground zero in the development of the artisanal, alcohol-free drink was a long-shuttered hole-in-the-wall restaurant on West Broadway—the very place where Vikram Vij first took charge of his own kitchen and began to develop what has become a small empire of dining establishments (including Vij’s Restaurant’s current home at 3106 Cambie Street). Vij had cooking skills, ambition, and the desire to serve some kind of festive beverage to pair with his curries and naan, but he didn’t have a liquor licence.
Enter the fabled Ginger-Lemon Drink, still a fixture on his menus today.
“When I first opened Vij’s, I didn’t want to do anything with preservatives in it,” the affable restaurateur explains in a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight. “And I didn’t just want to buy pop from somewhere, because all Indian restaurants serve pop....I just wanted to have one nonalcoholic drink, which was the Ginger-Lemon, and one hot drink called chai. But most importantly, I wanted to serve real foods with real ingredients.”
Vij’s ginger-lemon beverage was—and is—simplicity itself: lemon and/or lime juice, ginger juice, and sugar, boiled into a syrup, cooled, and mixed with sparkling water. (A recipe can be found in the chef’s first cookbook, Vij’s: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine.) Presentation was another matter.
“I went to a local glassmaker whose name was Joe Blow, and I asked him to make these little blue vials,” Vij recalls. When a drink was ordered, out would come a vial of the ginger-lemon syrup, a glass of ice, and a bottle of Perrier; Vij would mix them himself, tableside. “I wanted it to be like theatre almost,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to serve it French-style—that get-it-on service, you know?
“I used to get a lot of flack for not carrying Coke and Sprite and beverages like that,” he adds. “People used to be really upset, but I used to say to people, ‘Look, try my Ginger-Lemon; if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it. But at least try it.’ And once they tasted it, people were like, ‘Okay, we get it!’ And I still don’t sell pop!”
None of the popular Tacofino locations can claim to be a soda-free space, but nondrinkers can enjoy a sophisticated variation on the ginger-lemon theme at them all. Tacofino’s house-made ginger beer, a word-of-mouth sensation before it even made it onto the menu, was originally created as a mixer; cooks and servers started enjoying it as a beverage on its own, and from there it eventually went public.
“I’m not the biggest drinker, so it’s always good to have a nice fresh drink for when you don’t want alcohol,” says Tacofino cofounder Jason Sussman on the line from the west coast of Vancouver Island. “It’s made with some lime peel and some lemon peel, some ginger juice and some sliced ginger, star anise and some other spices, some vanilla, and some mint. That gets brewed, and then when we pour it, it gets served with fresh lime juice and some soda.”
Fans of the seared-tuna taco might want to watch the drink menu at Tacofino’s new downtown location (1050 West Pender Street). “We’ve put in one of those fizzy-water taps, and they’re working on some pretty tasty, fizzy, nonalcoholic drinks,” Sussman teases. “I wish I had more info for you, but I’m not the guy working on that!”
Both Vij’s Ginger-Lemon Drink and Tacofino’s ginger beer are sparkling, festive beverages, but in terms of nonalcoholic sophistication, it’s hard to top the artisanal pours at the Acorn.
“Before I started working in a restaurant that was so focused on vegetarian and vegan cooking, I hadn’t made the connection that a lot of vegetarians or vegans don’t drink alcohol,” Liam Bryant, bar manager at Mount Pleasant’s meat-free standout (3995 Main Street), says by phone. “So there’s this different focus. I mean, we have our cocktails that we’re very proud of, and they’re complex and interesting, but we wanted to translate that to the nonalcoholic drinks as well.”
Bryant’s signature Evening Orchard is a menu fixture, but with its aromatic notes of pear and cardamom it’s especially well-suited to right now, with the pear harvest coming in. Pears will probably show up in the Acorn’s seasonally themed mains and desserts, but Bryant says the Evening Orchard wasn’t specifically created to complement the food; it just tastes good. His other signature nonalcoholic nectar, Little Bitter, has a more clearly defined purpose, however.
“I was trying to steer away from the kind of sugar-forward, sweet, fruity soda-pop idea,” Bryant explains. “So we used rhubarb root and cranberry and vanilla and orange peel. Rhubarb root is the primary flavour agent in Campari, so that provides some of the bitterness, but it’s also about clearing your palate before starting a meal. I’d tried chinotto and other Italian bitter sodas before, so I was kind of interested in doing something like that.”
With other alcohol-free options arriving on Vancouver drink menus every day, being the designated driver has never looked so good.