Departure's non-alcoholic cocktails from left to right: Gonggong, Yami, the Rainbow Fish, and Yu the Great. Kathleen Marie

Bar Issue 2018

Through the Drinking Glass: The Portland Mercury’s Bar Issue

Cuckoo for Cocktails

The Last Straw

Stopping by the Bar on a Snowy Evening

You’d think that not drinking would lead to fewer personal indignities–you’re far less likely to face-plant in your driveway in front of a Lyft driver, for a hypothetical and not-real-at-all example—until you’re faced with the actual injustice of not drinking.

People who are sober, pregnant, or are just light drinkers rarely get decent options for cocktails that don’t involve juices from concentrate, overly sweet syrups, or soda water blasted from a gun.

One “mocktail” I had recently at Punch Bowl Social involved raisins floating like rabbit turds in a super-sugary soda blend for $6. I’m still upset.

Mercifully, as “dry January,” Whole30, and other alcohol-eschewing health trends continue to gain popularity, the tide is changing. Several local bars and restaurants are turning their attention to fine-tuned, craft, “dry” cocktails that are every bit as complex as their high-proof cousins.

Since the start of the year, Departure has dedicated an entire section of its menu to non-alcoholic drinks with flavor profiles that include herbal, spicy, and tangy.

“This is a category that just gets so overlooked,” says Sam Azarow, Departure’s beverage director and senior restaurant manager. “We wanted to focus on really building great dry beverages that don’t relate to the cocktails, but can tell a story and stand on their own.”

Right now Azarow has five drinks, each $7, on Departure’s menu, and has plans to expand even further this summer. I took a friend who doesn’t drink along for a tasting, and as she sipped the beautiful, milky-white Mizuchi from a martini glass—with its flavors of Tom Kha, lime, and coconut milk—she got a little emotional.


Yu the Great and Mizuchi at Departure. Kathleen Marie

My personal favorites were the Yu the Great, a dessert-like blend of Thai basil, matcha, lime, and foamy coconut milk, and their sneaker hit, Yami, which blends pink peppercorn, lemon, peach bitters, and orange blossom water for a super refreshing sip. The latter seemed a bit dull until paired with chef Gregory Gourdet’s Asian-influenced menu, where its floral flavors really popped.

Azarow notes that while Departure—which overlooks the downtown skyline from the top story of the Nines Hotel—is part of the weekend party circuit, many guests (and Gourdet himself, who moved to Portland from New York to pursue a sober lifestyle) don’t drink.

“We’ve had a really good response,” she says. “For a city that’s so hyper-focused on coffee and tea, it seems odd that there hasn’t been as much focus on this.”

Meanwhile, at Shipwreck, the red-hot pop-up run by former Expatriate bartender Eric Nelson, the focus is on wildly creative cocktails—but don’t be shy to ask for a virgin drink. Nelson, who gave up alcohol in May 2014, says for his smaller operations, a dedicated dry menu just wouldn’t work.

“It’s more fun to build for personal tastes,” Nelson says. “It also comes down to pricing. If you’re spending money and time to make this dope ‘milk-washed carrot-juice Collins’ and nobody orders it, it don’t make sense, you know?”

Willow, the small, chef’s-counter prix fixe restaurant in a former house on Southeast 11th, may be the only one to offer a dedicated non-alcoholic pairing with its six-course dinners. For $22, abstainers can drink watermelon and herb sparklers and coffee egg creams alongside Willow’s seasonal fare.

And for home (non) drinkers, options have come a long way from a can of O’Douls. I recently got my mitts on the groundbreaking non-alcoholic distilled elixirs from British-based company Seedlip. Their motto is “What to Drink When You’re Not Drinking,” and their two different spirits are showing up in cocktails in New York, LA, and San Francisco.

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A non-distilled elixir from Seedlip. Rob Lawson

They’re sugar-, calorie-, and sweetener-free, and you can order them online for an impressive $40 a pop, and choose from a spiced or botanical variant. Since dry January, I’ve been abstaining from alcohol at home during the week: a few ounces of the floral pea and hay distillation in Seedlip’s garden spirit, mixed with Fever Tree elderflower tonic water, made for a tasty placebo.

Azarow, notes that low-proof drinks based on vermouth and other fortified spirits have been gaining popularity over the last few years as well, and booze-free drinks “goes kind of hand in hand.” And while there’s a growing market, she says there’s still plenty of room for this trend to expand: “I don’t think completely dry has hit the market as of yet.”