Bartender Dan Purcell shares a laugh with a customer as he mixes up drinks at Vena’s Fizz House in Portland, which started as a sober bar, and now serves both cocktails and mocktails. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Take a few sips of the Kermit at the Sagamore Hill lounge in Portland, and it will give you the modest bite of a blackberry shrub, the velvety smoothness of coconut milk, the slightest hint of raspberry, and the fizz of seltzer.

One thing it won’t give you is a buzz.

Walk into just about any bar or restaurant in southern Maine, and it’s likely you’ll find other drinks like the Kermit – mocktails that contain no alcohol, for customers who prefer not to imbibe. Most times there’s a simple explanation for their abstinence – they’re on medication, they’re pregnant, they’re in recovery, or maybe they just don’t like the taste of alcohol. More recently, bartenders have seen the rise of the “sober curious,” people who have quit drinking completely or severely cut back – not because they were addicted but because they want to feel better and say goodbye to hangovers.

Part of the health and wellness movement, these proponents of mindful drinking are forming meet-up groups all over the country and patronizing sober bars in places as widespread as New York, London, and Dublin, where the city’s first no-alcohol bar is called “The Virgin Mary.”

When Brant Dadaleares opened his dessert restaurant, Gross Confection Bar, in Portland this year, there was no question he would include a couple of “no booze drinks” on the menu, such as the Just a Little Less, made with chamomile, lime leaf and juniper. Dadaleares, who is sober himself, is sensitive to the increasing demand for mocktails among the drinking public and has noticed that “just about every cocktail bar in town” now offers mocktails. “I think nowadays it kind of has to be on the menu,” he said.

But for him, it’s also personal. “There are a lot of chefs nowadays that are sober, and they want something to reflect that on their menu,” he said.

In Portland, Central Provisions has a menu of four “Temperance Drinks,” including the Cold Fashioned, made with apple cider, pomegranate juice, orange slice and old-fashioned bitters. The nonalcoholic options at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club include the Paper King, a mocktail made with Thai tea syrup; pineapple; lemon; and Stappi, a red bitter soda from Italy. Black Cow has a lineup of house-made sodas. Baharat offers a Turkish Apricot Sour, a drink made with Turkish apricot, cardamom, citrus and sumac salt.

Emily Eschner, a 33-year-old Portland resident, has long been a fan of Baharat’s mocktails, and her husband, who usually drinks cocktails, has ordered them too “just because they sounded so good.” Eschner doesn’t like to drink beer because it makes her feel bloated, and she doesn’t care much for the taste of alcohol. She was drawn to mocktails, she said, because she was “wanting something sweet and not just a soda.”

“They’re also, quite frankly, cheaper than cocktails,” she said.

Eschner started drinking more mocktails after she became pregnant, and now that her daughter is born, she said she’ll continue to be a fan. She’s even started making them at home – most recently, a concoction of seltzer, ginger beer, cherry juice and lime.

“We had rum and different things on hand that I could have put in it,” she said, “but I’m still breastfeeding so I don’t want to have too much alcohol to drink. But I still want something refreshing because it’s summer.”

Fluffy Fizz mocktail at Vena’s Fizz House is topped with cotton candy. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The modern mocktail is not your grandmother’s Shirley Temple. Dadaleares notes that bartenders have a lot more booze-free ingredients to choose from these days, such as infused teas and spiced syrups, that ensure a mocktail won’t taste “super sweet and nasty.”

“I had one with grapefruit and lavender the other day that was killer,” he said.

Dadaleares enjoys visiting down-the-street neighbor Blyth & Burrows, which has no set mocktail menu but the bartenders will create a custom mocktail on the spot. Bartender Adam Sousa said he’s “definitely” noticed more interest in mocktails at the popular bar. “The stigma of not drinking has gone by the wayside,” he said.

His co-worker, Caleb Landry, enjoys the interaction with customers as he tries to develop a drink just for them. He asks them what their energy is like that day. Do they prefer salty, savory, smoky, sweet or citrusy? Landry said mocktails help put non-drinkers at ease so they can socialize in the bar. With a drink in hand, they feel more like a part of the group.

Sometimes customers will alternate cocktails with mocktails so they can pace themselves, Sousa and other bartenders say. Others are choosing drinks with less alcohol rather than no alcohol at all, opting for, say, sherry or vermouth in place of other spirits.

Ryan Deskins, owner of the Sagamore Hill, has added more low-alcohol choices to the bar’s menu, and in June, during Portland Wine Week, hosted a “Make Your Own Spritz” night. The bar prepared four drinks, and participants also created their own from a wide variety of ingredients, including kombuchas and other low-alcohol options. Deskins said several customers mentioned how much they liked the low-alcohol options “not because they had stopped drinking, but because they wanted to try more than one.”

The event was so well-received that Deskins decided to repeat it in July and August.

