Episode 103 - Rant: "Mocktail" is Not a Dirty Word

What’s shakin cocktail fans?

Welcome to episode 103 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Modern Bar Cart CEO, Eric Kozlik.

As you may have noticed from the title, this episode is a little different from everything else we’ve done over the past couple years. It’s an audio essay with an embedded rant, and I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty good at ranting.

Normally, you see me as a host who’s dedicated to showcasing the incredible talents and knowledge that our interview guests have to offer. I love doing that, and I’ve built a reputation as a really enthusiastic and fairly impartial interviewer. But occasionally, I like to cut loose and let my own mental horses run free, and this is one of those episodes.

Featured Mocktail: The Spring Forward

This week’s featured mocktail is the “Spring Forward,” which is a non-alcoholic drink I developed with Charlie Berkinshaw of Element [Shrub] to highlight some of the best flavors of spring. And since we’re on the verge of summer, I figured I’d share it with you before time runs out!

The Spring Forward

The Spring Forward

To make the Spring Forward mocktail, you’ll need:

·       3 oz of cold brew matcha (which is just matcha tea made cold using the powdered base)

·       1 oz Lemon Mint Element [Shrub], which you can purchase now on ModernBarCart.com

·       ½ oz sugar snap pea syrup, which I’ll detail in a minute

·       1 dropper of our Iki Japanese bitters by Embitterment

Combine all these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake well for about 20 seconds, and strain into a couple glass.

When we shared this drink on Instagram earlier this spring, we were able to garnish it with some eastern red bud blossoms, which are pinkish-purple, bursting with flavor, and most importantly – edible. But if you don’t have access to these, I’d recommend either a citrus twist or a nasturtium, which is a popular edible floral garnish.

Quick note on the snap pea syrup: it’s exactly what it sounds like. We tossed a handful of whole rinsed snap peas into a 1:1 simple syrup, muddled them thoroughly over medium heat, and strained them out after about 5 minutes on the stove.

If this spirit-free drink sounds kinda delicious, it’s because it is, and I hope that it sets the tone for this episode, which is completely dedicated to the debate surrounding non-alcoholic beverages and their place behind the bar.

Introduction

When it was first brought to my attention that the word “mocktail” might be somehow bad or offensive, I was taken completely off-balance because, to me, it had always been a useful way to identify – on a cocktail menu – that a certain drink or category of drinks did not contain alcohol, but functioned (in a manner of speaking) as if they did.

I don’t know where I was or who I was with when I learned that “mocktail” was considered a dirty word, but I distinctly recall feeling the suspicion that I’d been walking around offending people without knowing it, and that it probably had more to do with their being oversensitive than it had to do with me being wrong or boorish.

So, I set out to investigate this issue to the fullest of my capabilities. This audio essay (and the embedded rant it contains for comic relief) are my way of presenting the debate as I see it, confronting what I understand to be some potentially problematic issues along the way.

For listeners who aren’t super familiar with me, I should mention that I spent several years teaching rhetoric at the University of Maryland, where the importance of “considering the other side” of a debate is placed at a premium. So, although it would be inaccurate to say that I don’t have a stance on the subject, I’d hope you can take comfort that my background has taught me to be impartial and to always face up to the strongest arguments of those I disagree with.

And with that said, I hope you enjoy this exploration, screaming rant, and eventual squaring of the circle that I refer to as the cocktail/mocktail debate.

 Shirley Temple and the Uncanny Valley

Growing up, for many of us the pervasive mocktail offered to kids at church functions, sports fundraisers, and casual banquets – events with catered food, raffle tickets, plastic tablecloths, and a soda gun behind the bar - was the legendary Shirley Temple. It, like the precocious child movie star from which it drew its name, made a plastic cup full of mostly Sprite or Ginger Ale seem capable of entering into a real conversation with an adult. It made it seem like you were drinking a real cocktail – and if the grandfatherly bartender at your local Elk’s lodge or American Legion post was on his game, it might even be topped with one of those firebird red maraschino cherries.

