Detroit Mixologists Raise the Bar With Nonalcoholic Cocktails

Americans are drinking less alcohol than they have over the past 20 years, and these local spots are crafting complex and sippable alternatives
nonalcoholic cocktails
Castalia’s Kevin Peterson working his magic.

Kevin Peterson is a born experimenter, so it’s only fitting that his lair is in the basement of a Midtown brownstone with light fixtures shaped like water, alcohol, and glass molecules. Perfumer by day and cocktail wizard by night, Peterson brings some serious scientific credentials to the task. The co-owner (with his wife, Jane Larson) of Sfumato, a local fragrance brand and store that transforms into cocktail lounge Castalia by night, has a doctorate in mechanical engineering, a bachelor’s in physics, and a couple of semesters of culinary school. His bar offers a unique experience for tasters, pairing scents with cocktails both alcoholic and nonalcoholic. 

At Castalia, Peterson is challenging metro Detroit consumers’ understanding of cocktail culture and how it incorporates nonalcoholic options. And he’s not alone: Metro Detroit mixologists see increased value in crafting complex, sippable drinks sans booze. 

According to Nielsen data, nonalcoholic beverage sales have increased 33 percent over the past year and accounted for $331 million in sales. Americans are drinking less alcohol than they have over the past 20 years. It’s no surprise, then, that bargoers are looking for something beyond a blueberry lemonade or a virgin Moscow mule. 

For Peterson and other Detroit bartenders, the focus of any cocktail, no matter the amount of alcohol in it, should always be on the interplay of scent, taste, and texture that makes a good drink so enjoyable. “I want to make sure that the nonalcoholic drinks are complex enough to draw a person’s attention,” Peterson says. When he opened Castalia, he expected one in 100 drinks he served to be nonalcoholic. In fact, he says, that number is closer to one in 10. 

Josh Nadel, beverage director for Noho Hospitality Group, which owns restaurants in and around Shinola Hotel, looks overseas for inspiration when designing new beverage programs and menus. “There’s an entire world out there that has been consuming nonalcoholic and low-ABV [alcohol by volume, referring to the amount of alcohol in a beverage] drinks for a very long time,” he says. “Their consumption is not the two-martini lunch. I think it’s a really pleasant evolution of the American palate.” 

Castalia’s nonalcoholic cocktails
Castalia nonalcoholic cocktails Carpe Diem, Peaceful Warrior, and Ray of Hope. 

Peterson uses what he calls a “base spirit” in his nonalcoholic cocktails. Composed of a secret formula including gentian and orris roots, barley, grains of paradise, and other botanicals, the base echoes rather than mimics alcoholic spirits. “We don’t have something that tastes like alcohol, but it replicates a lot of the perceptual qualities of alcohol,” he says. “We then layer some other aromatic ingredients on top of that,” like citrus, herbs, and juices.

Each bar approaches its zero-proof and low-alcohol cocktail programs a little differently. For some, like Evening Bar, the cocktail menu is arranged in order of increasing ABV, from zero-proof cocktails to higher-octane drinks like the old-fashioned. Others arrange their menus by taste profile: sweet, sour, bitter, or spicy. Castalia takes this approach, pairing each Sfumato scent with two drinks that complement its scent characteristics, one with and one without alcohol. 

The goal for all bartenders in creating a quality nonalcoholic drink, though, is to emphasize the complex flavors of each ingredient and how they play against one another. Unlike “mocktails,” zero-proof cocktails should be designed with care and with respect for guests’ palates.

“Customers expect attention to detail,” says Liz Dabecco, head bartender at Evening Bar. “I don’t think that they want something elementary. At Evening Bar, we treat the NA cocktails much like we would the rest of the menu, making sure that there’s something for every drinker.”

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition.