How to Build a Non-Alcoholic Bar Cart (& Win at Hosting)

September 25, 2017

Part of being a good host is anticipating the needs of your different guests. Sharyn is vegan; Lou is allergic to shellfish; Bill straight up hates beets. The non-drinker, though, is one who is often overlooked. A host stocks up on several kinds of wine, refreshes their stock of whiskey, vodka, and gin, and has another case of beer ready to go in the garage in case the fridge's stash runs low. But what of the friends who don't want to partake in the booze? A non-drinker shouldn't be stuck with water (fizzy, if they're lucky), or a splash from a forgotten carton of pine-cran-apple juice.

The answer: soft cocktails. If you haven't heard this term yet, it's another name for mocktails, beverage concoctions made without alcohol, often simply an existing cocktail (such as a Bloody Mary) sans booze. The term "mocktail" recalls freshmen mixers at college. Or bright pink, syrupy sweet concoctions in plastic champagne glasses at baby showers. Mocktails have been given a bad name. Soft cocktail, on the other hand, is a moniker free of associations. And it sounds right classy, eh?

The Stewart Howard, starring Seedlip. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Soft cocktails can be just as much a place to experiment as a regular ol' cocktail—but because high-end, imaginative soft cocktails are still gaining traction in the bar world, the task of mixing up your own can seem confusing. When we discovered Seedlip, a botanical-laced non-alcoholic spirit that's making us entirely rethink our evening Manhattan, the possibilities of booze-free home bartending (and drinking) all of a sudden became clear.

Seedlip is the brainchild of Ben Branson. Armed with a book full of formulas for medical tinctures dating back to 1651, he began experimenting with a distillation process that would entirely evaporate any trace of alcohol, infusing the liquid with fresh herbs, vegetables, and spices from his family's farm.

Both of Seedlip's varieties, Garden 108 and Spice 94, only need to be mixed with club soda to make a vivid, complex cocktail for which your guests will eschew boozier options. There's a lot more that it can do, too—an endlessly adaptable, pair-able, and surprising ingredient that will become as much a part of your bar cart as a bottle of vodka.

The team at Seedlip gave us four of their tried-and-true cocktail recipes—we tried them, too. And Seedlip was, in fact, true to their word. Mix one of these up for your next cocktail party:

Inspired by Seedlip, we put together a wishlist of ingredients for the non-alcoholic bar cart of our dreams—with plenty of fresh juices, herbs, spices, and more to keep handy in the fridge or pantry. While you offer a guest the option of an old fashioned or a gimlet, why not offer them a frothy mix of orange juice, cream, and lime juice? Or a black iced tea with ginger simple syrup and club soda? Who knows, you might just be ditching your signature martini.

These ingredients are just a starting point and it's up to you how you want to combine them, and with what proportions. The fun is in the experimenting! In general, the base ingredients will make up the majority of the cocktail, with the sweet, puckery, and creamy ingredients added with more moderation.

For the base:

For creaminess or frothiness:

  • Heavy cream
  • Coconut milk/cream: good for riffs on milk-based cocktails
  • Egg whites
If it looks like a cocktail and tastes like a cocktail... it might be a soft cocktail. Photo by James Ransom

For sweetness:

  • Simple syrups: "Simple" as the pros call it, is your secret weapon. You can turn pretty much any fruit or herb into an infused sugar syrup. It's easy! Check out our guide here.
  • Fruit
  • Agave
  • Grenadine
  • Maple syrup
  • Elderflower cordial

For herbiness or spice:

  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Cardamom
  • Star anise
  • Fresh ginger
  • Fresh fennel fronds
  • Fresh basil

For pucker:

Some combos to get your wheels turning:

  • Soda + ginger simple syrup + lime juice
  • Orange juice + heavy cream + simple syrup
  • Coffee + tonic + basil simple syrup
  • Apple cider + apple cider vinegar + cinnamon stick + club soda
  • Coconut milk + limeade + lime simple syrup
  • Beet juice + club soda + fennel fronds + green apple shrub

Do you make non-alcoholic cocktails? Any fun combinations you've come up with? Tell us!

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sheila Prescott
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Olivia Bloom

Written by: Olivia Bloom

Has a soft spot for string cheese.


Sheila P. September 26, 2017
my husband has been making soft-craft-tails for years.....we ferment and pickle everything and syrup is made as well. My hubby is ahead of the curve.....hold your glasses high..
Susan W. September 26, 2017
With age, my body can no longer handle wine, much to my chagrin. But just because I can't drink wine doesn't mean I want my choice of wet things limited to OJ, lemonade and cold brew coffee.

I am certain, however, that I am not alone in disliking a few traditional cocktail flavors. You describe the tastes of these beverage mixers as a sommelier would. How about just a straight up ingredient list?
Monica September 26, 2017
Thanks so much for this. As a former drinker it's nice to see some effort put into non-alcoholic beverages that actually feel special.

Carol E. September 26, 2017
This is great, I've been looking for things like this. I've enjoyed one recipe that involves making your own Orgeat with almond milk, almond extract, orange blossom water and sugar; and then using that with lemon juice and club soda to make an Orgeat lemon soft cocktail over ice. But I'm also interested in finding something less sweet - will try these mixers.
Ebony F. September 26, 2017
strawberry hibiscus syrup, tonic, crushed ice, and garden 108. You will swear you are sitting in an English garden is early summer.
Brad September 26, 2017
Personally if I’m going to drink a non alcoholic drink I don’t want a virgin drink, (well, maybe a spicy virgin Bloody Mary) nor do I want something that tastes like a craft cocktail would. I want something that’s light and refreshing and designed to taste good. Tommy Bahamas restaurants actually have a pretty good selection. This is definitely becoming more popular, which is great when you have a 530am spin class the next morning.
Also for people in recovery they generally will avoid anything to remind them of cocktails.
Margot G. September 25, 2017
Kombucha also makes a great base - whether second-fermented for fizziness and other flavour, or not!
Monica D. September 25, 2017
Very happy that nondrinkers are finally getting some real consideration in the bar cart recipe world! But kombucha actually does have trace amounts of alcohol in it. This is probably fine for people who avoid alcohol for health reasons or for the designated drivers out there (bless their souls). However, people who avoid alcohol for religious reasons or because they are recovering from addiction probably would not be okay with having even trace amounts. If you are going to offer "soft cocktails," best to err on the side of caution.