F&W’s Ray Isle examines the trend of restaurant tasting menus that match each course with a mocktail, and attempts to answer the question: Can mocktails beat wine in the pairing game?
Cucumber-Lemonade Mocktail

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There are a variety of reasons to drink a nonalcoholic cocktail, or mocktail, at a good restaurant. Perhaps you simply don’t drink alcohol, yet you’d prefer to try something a little more exotic than a glass of tap water or a diet soda. Or perhaps you’re the designated driver. Maybe you’re on antibiotics. Maybe you’re pregnant. Maybe you’re 10. But I can tell you one thing: Very few people order mocktails because they think these drinks are going to pair well with food.

Those people probably haven’t been to É by José Andrés in Las Vegas, Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA, or other places that are applying cocktail-culture sophistication and a sommelier’s food-pairing savvy to the challenge of pairing mocktails with tasting menus.

It’s an interesting problem, partly because there’s no hard-and-fast rule to determine what can be in a mocktail. A mocktail can be as simple as the Ginger Rickey at San Francisco’s Wo Hing General Store—ginger syrup, lime juice and soda—or as complex as the NoGin and Tonic at Rogue 24 in Washington, DC, which involves handmade botanical syrup, lime juice, rosemary, juniper, star anise, orange peel and tonic water. Mocktails, like cocktails, can be sweet or not; sour or not; bitter or not; foamy or not; on ice or not; spicy or not. Or they can mix any or all of those characteristics, plus 10 or 20 more.

Before delving into any mocktail-pairing menus, I was more than a little skeptical about whether a nonalcoholic concoction could ever challenge wine when it came to complementing food. Wine’s acidity and tannins help clear the palate; its spectrum of flavors (and the fact that it can have fruit characteristics without actual sweetness) can echo food’s flavors.

But I was willing to give mocktails a chance, so I arranged a taste-off. I picked a place where I knew the sommelier was brilliant at both cocktail creation and wine pairing: New York City’s Rouge Tomate. And, to balance my wine-geek biases, I brought along my friend John Wray. John wrote his last novel, Lowboy, while riding on the subway; he promoted the one before that with a 600-mile solo raft trip down the Mississippi. He’s a fellow with broad-ranging interests—he has written on everything from Austrian film directors to “doom metal” bands—but one thing he isn’t is a wine snob.

The brains behind Rouge Tomate’s mocktail and wine programs is a young Frenchwoman, Pascaline Lepeltier. Lepeltier’s mocktails can be complex—like an apple “cappuccino” made from fresh crab-apple and apple juices, house-made pear syrup, tarragon and chamomile, with egg-white-stiffened foam on top—but they’re delicious. She also makes her drinks as often as possible with fresh, seasonal ingredients, in keeping with the restaurant’s philosophy.

Our first course was a trio of oceanic amuse-bouches: a single oyster with a pomegranate mignonette, caviar over a celery-root puree and a shooter of something midpoint between a dense soup and a savory custard, involving quail egg, lobster mushrooms and sea urchin. With this trio, Lepeltier poured a Hungarian sparkling wine, Champagne-like but fruitier, that reminded me of Concord grapes. Then came the mocktail: a tall glass filled with a hazy green liquid. “Our cucumber cooler,” she told us. “Fresh cucumber juice, fresh lemon juice, fresh dill, topped with seltzer water.”

John and I tried both drinks. The wine was fine—not extraordinary, but balanced and very good with the oyster. The mocktail was cucumbery, as one might expect, but the lemon juice gave it an ideal zap of acidity and the dill added a fresh, vaguely Nordic note appropriate for the food. To my mild alarm, we both preferred the mocktail.

As the meal went on, it became apparent that mocktails had more going for them than I ever would have expected. For one thing, each had clearly been constructed to pair ideally with a certain dish—a type of precision no wine could match. That apple cappuccino, for example, was superb with the cardamom and clove-spiced acorn-squash soup. “The soup is warm and a little sweet,” Lepeltier said, “so I had to make sure the drink wasn’t too sweet.” In general, each mocktail had a fruit component (juice), an herbal component, sometimes a savory component (smoked chipotle syrup, for instance) and often a textural component as well (the foam on the cappuccino). But they almost all had at least some sweetness, which I started to find cloying partway through the meal. And, of course, they lacked alcohol. That in itself gave me an appreciation for what alcohol brings to wine. It lifts the flavors, in a sense. It also adds a textural edge; you can feel the difference between an alcoholic drink and a nonalcoholic one.

And in the end? Wine triumphed over mocktails, four to two. I felt pleasantly vindicated, too, at least until my friend John said, “But maybe this is just what we’re used to. If we’d all been raised drinking Concord grape juice with our squab, we might be saying about wine, ‘What the hell is that crazy stuff?’ ”

It was an excellent point. And I’m just going to go right on happily ignoring it.


Video: A Great Nonalcoholic Drink from Chef Rick Bayless