Keenan Davis, the bar manager at Five Fifty-Five in Portland, put together a “mocktail pairing” for a private five-course tasting menu in March. The diners were culinary students not yet of drinking age. Davis has started calling the mocktails on the restaurant’s menu “house sodas” because more adults are ordering them. “I think using the word ‘soda’ makes it more encouraging for adults to order it,” he said.

Shahin Khojastehzad, co-owner of Novare Res in Portland, said that like Dadaleares, he’s noticed more introspection and conversations about moderation in the food and beverage industry, as well-known national and international chefs such as David McMillan (Joe Beef) and Sean Brock (Husk, McCrady’s) have opened up about their own decision to choose sobriety. A lot of his own friends in the beer industry have stopped drinking or cut back. “They tell me they love coming to Novare because we offer them options and don’t make it weird,” he said. “They get to hold a glass and not get asked questions about why they’re not drinking, but still get to be part of a community.”

In addition to other options, Novare Res has a concoction called Hopster Hop Soda on its menu, described as a “lightly sweet tonic with lemon, green tea and four varieties of noble German hop.”

Pineapple Rosemary Shrub at Vena’s Fizz House. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The growing interest in mocktails probably has its roots in the local foods movement, says Johanna Corman, co-owner of Vena’s Fizz House in Portland, which started out in 2013 as a sober bar. Corman, whose business has been pointed to as a pioneer by international media, said it’s been a natural progression from food to wine to beer, and now to cocktails and mocktails. More people want to know exactly what it is they are consuming, and where it came from, she said, and have some control over that.

“There’s just as much going on in beverages as food,” Corman said, “and you drink as much as you eat.”

When Vena’s opened, there was no place else like it in town or nationally, Corman said, although Rob Evans, owner of Duckfat, had just created a line of innovative, house-made sodas as an alternative to alcoholic drinks at his restaurant.

At the time, she recalled, nonalcoholic bar drinks didn’t go much beyond club soda and lime, or a diet soda. The ingredients she eventually stocked on her shelves at Vena’s were hard to find as well. Colonial-era drinks like vinegar-based shrubs had not yet become widely popular. She could buy the same syrups as bartenders but they weren’t always what she wanted. “I wanted ingredients that were natural and organic, and not full of bright blue dye,” she said.

Vena’s eventually took off, to the point where Corman and her husband, Steve, are regularly asked to be menu consultants for similar businesses just starting up. (The most recent call came from Brazil.) The Cormans’ typical customers are two couples who come in together. One person in the foursome doesn’t drink but still wants the fun that comes with visiting a bar without being “relegated to the kids’ table,” Johanna Corman said. “They don’t want to feel singled out at all, and they want something that’s healthier.”

Millennials are a big part of Vena’s customer base because they like to socialize without the next-day hangover, she said. “They don’t drink as much but they’re willing to pay to have a good drink with really good ingredients, and they want to know where the ingredients come from,” Corman said.

Immigrants who don’t drink for religious reasons also frequent the business, she said, sometimes bringing their children. Corman believes, even with a wide-ranging customer base, there’s still an untapped market for mocktails because “there are a million reasons why people don’t drink.”

So if things were going so well, why did the Cormans add alcohol two years into the business? They say they never intended to remain alcohol-free forever. The thing that ultimately helped them decide to get a liquor license? Customers started bringing their own booze, surreptitiously.

“We started to find empty nip bottles in the trash,” Corman said, laughing.

Today, Vena’s menu is split in half, and the Cormans call it “an equal opportunity drinking establishment. We don’t care if you drink or don’t drink. We just want to make you a really good one.”

The most popular mocktail at Vena’s is the Lumberjack Love, made with pine syrup, lemon juice, tonic and bitters. The cocktail version, called the Lumbersexual, contains gin.

Cada May Driscoll, a 33-year-old art teacher from Portland, is one of Vena’s regulars. She also likes to go to Dobra for tea, and to hang out a Root Wild and drink kombucha, where she says the drinks are “beautiful and tasty, and locally crafted.” Driscoll hasn’t given up alcohol but often chooses nonalcoholic “hipster” beverages. “I appreciate it when they’re available and I’m interested in their being more available,” she said.

Driscoll has cut back on alcohol for a couple of reasons. One, she has to be careful not to overdo it. “Sometimes I’ll go and have one drink, and for me one drink gets me feeling pretty flowy,” she said, laughing.

Driscoll also is concerned about her general health – she tries to eat only “clean” foods – and believes moderation is best for her body. Sometimes Driscoll will order one cocktail and one mocktail, and sip them alternately. Other times she won’t drink at all when she goes out because her diet hasn’t been the best that day, and she doesn’t want to make things worse by adding alcohol to the mix. But not drinking can be socially awkward, especially when all your friends are downing several cocktails and they decide, when you switch to water, that “you’re not fun,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll said she thinks the culture of excessive drinking in this country needs to change. She wants to see wellness become more of a cultural norm so she can have a mocktail without anyone judging or teasing her. She doesn’t like the term “sober curious” because the word sober feels too black-and-white. “There are a lot of us who just want to have wiggle room,” she said, “and want that to be normal.”

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