The thing I recall most about the Shirley Temple is that it was a thing to be envied. It meant you were special and that, by simply miming the beverage scripts of the adult world, you were sophisticated. You had just convinced an adult to go out of his or her way to cater to your specific whim, and as a result, you were enjoying the Grey Poupon of acceptable child beverages. In short, life was good.

I bring this up because I can’t think of a more appropriate image to represent the debate about what precisely to call a cocktail-lookin’ thing without the liquor. Put that kid with the bright pink cup of Sprite and Grenadine next to a twenty-something in a big city with a special diet and an axe to grind, and you can start to see where things diverge: one of these two people you’re imagining right now is smiling, and one is not. And I think now is a great time to talk about why that might be and where the innocence was lost.

Let’s start by asking what that kid with the pink drink might be missing. Or put differently, why is a Shirley Temple, in the mind of an adult, a poor stand-in for a real live Gin & Tonic or Whiskey Sour?

Unless you’re addicted to sugar, the answer is two-fold: a Shirley Temple is too sweet, and it doesn’t have that pleasant alcoholic kick and the corresponding mental and physical effects that come with a real cocktail. Kids don’t know this because they generally don’t and shouldn’t drink, but once you see the light, there’s really no going back to the Shirley Temple. It, like many child actors, doesn’t fare well in adulthood.

Another thing I think we can learn from the Shirley Temple is that there’s a reason why it doesn’t often come up in serious conversations about mocktails. And that reason, in my opinion, is because it survives the issue of the “uncanny valley.”

Creepy dolls are a great example of The Uncanny Valley

Creepy dolls are a great example of The Uncanny Valley

This, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is an effect that we most associate with human-looking dolls or humanoid robots. You look at one, and you get this eerie feeling because it looks SO CLOSE to reality, AND YET, you still know it’s fake. The uncanny valley is reserved for those objects that are caught between the real and the fake and our objection to them is precisely because they don’t fit neatly into reality or obvious simulation. You get the sense that someone somewhere is trying to put one over on you.

A Shirley Temple avoids the uncanny valley because, although it might walk like a cocktail, as soon as you interact with it, you immediately understand that it is not a real cocktail. Teddy bears and other stuffed animals also fall into this category because they’re unrealistic ENOUGH for us to gloss over them with our mental pattern recognition algorithms. They’re quite obviously fake, so we find them cute and non-threatening.

Unfortunately, most mocktails fall smack-dab in the middle of the uncanny valley because they walk and talk like real cocktails…AND YET…there’s something obviously missing in many cases, which is what raises the hackles of progressive foodies with liberal arts degrees. It’s not a logical feeling – it’s a primal one that has more to do with our ability to identify in-group and out-group objects and substances, which is an evolutionary mechanism that usually elicits a fight or flight response when triggered. Now of course, that fight or flight response is going to be pretty mild if you’re at brunch sampling a spirit-free raspberry mimosa, but nonetheless, if you sense that something’s off, you’re going to react.

People who opt for cocktails instead of mocktails don’t really have to deal with the uncanny valley, and so for them, it’s easy to look at someone making a stink about their spirit-free concoction and roll their eyes or suggest that they just get a “real” drink. But that doesn’t really solve the issue, does it?

As I see it, the cocktail/mocktail debate largely revolves around definitions, which means that before we go too much further here, we should try and examine the origins, definitions, and connotations about the words in question.

Figging for Health and Wellness

And when it comes to sussing out the origins of the word “cocktail,” we can’t do much better than to consult David Wondrich’s legendary, category-defining book, Imbibe! In it, he presents archival research from the late 18th century indicating that the word cocktail is a reference to a process called “feaguing” or “figging,” which entailed taking a clove of ginger and shoving it up the anus of an old horse that one was attempting to sell at a profit. This would cause the horse to – lo and behold – cock its tail and prance around as if it were young again. And so the term “cocktail” became associated with substances that had sudden-onset tonic or recovery qualities.

This is one thing that has always intrigued me about bitters and spirits – they’re linked to a medicinal tradition that stretches back for centuries and perhaps even millennia. And if you think about the severe dietary constraints and lack of clean water that many people of the 19th century faced, it’s no wonder that spirits and cocktails seemed healthy. They certainly took the edge off whatever local or chronic ailment was plaguing you on a given day, and if relying on them did indeed shorten your lifespan, nobody noticed, because everyone else was dying young back then too.

Today, of course, we know better. We know how things like alcohol and sugar can be dangerous if not consumed in moderation. And since it’s not really useful to indict our great-great-great grandparents for their ignorance, let us instead ask if a cocktail today is the same as a cocktail back in the 1800s.

On the surface, we’d say yes, right? Whiskey, sugar, bitters, and ice haven’t really changed much except to get a little tastier over time with technology and regulation.

But I think the problem is that we know too much now. We have all this health-related knowledge, and so there’s suddenly the potential for cognitive dissonance when you walk into the bar.

Well, I’m here, so I should have a drink. Hmmm…but I have a big presentation at the office tomorrow, and I should really wake up early and hit the gym…

These are thoughts that would have never occurred to folks who preceded us by a couple generations. They didn’t have gyms, they had jobs that required back-breaking manual labor. And they didn’t need to show up and impress the director of marketing, they just had to show up and do the same thing they always did, day after day – to survive.

I like to call this distinction, the “health privilege distinction” when it comes to talking about cocktails and their effects on the body. And we’re going to return to this for sure, but there’s also another contentious issue in the cocktail/mocktail debate, and it has a lot to do with how we use the word “mocktail” and what we mean by it.

Mock Around the Clock

Now, I’ll be honest with you, when I first started researching this, I was hoping for a homerun. I was hoping that I’d be able to look up the etymology of the word “mock” and just point out that everyone was taking it out of context – that it isn’t as derogatory as people are making it out to be…but that is not the case at all.

According to etymologyonline.com, the word mock is derived from:

[the] mid-15c., mokken, "make fun of," also "to trick, delude, make a fool of; treat with scorn, treat derisively or contemptuously;" from Old French mocquer "deride, jeer," a word of unknown origin. Perhaps from Vulgar Latin *muccare "to blow the nose" (as a derisive gesture), from Latin mucus; or possibly from Middle Dutch mocken "to mumble" or Middle Low German mucken "grumble." Perhaps ultimately it is imitative of such speech.

From this etymology, I glean two things:

First, if we believe the Latin, mocking someone is literally hocking a big ol’ lougie in someone’s general direction, which is certainly not complimentary. But if we believe the later versions of this word, it’s perhaps been softened a little – taking on a more neutral imitative quality.

Regardless, if you think of what it means today to actively “mock” someone, you’re pointing out that they’re somehow bad, or wrong, or foolish (even if you manage to keep your bodily fluids to yourself in the process).

So, since I’m not able to claim that “mock” is a completely harmless word, I would like to instead present a list of cases where it would be completely ridiculous to be mad or offended at it.

·       First off, mocking birds – nature’s impersonator. If you’ve never heard a mocking bird imitate a cell phone ring or a car alarm, I feel sorry for you because it’s hilarious.

·       Mock-neck shirts – inhabiting that crucial middle space between crew neck and turtleneck

·       Mock trial teams – like real trial, but without the consequences

·       Mock Turtle Soup – like real turtle soup, but without the turtle

·       Mock Orange – a shrub from the genus philadelphus that produces flowers with an orange smell. Essentially, orange without the orange.

·       Mock-up - a model or replica of a machine or structure, used for instructional or experimental purposes.

·       I’m sure the list goes on, but I think you get my point.

Today, “mock” often means simply “to imitate,” and not to deride.

