A good nonalcoholic drink is no laughing matter

Few things suck more than being the lone sober person at the bar. No matter your reason for abstaining (pregnancy,
Weight Watchers, raging alcoholism), it’s impossible not to feel left out when everyone else is sipping cocktails with names like Elbow’s Sexual Chocolate or Zombie Apocalypse, and you’re drinking unsweetened iced tea garnished with an anemic lemon wedge.

Fortunately, many bars indulge the careful with “mocktails”: nonalcoholic drinks that look like what your friends have ordered. I’ve tasted five local mocktails, for all you designated drivers out there, that will let you toe the line without a single foul sip of Diet Coke entering your body.

Drink: Midsummer Classic
Place: Snow & Co., 1815 Wyandotte

With a bright, open atmosphere that feels like a dressed-up, Ikea-furnished warehouse, Snow & Co. lacks the dimly lighted, anonymous corners that encourage you to veer from merely drunk to shitfaced. In fact, it feels like the kind of place where you might work on a puzzle or play a game of checkers – for which, naturally, you want to be sober.

The bar specializes in premixed alcoholic slushies, so unless you want coffee or hot chocolate, your options are limited – the booze in most of the menu items can’t be taken out. Ah, but the lone exception, the Midsummer Classic, is a testament to the art of blending. A more uniformly smooth slush concoction has never glided through a straw. Caveat: The mixture of orange juice, pineapple and lemonade results in a flavor tart enough to cause involuntary spasms of Welch’s Grape Juice face.

Drink: Lemonade, tonic water, bitters
Place: Westside Local, 1663 Summit

With summer a memory, the breezy-yet-intimate beer garden at Westside Local is a fine place to spend 2013’s last almost-temperate evenings, gazing up at the moon through the slats in the pergola.

In keeping with this restaurant’s primarily local emphasis, the bar menu features an array of house-made herbals and bitters. I asked the bartender for a tart nonalcoholic drink, and she made me a tall glass of lemonade, tonic water and bitters. Just to be sure I wasn’t crossing a line, I asked her whether bitters were inherently alcoholic, as suggested moments earlier by results of a precautionary Google search.

“It’s fermented, so there are trace amounts of alcohol,” she said. “But you’d have to drink a lot to feel any effect.”

The drink would have been refreshing on a hot afternoon, but I maintain that bitters are still most effectively used to offset the smoky bite of a stiff whiskey drink.

Drink: Mango, lemon, grapefruit, habanero pepper
Place: Manifesto, 1924 Main

Manifesto lets you feel like you’re drinking in a turn-of-the-century storm cellar. The only light comes from candles, the walls are made of stone, and the bartenders jovially suggest that they maybe could be vampires because, hey, they haven’t seen daylight in a while.

They hadn’t seen a teetotaler in a while, either. When I said I wanted something sweet, spicy and nonalcoholic, the bartender looked confused. There I was, alone and ordering what is essentially fancy fruit juice in a basement filled with vampires. Still, he conjured something tart and tangy that finished with a bite. I was so grateful, I didn’t even miss the Ward & Precinct. (That would be the delicious whiskey drink that, in my opinion, is the single most likely reason that Manifesto has landed on Esquire’s list of the country’s best bars.)

Drink: The Beet Goes On
Place: Extra Virgin, 1900 Main

On the night I dropped by Extra Virgin, Paige Unger, winner of the 2013 Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition, was slinging. I asked if she could make a nonalcoholic version of her winning cocktail, the Beet Goes On, which combines beet shrub, lemon, Campari, Beefeater gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, and a rosemary garnish.

“I’ve never done that before,” she said. But after swapping a few of the ingredients and adding tonic water and simple syrup, she returned with a gorgeous, blood-red mocktail. The drink was refreshing and sweet with light floral undertones. This woman definitely knows her shit.

Drink: Strawberry-thyme cream soda
Place: Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen, 1526 Walnut

By far the most remarkable mocktails I encountered reside at Tannin, the two-year-old Crossroads wine bar. Its house-made sodas are listed on the menu, so you know exactly what you’re getting. I ordered the strawberry-thyme cream soda, and my boyfriend bravely asked for a spiced Shirley Temple. Both were delicious.

The drinks’ renderings were also impressive. The bartender smashed the ingredients right in front of us and used a carbonator to add fizz. He crushed the thyme garnish on the back of his hand and rubbed it along the rim of the glass, lending the drink an extra dimension of flavor. When coupled with the wine bar’s obscenely decadent truffle-oil fries, a sober night out at Tannin can feel like indulging in extremely sophisticated, high-end comfort food. These sodas are so flavorful and aromatic that your wine-swilling friends just might ask to share.