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Forget the Shirley Temple: Mocktails are complex, delicious and all the rage

The newest wave of mocktails are flavoured by artisanal syrups, shrubs and bitters and occasionally mimic the flavours of classic high-alcohol drinks such as Old Fashioneds and Negronis.

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I love to visit bars for the atmosphere, the feeling of being taken care of and, of course, to order the sort of drink I wouldn't mix at home.

Recently, however, I found myself sitting on a stool in the Toronto cocktail bar Civil Liberties with a bout of party-induced gastritis. With more than a little regret and trepidation, I asked bartender and co-owner Cole Stanford to surprise me with a non-alcoholic drink, fully expecting something along the lines of the super-sweet Shirley Temples I remember from my youth.

Stanford returned with a balanced concoction of grapefruit and lime juices, grenadine and orange blossom water, held together with egg white and peach bitters. Sweet, tart and frothy, the drink had all the components of a cocktail, except for alcohol. And just like that, I became a fan of mocktails.

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Bartenders in this cocktail-crazy age have an arsenal of ingredients at their fingertips, so it makes sense that those who pride themselves on crafting thoughtful cocktails would take the same approach to non-alcoholic drinks.

Geraldine in Toronto has a cocktail menu that's pages long, but patrons can also elect for a made-to-order temperance cocktail. Rather than choose from a list of set recipes, guests who are designated drivers, pregnant or just don't drink can enjoy a custom mocktail based on their mood and preferences.

Michael Mooney, the bar manager at Geraldine, says he has witnessed a change in attitudes towards temperance cocktails. Bartenders who might have previously mixed juice with soda water and called it a mocktail are now enthusiastically incorporating egg whites, shrubs and homemade syrups into booze-free drinks. Perhaps equally surprising, guests don't seem to mind paying $7 for these inventions. "People really appreciate these creations – the aromas, textures and flavours – a lot more than they would a can of Coca-Cola," Mooney says.

Last year, when one of his bartenders came in for a pre-shift drink during a hiatus from drinking alcohol, Mooney decided to tinker. He combine pinot verjus (juice from pressed unripe grapes), house-made fig syrup and black walnut bitters. The result surprised them both and has changed the way they approach temperance cocktails.

"It was not like drinking straight alcohol, because that's a very unique thing – you feel the burn in the back of your throat and it goes to your head straight away – but as far as mocktails are concerned, it was pretty damn boozy," Mooney says. Though it was free of alcohol, the combination was reminiscent of a sipper cocktail: heavier and more flavour-forward than something diluted with soda. "That opened a whole new way of thinking about mocktails for us behind this bar."

It's not just hipster bars and speakeasies that are taking on temperance cocktails and treating them with the same care as their alcoholic counterparts. Atera, a New York restaurant with two Michelin stars, offers an $85 (U.S.) temperance pairing to go along with its $235 (U.S.) 18-course tasting menu. Its version of the Negroni, for example, mimics the classic alcohol-forward cocktail using unconventional methods and ingredients – Peruvian quinine bark, beet juice (for colour) and rehydrated raisins to evoke the flavours of gin, Campari and vermouth.

For drinkers who want something in between excessive drunkenness and complete sobriety, there is a middle ground: Similar to session beers, which contain a lower alcohol percentage than full-strength craft beers, low-alcohol cocktails are increasingly popping up on bar menus.

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"I'm seeing a lot of low-octane drinks getting ordered," says Oliver Stern, bar manager and partner at the Toronto Temperance Society. He has also noticed an increase in seminars about no-alcohol and low-alcohol drinks at cocktail events such as Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. "With wine, wine-based spirits, vermouth, sherry and amaros, you can still have bold-flavoured cocktail," without the instant buzz.

Most cocktails contain two to three ounces of spirits, but low-alcohol beverages can cut that in half. These drinks are a happy medium, helping people to pace themselves during an evening of bar-hopping or to stay alert during important business dinners.

Canadians still love their booze, however, and these temperance drinks won't be overtaking classic cocktails anytime soon. At the Toronto Temperance Society, Stern estimates 85 to 90 per cent of orders placed are for a traditional cocktail. Even when he lets customers taste a virgin invention on the house, they are pleasantly surprised but not always convinced. "They're going to say, 'Wow, I really like this. It's balanced. Now give me a martini.' "

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