So the question remains: if people aren’t up in arms about the terms I just listed, then why are we still upset about the word “mocktail?” I mean, it’s not like the bartender sits there and makes fun of you while you drink it.

But if I had to guess, it’s because ordering something called a “mocktail” makes you feel inferior, and if that drink is the same price as a real cocktail, there’s even the sense that you might be getting ripped off. People seem to implicitly understand being charged for alcohol, but when that’s removed from the equation, the economics of the transaction get a bit hazy.

I can see how this might make a person uncomfortable, especially if you have the presence of the bartender or the server prompting you to commit to a decision from the menu, but I think that’s really where the logistical limitations of the word “mocktail” end. I think that’s as serious as it gets.

In my opinion, it’s a word with a high utility factor. I think it’s just about perfect for telling people exactly what a drink is and does. Mocktail says, “hey – I’m like a cocktail, but I’m missing a key component.” Simple, to the point, and most importantly, IT RHYMES WITH COCKTAIL.

Other terms in this conversation would be “Faux Fur,” the “Faux-hawk,” and “pleather,” They might not be the sexiest words, but there’s great utility in repurposing a known term for an adjacent use case.

Also, think about the process of deciding what you’d like to order from a full menu of options. You sit down at the bar, or at the table with your friends, and you’re immediately engaged in a game of elimination. The quickest way to arrive at your best option is most often to tick off the stuff you’re apt to dislike, so for servers, bartenders, and bar owners, the less work you have to do to arrive at your decision, the more efficient and cost-effective they can be, which means that the establishment is more profitable, which is good for everyone.

It just so happens that the word “Mocktail” is a great way for folks who want a real cocktail to cross an entire section off the menu, and it’s also a great way to help folks who are in the market for a mocktail to know exactly where they should be looking to find their desired non-alcoholic libation.

The term “Spirit Free Cocktail” doesn’t have this advantage. And that’s mostly because it normally causes the reader to do a double-take (due to the inherent oxymoron) – cocktails involve spirits, so how can you have a “spirit-free” cocktail?

We’ll return to this term in a bit – because I do actually think that it’s got a glimmer of potential, but before we do that, I need to absolutely dispose of the one mocktail-replacement term I revile with all my being: EANAB.

The Rant

This is the “rant” portion of this audio essay, which means you can expect some targeted profanity, ruthless logic, and moments of intense lyricism. Ready? Here we go.

If you weren’t aware, EANAB is an acronym that stands for “Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverage.”

Based on my online research, it was coined by Stanford University (of all places) – and on their website, they define it using the most trustworthy source on the internet – that’s right – Urban Dictionary. And we’re going to post on the show notes page a couple of Stanford’s extremely popular EANAB YouTube videos with over 30 views! These recipes include such time-honored classics as the “Lusty Lime Virgin” and the “Italian Cream Soda.” And if you think that a major university wouldn’t be caught dead citing Urban Dictionary or posting rapey sounding mocktail recipes, you’re wrong. Go Cardinals!

Since we’re off to such a strong, start with this acronym, let’s just keep going. Let’s gloss over the fact that it’s really stupid to put a silent vowel in an acronym and skip straight to my main beef with this shit sandwich of a word, which is that it’s absolutely garbage marketing for something you might want to consume at some point.

EANAB sounds like an Ewok had puppies with a chocolate lab and then stole ‘em. EANAB sounds like a hobo scratching on a flea scab. It sounds like captain Ahab smoking an eCigarette in a yellow cab after putting on three pounds of flab in rehab. It sounds like a wee crab dressed in olive drab.  

EANAB should stand for…Especially Awful Non-Agreeable Bullshit.

Moral of the story: if you run a bar or restaurant, please, PLEASE do not ever put the word EANAB on your menu. Please do not teach this term to your friends or employees. Please put it in an airless vault until it dies from its own stink.

