Over the past few months, Jason Stevens has noticed an increased interest in one tiny part of Bar Congress’ drinks menu: the four cocktails that comprise the bar’s “zero-proof” options.
Stevens, the bar manager for La Corsha Hospitality Group’s restaurants, including Bar Congress, added these nonalcoholic cocktails to the menu about two years ago so that people who don’t want to feel any of the effects of alcohol can still have the experience of having fun with friends at the bar. With the current trend toward eating and drinking healthier, he said, they’re becoming a bigger draw than ever — and it certainly doesn’t hurt that each of them are as thoughtfully made as their boozy counterparts.
“It’s been a mix of crazy and simple zero-proof cocktails over the past couple years,” he said.
That level of attention to the nonalcoholic side of the beverage coin is still rare in Austin’s bar scene. If a place does have a nonalcoholic menu, it’s all too often filled with cloying alternatives a la the Shirley Temple.
At Bar Congress, the zero-proof cocktails rotate out with the rest of the drinks menu on a yearly or seasonal basis. As wide-ranging as they’ve been, they have one trait in common with each other: Stevens makes sure they aren’t just simplified “virgin” versions of common cocktails. Instead, he crafts them into multidimensional beverages resembling classics that won’t leave you wishing for alcohol.
One example is the Hop on Tonic, one of the zero-proof cocktails on the menu right now. It’s a refreshing ode to both gin and tonic and craft beer, with juniper and coriander (two important components of gin) mixed with Amarillo hops, steeped into a tea and then combined with house-made grapefruit tonic. When I sipped on it, breathing in the aromas of the grapefruit slice and hops garnishes with relish, I noticed how easily the cocktail blended the tart, bitter and herbal elements together into a nuanced meet-cute of IPA and iced tea. To achieve such a nuanced drink, Stevens makes it exactly as he would an alcoholic cocktail.
“When building a cocktail, the key is to build on the flavor of the spirit,” he said. “It’s the same for nonalcoholic beverages. With the Hop on Tonic, I needed something to mimic gin, so I went with juniper and coriander, the two big ingredients in gin, along with hops and grapefruit to offset their flavors.”
Another stand-out on the nonalcoholic menu is the very different Maraska Phosphate, “a play on a 1920s soda fountain drink with the flavor of cherry cola,” Stevens said. It’s got Maraska cherry juice, Vietnamese cinnamon, seltzer and acid phosphate, the ingredient used to create sourness in drinks before citric acid or lemon and lime juice became widely available. (Stevens certainly knows his cocktail history: Bar Congress’ 2015 alcoholic drinks menu features “a collection of original and adapted cocktails from legendary historic hotel bars from all over the world, spanning from the 1860s to 1940s,” he said in a press release.)
There’s also the No. 9 Dream, featuring apricot preserves, ginger, citrus, Chinese five spice and shiso, and the Horse and Donkey, containing the oddball (but assuredly tasty) combination of ginger beer, green olive brine, lime and mint. If they all sound good to you, at least you can try all four without worry of getting drunk.
“People want the flavors but not the effects,” Stevens said, adding that when he’s traveling, he wants “to hit up a bunch of bars, but I don’t want to get tanked. A nonalcoholic program can show me what they’re made of.”