NEW YORK—They’ve been called virgin drinks and mocktails, but at The Bonnie bar, in Astoria, Queens, they’re called zero-proof cocktails.
Mixologist Mike Di Tota didn’t like the connotation behind “mocktails,” as “the drink is trying to be something that it’s not,” he said. So he’s using his mixology (and horticultural!) training to create non-alcoholic drinks that are just as well thought-out as the cocktails on his menu.
“When my wife stopped drinking alcohol, I became aware of what a huge sector of the population doesn’t drink, including many big-name bartenders,” he said. “And of course, it goes along with everybody getting healthier: gym membership goes up in January; everyone takes advantage of the new year to renew. I know many people who take a few months off of drinking in the beginning of the year.”
Below, Di Tota talks about what makes a great zero-proof cocktail and how his love for plants has inspired him, and offers a recipe for the spectacular, non-boozy Baker’s Dozen.
The Epoch Times: What makes a great zero-proof cocktail? Are they easier or harder to create than alcoholic cocktails?
Mike Di Tota: I think it’s important, presentation-wise, that when the server or the bartender puts down four drinks—three cocktails and one mocktail—that you can’t tell the difference between them. We have pregnant women who aren’t showing yet who ask, “Can you make me something that looks like one of the cocktails that you serve? I’m not telling the people at my table that I’m pregnant yet, so I don’t want them to ask why I’m not drinking.” Building the drink in a way that it looks like it’s something that came off your menu—a nice garnish, crushed ice, a beautiful glass—those details go a long way in making someone who’s not drinking alcohol feel like they’re a part of the group too.
Making a great mocktail requires all the care that goes into making a great cocktail: are you catering to your guest’s needs and tastes? Are you making the drink super juicy, or dry, or full of soda? It’s about knowing your audience and asking the right questions, and knowing what you’re making for the person that you’re making it for.
I think they’re harder to make than alcoholic cocktails. Overall, making somebody happy without alcohol is a lot harder than making somebody happy with alcohol because they’re not getting the satisfaction of that buzz. You have to make it special just for what it is. You’re not getting anything else off of it except its unique taste. You’re not saying, “Well, this is a not so great, semi-decent Old Fashioned, but at least I’m still going to get a buzz off of it.”
The Epoch Times: You attended classes at the New York Botanical Garden. What did you study there, and what interesting discoveries did you make? How did that influence what you’re putting in your drinks?
Mr. Di Tota: In my 20s, I took a job at a small plant nursery to combat restaurant burnout, and what started as a simple retail gig became an obsession: I went from growing a few basic houseplants at home to nurturing a collection of over 200 orchids in my tiny studio apartment. I became infatuated with the plant world and enrolled in the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture. At the same time, I landed my first bartending job at The Bonnie’s sister bar, the neighborhood gastropub Sweet Afton in Astoria.
By night, I was learning about craft gins and small batch whiskies; by day, I was studying the garden’s 250 acres and becoming an expert on the 1,000 plants I’d need to know before graduation. I studied botany, tree identification, plant reproduction, landscape design, greenhouse management, on and on. But while my classmates were drawing leaf shapes and flower structures, I was rubbing pine needles between my fingers to release their scent and daydreaming about creating Douglas fir cordials. I was memorizing trees’ Latin names so I could research how to transform their bark into amaros. In my backyard, I was growing herbs and flowers like scented geraniums, lemon balm, and agastache, becoming intimate with how they grew, which parts of the plant gave off aroma, and the best ways to extract their flavor in edible form.
I discovered that there are so many easy, accessible methods to explore botanicals with ingredients you can grow yourself—syrups, infusions, and garnishes. The real lightbulb moment for me was when I realized that every liquor comes from a plant, in some way: roots, bark, stems, seeds, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. The plant kingdom is an endless source of inspiration to me.
The Epoch Times: Please tell me about the Baker’s Dozen, there’s such a long list of plants and spices—and it’s beautiful.
Mr. Di Tota: The Baker’s Dozen is citrusy, juicy, and bitter, with flavors that keep going and going. We start by making a gastrique with fig and blackberry jams, cinnamon, white pepper, and white balsamic vinegar, which opens up your palate with a deep, funky layer of flavor. Haber’s Tonic syrup adds a multitude of spice notes: it’s an amazing artisanal syrup handmade here in Astoria with two types of cinchona bark, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, and many other spices. A little lime juice lightens it up, and seltzer makes it effervescent. We garnish with an aromatic dried Lebanese aphrodisiac tea from Kalustyan’s.
- 1 ounce blackberry fig syrup (recipe follows)
- 1/2 ounce Haber’s Tonic Syrup (available at HabersTonic.com)
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- Soda water
- Dried Lebanese Style Aphrodisiac Tea (available at Kalustyan’s), for garnish
Combine the first three ingredients in a highball glass and fill with ice. Top with soda water. Stir to mix. Garnish with a sprinkle of dried tea leaves and buds.
For the Blackberry Fig Syrup:
- 1 quart turbinado sugar simple syrup
- 13 ounces fig preserves (I use Bonne Maman brand)
- 13 ounces blackberry preserves (I use Bonne Maman brand)
- 1 cinnamon stick, crushed
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 5 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
Add all ingredients to Vitamix blender. Blend until smooth. Strain and discard pulpy solids. Store in a covered container, refrigerated, for up to one week.
Billows & Thieves
- 3 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
- 1 ounce cold-brewed coffee
- 1/2 ounce black cardamom-cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- pinch of smoked sea salt
- Nutmeg, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg.
For the Black Cardamom-Cinnamon Syrup:
- 2 cinnamon sticks, smashed
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 3 black cardamom pods, smashed
Toast cinnamon sticks over medium heat until they release their aroma and begin to crackle. Set aside. Combine water and maple syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add spices and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain and discard solids. Refrigerate for up to one month.
Recipes courtesy of Mike Di Tota, The Bonnie, Astoria, Queens