My second massive issues with this acronym is the fact that it’s almost impossible…it is, in fact, asymptotically approaching impossible…for a non-alcoholic beverage to be “equally attractive” as an alcoholic one. It can be “differently attractive,” it can be perhaps even more attractive if you’re in the market for a non-alcoholic beverage, but a drink without alcohol simply CANNOT be equally attractive as one WITH alcohol. An apple cannot be equally attractive as an orange. They are two different things – so stop trying to equate them.

To me, the term EANAB perfectly encapsulates the ugliest, laziest part of this debate where people want to nitpick on bars or individuals (like me) who like the word mocktail, by claiming that the term alienates them for their dietary or health choices. And the implication is that it’s incumbent upon US to go out of our way to fix this issue in the name of inclusivity.

And here, I’m gonna pause the rant and specify that it IS absolutely important to be inclusive, let me make my stance on that very clear. I have some very actionable and very inclusive thoughts as we wrap up, but I marketed this thing as a rant, so a rant you shall have!

To me, the emergence of the term EANAB is like the emergence of the peanut-free elementary school lunch room…except NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE IF THEY DON’T PERSONALLY LIKE WHAT THEIR DRINK IS CALLED. This is a self-imposed sensitivity that operates so far up the human hierarchy of needs that it can’t really be included in a serious discussion about real issues – and yet, for some reason, here we are.

So if you’re out there listening (and I hope you’re not because that would probably mean I’m losing a podcast listener), but if you’re out there listening and you’ve ever used the word EANAB with a straight face or shamed someone for using the word mocktail, I want you to do a couple things:

First, stop self-imposing sensitivities when you don’t need to. Frame small issues like this one as opportunities rather than injustices and enter into conversations by asking “what if,” instead of filing a law suit. We want robustness in our bar programs and we want our bartenders to be creative, and by scaling this particular molehill into a big, weird, stupid mountain, you are an active impediment to said robustness and said creativity.

Secondly, keep in mind that just because I think you’re horribly misguided on this topic doesn’t mean your voice isn’t valuable. We certainly want you to have a seat at the table where we discuss topics like this - but for God’s sake, PLEASE – take some time – think some thoughts – and come to that table with a term that is at least two full standard deviations better than EANAB.

Rant concluded.

A Quick Recap

Let me do a quick little recap here before I give you my ultimate thesis and hopefully propose a way for us all to get along better in the realm of non-alcoholic drinks.

  • In the beginning, cocktails were experienced and viewed as healthy – or at least health adjacent. The term cocktail itself refers to an old horse that has been made to appear young again. But, as our understanding of how alcohol and sugar affect the body has developed, it’s possible to experience health-related dissonance when drinking cocktails – which is sort of where mocktails enter the conversation.

  • Regarding mocktails, we’ve learned that they have a couple problems. They often activate the uncanny valley in people, which raises concerns about value and function – essentially, cocktail poser-hood.

  • Also, some people react negatively to the word “mock.” They feel that it paints them as inferior for making healthy choices. To them, it feels like the jocks and party crowd picking on the nerds. But, these folks might be ignoring how this word has evolved from its original derogatory roots to mean something that neutrally mimics, rather than something that maliciously derides.

  • I personally like the word mocktail because I think it makes ordering off a menu easy and because it rhymes with cocktail. Which is exactly the relationship between a cocktail and mocktail. If I had a mocktail bar, it would be called “rhymes with cocktail.” No question. Feel free to steal that one from me – I never intend to open a mocktail bar.

  • There have been some attempts to replace the word mocktail with terms like “spirit free cocktail” and that other word, which I won’t utter here. But those terms have way more semantic and connotational issues than the word “mocktail” does, so in this ball game, the bullpen certainly isn’t any better than the starting pitcher.

Solving the Cocktail/Mocktail Debate

Now that we’re caught up, I’d like to pose my thesis about how we might solve (or at least make progress on) the cocktail/mocktail debate as two related questions:

WHAT IF, just like the word “mock” has evolved to mean something different than it once did, the formal definition of the word cocktail is no longer in line with our expectations and experiences?

