My wife is pregnant. It's our third time in the barrel, and as unexpected a ride as the prior two. We (think we) know what we're in for this time, though, so it should be smooth sailing. To help ensure pacific waters, I'm (mostly) teetotaling in sympathy with my wife for the next 40 weeks or so. That seems like a pretty good reason to revisit my semi-abandoned nonalcoholic "cocktail" experiments. Drink along with me.
I'd had the best of intentions. Really. For the first three or four months, I'd gone pretty much cold turkey. I might have had three or four drinks in that span, and only when offered one socially. I didn't even really realize I'd fallen back in the habit of the occasional nightcap, or a beer or two a week after work. Then, a few weeks ago, after I had posted something online about a cocktail idea I was trying out, my friend Sammy replied, "Hey, I thought you were off the juice?" The guilt hit me like a ton of bricks.
It wasn't that I was drinking when she couldn't; I'd made that decision mostly on my own anyway, and she'd told me repeatedly that it wouldn't bother her if I lapsed. It was, in a way, precisely because she was so unfazed by it that it felt like such a failure.
Here she was, coasting along without a blip or a drink, not giving it a second thought. And there I sat, drink in hand, not having given that a second thought. The luxury of not thinking about it -- a simple matter of biological luck, in a way -- felt like an unfair advantage. We were in this thing together, and that had been my reasoning for giving up booze in the first place. To have so casually given up on that notion, just because I could, felt like a failure, and a refusal to recognize the privilege inherent in my Y chromosome.
Shortly thereafter, during a routine grocery trip, I found my wife scanning a display of jelly beans. "What are you looking for?" I asked. "I really want a margarita," she replied, filling a small bag with fluorescent green speckled candies. A friend had told her that Jelly Belly has a line of cocktail-flavored beans, and she'd had margaritas on the brain ever since. She beamed as her eyes fell on Mojito, Pomegranate Cosmo, Peach Bellini, Piña Colada and Strawberry Daiquiri. Later that night, as she sat on the couch scowling at the unsurprisingly unsatisfying sugared pretenders, I marched into the kitchen and made her a drink.
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The process was swift, fluid and based on what I had available. Saint Arnold root beer was the jumping-off point. That and various grapefruit sodas have been her tipples of choice lately, and it only made sense to start with a foundation I knew she enjoyed.
When I opened the fridge for the soda, I saw the handful of bay leaves left over from the pot of red beans and rice she'd made earlier in the week. Savory herbs have long fascinated me in cocktail applications (watch this space for a better-late-than-never Thanksgiving-themed drink), and they add layers of intrigue that really benefit non-alcoholic efforts. A few of them (I settled on six smallish/three large leaves) went into a glass, after being bruised and crunched a bit in my hand.
Whenever I use soda in a "cocktail," I balance it with bitters. For this drink, I reached for Bittermen's Hopped Grapefruit and my own Cumin/Epazote bitters. Celery bitters would make a good stand-in for the Epazote, unless you feel like making your own (do that), or want to find and muddle in a fresh leaf or two.
Lactart is another thing I've been playing with a lot lately. A milk-derived acid, it provides tartness without any distinguishing flavor (citrus, vinegar, etc.), and contributes a drying character to beverages. I figured a few dashes would help restrain the sweetness of the soda and integrate the bitter and herbal accoutrements. I was right.
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I knew I was onto something when I gave her the first run for a taste, because she refused to give it back. I knew I'd nailed it when I tweaked a second glass - upping the bitters and changing from a simple build to a two-stage approach - and she immediately exchanged the first for the second.
6 small bay leaves, crushed gently 4 dashes Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, divided 4 dashes Cumin/Epazote Bitters (or similar), divided 3 dashes Lactart 6 ounces Saint Arnold root beer
Build in an Old Fashioned glass, adding half of the bitters at the beginning. Add ice and stir to combine. Add remaining bitters and stir just slightly, to keep the bitters at the surface of the drink. Garnish with a bay leaf and an orange twist.