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Lighten Up

Lighten Up

For many people, an invitation to drinks at a Mexican bar or restaurant implies a cheerful evening of margaritas with a chance of tequila shots. In recent years, however, bartenders have noticed an uptick in demand for low-alcohol and nonalcoholic versions of Latin American cocktails that feature all the fun, flavor and sophistication of their spirited counterparts.

The trend comes as a surprising, yet welcome side effect of the craft cocktail movement, according to Andi Cruzatti, general manager of the Corner, an upscale cocktail bar in downtown Miami.

“There’s a huge movement in low-ABV cocktails,” Cruzatti says. “Now that the craft cocktail scene has grown, it has changed the psyche of regular drinkers—they think more about quality.”

With today’s premium ingredients, she believes, cocktails don’t have to rely as much on the visceral impact of alcohol to give guests the wow factor they’re looking for.

“Ten years ago, people wanted the strongest drinks they could get, and now they order cocktails where they can’t taste the alcohol and don’t complain,” she says.

As with the traditional kind, Cruzatti’s approach to low- and no-alcohol Mexican cocktails begins with “culturally appropriate fruits and spices.”

The challenge, then, is finding the right ingredients to replace the volume, texture, and—let’s be honest—intoxicating power of a 40 percent ABV or higher spirit.

“Bartenders can get used to leaning on a recipe,” she says. Mixing nonalcoholic drinks “helps them get back to the core of understanding flavor pairings because you don’t have the alcohol to mask it.”

At the Corner, cocktails are elevated with an impressive variety of house-made syrups, shrubs and other artisanal ingredients.

“To make a mocktail margarita, I would do agave-jalapeno-cilantro syrup, lime, shake it, and add a splash of ginger beer to give it that pop,” she says, noting that Mojo bitters can be used if the guest is OK with trace amounts of alcohol.

Her low-alcohol margarita, meanwhile, contains a surprisingly versatile ingredient that’s finding its way into more and more bars: agave wine.

“It’s made from the same plant as tequila and mezcal and has only 24 percent to 30 percent alcohol,” Cruzatti explains. “You can make any sort of margarita with agave wine, and it will taste like the tequila drink. It has that bite.”

She takes a similar approach to the paloma.

“For my (low-alcohol) version of the paloma, I would make a grapefruit shrub, add some Stiegl Radler grapefruit beer, some lime and use a salted rim,” she says. “If you want a completely non-alcoholic paloma, I would do the grapefruit shrub, soda water, lime and a salted rim.”

The low- and no-alcohol trend isn’t confined to Florida. Throughout the month of January, Brooklyn, New York’s Leyenda offered a special menu of nonalcoholic cocktails featuring such unique recipes as the Juliana Orange (coconut, orange, lemon, orange flower water, Perrier L’Orange) and What Ace (ginger, pineapple, lime, Perrier). Over the river in Manhattan, Saxon + Parole has no fewer than eight nonalcoholic cocktails on its regular menu, including the Bell Pepper Lemonade, made with fresh red bell pepper juice, lemon, organic agave and chili tincture. And at Washington, D.C.’s Poca Madre, bartenders get creative, whipping up both classic and custom mocktails with such ingredients as mango, passionfruit, pineapple and hibiscus salt.

“When our bartenders get an order for a nonalcoholic cocktail, their eyes light up,” says bar manager Amin Seddiq. “They get excited about it because they can experiment and do a lot of different things.”

Sweet Up

While luxe versions of nonalcoholic Mexican cocktails are a recent phenomenon, Mexican soft drinks, teas and assorted aguas frescas have long been a staple in both restaurants and households.

“I’ve made several versions of sangrita over the years,” says Shannon Ponche, head bartender at Leyenda, referring to the non-alcoholic beverage often sipped alongside mezcal or tequila. Leyenda’s version differs from the traditional recipe, which calls for tomato juice. “Our house sangrita has carrot juice, papaya, lime, orange juice, chipotle and Chile de árbol.”

Cesar Valdivia, a bartender at Bourbon Steak Miami, is a fan of horchata, a sweet, rice-based beverage that tastes best when it’s hot outside.

“Horchata is made from grinding up rice and soaking it in water,” Valdivia explains. “You drain the water and add condensed and evaporated milk as well as cinnamon. Pour it over ice and you have a refreshing, yet sweet beverage that’s perfect for South Florida.”

“Another nonalcoholic drink that’s popular in my native Guadalajara, Mexico, is called a rusa,” he continues. “Put two ounces of lime juice and a pinch of salt into a glass with a salted rim, then add ice and grapefruit soda. It’s very refreshing.”

For operators hoping to keep labor to a minimum, those iconic glass bottles of Mexican soda are always a hit.

“We have all the versions of Jarritos, along with Mexican Coke, Mexican Fanta, Mexican Sprite and so on,” says Poca Madre’s Amin Seddiq. “It’s about the fun factor, people love the big display, kids enjoy it and they’re great for cocktail making, too. Just a splash.”

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