And WHAT IF it were possible to both broaden and clarify our definitions and enhance our execution of these non-alcoholic beverages so that everyone knows what they’re getting when they order one at the bar?

Think about it this way: ten or fifteen years ago, if you asked for an old fashioned, it was entirely possible that you’d be presented with some monstrosity involving muddled fruit, artificial cherries, and soda water (and to be fair, that’s a particular style, but it’s certainly not a classic old fashioned).

My point is, today, we’re at a place where most decent bars can whip up a decent old fashioned with no questions asked. That didn’t’ happen by magic, it happened because people read books, consulted folks who did great work in the industry, and then taught their staff how to do it the right way.

I think this can happen for non-alcoholic beverages as well.

I could certainly imagine a day when I would walk into a bar, look at a menu section called “Spirit-Free Cocktails,” be perfectly content paying cocktail-type money for a spirit-free drink, and have no issue with it being called a “cocktail.” What it would take to get me there is the confidence that the entire cocktail program – starting with the beverage director and including all levels of the staff – is focused on making drinks that not only match up with the tastes and flavors we love in a cocktail, but also the textures, temperatures, aesthetics, glassware, garnishes, sequence, and pairability.

If you’re someone who runs a program like this – someone who loses sleep about quality ingredient sourcing and who runs weekly trainings for your staff – then I’m pretty confident I could walk into your establishment tomorrow and joyfully order a spirit-free cocktail even though I called that term an oxymoron earlier. And that’s because I think a cocktail is more than just spirits, water, sugar, and bitters.

My personal definition of a cocktail is probably too complicated, too mutable, and too abstract to get into right now, but I can say that it most definitely includes all the auxiliary attributes I just mentioned – paired with good execution, eye contact, and hospitality. If you can achieve those things using spiritous ingredients – dope. Let’s be friends. And if you can achieve them without alcohol, that’s great too!

My one request is that if you call something a spirit-free cocktail, it needs to walk and talk like a cocktail. Otherwise, it’s going to fall into that uncanny valley, and if that happens, I as someone who enjoys alcoholic cocktails, will be disappointed. And that’s just as bad as disappointing someone who chooses not to drink alcohol.

See, what’s actually happening here is that I and all the EANAB jerks are all having the same conversation, but the difference is that I’m proposing a solution. Let’s get more rigorous and less canonical about what we mean by the word “cocktail” so that anybody who orders any drink in any category gets something that delights them.

And you know what, folks? That means the word mocktail would get to stay, too. Not as a stand-in for a cocktail or a spirit-free cocktail, but as something that is only a rough approximation, and should only be charged for as such.

I’m thinking something simple like a tea and tonic, or a Moscow Mule without the kick. These mostly-highball style drinks are quick to make, relatively inexpensive, and make a lot of people happy – myself included. So if you’ve got a section on your menu for these lovely libations and you’re not charging an arm and a leg, fly that mocktail flag, fly it high and proud, and don’t stop flying it, because you’re doing it right.

Conclusion

In the end, my thesis is that “mocktail” is not a dirty word. It’s a term that has alerted us to the fact that maybe how we think about cocktails needs to be updated. Not like a full update where you have to restart your laptop – but more like one of those nice little iPhone updates that happen automatically when you’re on wifi. This can be a quiet, untelevised revolution that trickles down from exceptional bar programs to merely good ones, and it can start with brunch shift bartenders. It doesn’t require a royal decree from Baron von Wondrich or Duke DeGroff.

Personally, I intend to continue having conversations about non-boozy mixed drinks and collaborating with some of my closest colleagues to create resources that make cocktails, spirit-free cocktails, and mocktails more fun (and easier to execute) for everyone, whether you’re in the service industry or are just a passionate home consumer.

So keep an eye out for those resources as they develop, and remember, if someone comes up to you and starts throwing around the term EANAB, just tell them to take that stupid acronym and make like the horse with the ginger.