There are a lot of terms right now for drinks that don’t contain alcohol: soft drinks, mocktails, non-alcoholic, spirit-free, alcohol-free, 0% ABV, just to name a few. But what they all mean is essentially the same, that the drink contains no alcohol, or very trace amounts. (Fun fact: Coca Cola and orange juice both contain very small trace amounts of alcohol).
Ever since I started as a bartender at PDT in 2008, I was captivated by creating cocktails. But, naturally, most of the cocktails I created would be made with alcohol. On an odd chance someone would come into the bar who wanted a non-alcoholic drink, I wanted to have something for them. I tinkered around with ingredients we had on hand and created something that I was pretty proud of: a fizzy drink with tonic water, almond syrup, lemon juice black pepper, and mint. It never had a name, I never really wrote down the recipe, but even when I wasn’t at the bar, my colleagues would text me when they needed to create something special for a teetotaling guest.
I went on to work for the Momofuku restaurant group, where I stayed for 9 years, first as a bartender at Momofuku Ssam Bar, and then in the corporate office overseeing the bar programs at all restaurants. During my time I opened ten restaurants, created dozens of cocktails and trained hundreds of staff. Towards the end of my time at the company, we started to get more serious about zero-proof drinks. We brought on some zero-proof spirits and alcohol alternatives. We noticed that when we added a zero-proof drink section to the menu, there was an enormous response. Guests who would have otherwise been “ok with water” were now given a chance to join in the experience that everyone else was having: a complex drink to go alongside their meal.
Accessibility is the core of hospitality, and for me, crafting Proteau to be zero-proof let me create delicious drinks for everyone. I wanted to remove as many barriers as possible and alcohol can be a big one for many.
The other side of zero-proof drinks is that they are a technical challenge. Giving yourself a challenge and restrictions are a great way to spark innovation, and it is certainly a challenge to create a zero-proof drink that stands up to any wine, beer, spirit, or cocktail. First, alcohol is a great base for flavors, and acts as a preservative. Alcohol is also a solvent and it also evaporates at a lower temperature than water. This means that flavors can be carried much more efficiently by alcohol or proof cocktails. And once it hits your palate, your body heat releases those flavors in a dramatic fashion. If I could create a drink with that same level of aromatic intensity and bite—with no preservatives—that would be how I knew the years of work behind the bar had finally paid off.