My Nine-Month Quest for a Decent Zero-Proof Cocktail

Can’t a pregnant lady get a drink around here?

Fit for an expectant mom: Summerhouse Santa Monica’s watermelon smash. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Dry January Guide

About Dry January Guide

This article is part of our guide to Dry January around DC. Today’s bartenders are catering to the sober—and the sober-curious—with more sophisticated options than ever. Dry January doesn’t have to mean bland January. Here’s how to (not) drink your way through Washington in style.

It seemed I couldn’t have timed my pregnancy better last year—at least when it came to hitting bars. Booze-free drinks not only had suddenly become socially acceptable but were actually cool among the bar cognoscenti. More and more restaurants were adding “zero-degree libations” and “virtue” sections to their menus. No Shirley Temples for me!

But for all the “mindful drinking” and “sober-curious” progress, I quickly discovered that nonalcoholic cocktails are a long way from mainstream. It still tends to be the trendy spots that put care into their spirit-free menus, and even those might offer only two or three choices. At one Italian restaurant I visited in my third trimester, a server didn’t even bother to give me a drink list.

Sure, plenty of places will whip up something off-menu for you, but you never know what you’re going to get. You’re at the mercy of the bartender’s skill, creativity, and time, which can vary greatly even within the same establishment. The better bars would ask what kind of flavors or ingredients I liked and whether it was okay to use bitters. But at least half the time, I’d end up with a glorified lemonade.

Along the way, I picked up a few tips for improving my odds. If a server paused for five seconds and let out a “hmmm” when asked about zero-proof cocktails, it was a sign I should stick to water. Same for when a bar was slammed: Most bartenders aren’t interested in getting inventive with a lower-priced drink when they’re in the weeds. I also learned to specify that I didn’t want something too sweet. Too often, alcohol is replaced by Willy Wonka levels of sugar.

The term “mocktail” is going out of style because it implies a fake version of the real deal. But it’s more than semantics. What I hope is actually on its way out is the general approach of appeasing non-drinkers by simply removing alcohol from cocktails. Sometimes it works: A piña colada without the rum still tastes like a piña colada. More often, though, it’s like adapting spaghetti Bolognese for a vegetarian by leaving out the sauce altogether. A Bee’s Knees without the gin is . . . another lemonade.

This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.