When Lent and Valentine’s Day collide, embrace the mocktail
February this year is going to be the most interesting of months for imbibers.
The word interesting here describes a period of confusion, denial, overindulgence and saintliness.
True, as usual, February will have the debauchery of Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras, when inhibitions and restraint crumble as alcohol intake hits titanic proportions. This will be followed, as usual, by Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when, for those who observe it, debauchery gives way to 40 days of pious restraint. February also has Valentine’s Day, when couples slip quietly off to be alone and celebrate romance with myriad signature cocktails and mountains of seductive chocolate.
So, what makes this month any more interesting than so many Februaries before it?
This year, all this debauchery, sacrifice and seduction happens in just two days. Fat Tuesday is Feb. 13. Lent begins on Feb. 14, which also happens to be Valentine’s Day. While Valentine’s Day often has fallen during Lent through the years, the last time the first day of Lent collided with the romantic saint’s day was in 1945. World War II was still going on.
Now, considering that two of the top three things people in the United States give up for Lent are chocolate and alcohol (as of 2016, social networking became the third), one can see the dilemma here.
For many, Valentine’s Day 2018 just may be one during which hungover, ash-crossed lovers admire boxes of untouched chocolate while toasting their love without sipping.
Lead us not into temptation!
The compromise for this soul-searching combination of drink-related dates offers several suggestions. One could simply decide that 2018 is not the year to give up alcohol, but that sort of defeats the idea of giving up something important for Lent.
One could also celebrate Valentine’s Day and Fat Tuesday on Feb. 13, but that’s cheating St. Valentine of his day. A third is to honor the Lenten promise while celebrating on Feb. 14 and still imbibing in exotic drinks with a small hitch.
Raise a glass to the mocktail — drinks without alcohol but created with the right kind of ingredients to hide that sad fact.
Mocktails are nothing new, of course, but for many years even the most inventive ones were simply regular cocktails minus the alcohol. Fortunately, as the signature cocktail movement took on steamroller proportions in the past decade, mocktail makers began looking at their concoctions with new eyes.
“We actually have a couple of go-to mock cocktails,” said Pasha Morshedi, one of the owners of the Clear Lake area’s imaginative Rosewater, 1606 Clear Lake City Blvd. “A lot of times, we get groups where one person doesn’t drink for one reason or another. Surprisingly, we get a lot of pregnant ladies. We wanted to come up with drinks where they wouldn’t feel left out, so we created some special non-alcoholic cocktails.”
The biggest challenge, of course, is to duplicate the bitterness, astringency and spices/herbs that the various alcohols bring to a drink.
“We start by asking what flavors they prefer, or sometimes find it easier to ask what they don’t like,” he said. “After that, we kind of improvise, using ingredients we make in house, or other things that will make a drink special. Honestly, we’ve come up with some drinks I prefer over the ones with alcohol.”
Across the country, the mocktail revolution has been pretty adventurous with the ingredients.
Try hitting the grocery store. The first aisle to shop on should be one selling teas. There are dozens and dozens of herb teas, and many of these are the same ones that give flavor to bourbons, rums, whiskeys and even clear alcohols like vodka and gin. Among the flavors to be found in teas and in alcohols are caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, florals and ginger or peppers that give alcohol the burning sensation. Steeping black tea with about three times as many tea bags as called for produces almost exactly the amount of astringency found in whiskey.
For example, can there be a more bourbon-driven drink than the classic Old Fashioned? Made with muddled orange and maraschino cherries, Angostura bitters, sugar and soda, the drink would be tepid without the complex flavors of the bourbon. Jon Harris, a Washington, D.C., bartender, took the challenge for a 2014 article in Food & Wine Magazine. He replaced the bourbon by making barley tea, brewed three times as long as suggested, then chilled it. With its bite and malty flavor, the tea has all the flavor of bourbon and is measured into the drink in the same amount.
Once loaded down with teas, journey over to the herb and spice section. There, one will find the dried flowers, juniper berries, whole and ground spices and a huge array of fruit peels that are common ingredients in popular alcohols.
Harris tackled one of the world’s favorite cocktails, the gin and tonic, by combining the herbs, florals, citrus peel and juniper berries associated with the making of gin, infusing them in water overnight. Because this “gin” is really nothing but flavored water, adding tonic water would have created a very diluted drink, so he poured 4 ounces of his mock gin into a mixture of tonic syrup, simple syrup and baking soda. The baking soda fizzed, thus carbonating the drink.
Vodka proves more of a challenge since, in truth, vodka doesn’t have a lot of taste. It does, however, bring zing to drinks. To do this, various flavored bitters are used, such as cranberry bitters for the cosmopolitan or similarly fruit-flavored bitters for drinks using particular juices.
Juices carry a lot of weight at the mocktail table as they can bring some of the alcohol flavors to a drink. For example, the Americano, a drink normally made with bitter Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water, can be recreated using unsweetened pomegranate juice, a bit of soda and some heavy dashes of herbal bitters.
Rosewater often turns to its house-made shrubs, which are tart syrups made with vinegar, fruit, sugar and/or herbs, he said.
“When we first opened, we were making a number of drinks with shrubs,” Morshedi said. “We had a wild cherry shrub that was really popular and a celery shrub. More recently, we had an apple, fennel and rhubarb shrub we found really took to tonic. This makes a great non-alcoholic cocktail.”
Rosewater often uses tonic syrup, tea, citrus and fruit bases to make different mocktails, not trying to duplicate familiar cocktails, but creating something that has all the appearance and festivity of one, sans spirits.
“It’s sort of a lost cause trying to replicate a certain cocktail exactly,” Morshedi said. “We want to have something just as engaging and complex, even with some of the bite, so that the person is having the same experience everyone else is.”
About the only good thing about Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day both being on Feb. 14 this year is it will be good practice. It may have been 73 years since this last happened, but it’s going to happen again in 2024 and 2029.
Created by Rosewater in the Clear Lake area
1½ ounces apple/fennel/rhubarb/cardamom shrub (sample recipe follows)
1½ ounces cold-brew white tea
Non-alcoholic apple cider
Place the first two ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and add a dash of lemon juice. Shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass over ice and top with non-alcoholic cider to fill. Garnish with an apple slice and a fennel frond.
Shrub recipes can be altered to highlight a certain ingredient, so amounts can be altered by preference.
2 pounds fresh rhubarb, chopped 1⁄4-inch thick
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fennel seeds, crushed
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds, crushed
3 medium, tart apples, grated
Combine the rhubarb, vinegar and granulated sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring as the rhubarb begins to break down. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook until the rhubarb is completely broken down into strands, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and pour into a colander or fine mesh strainer lined with a layer of cheesecloth.
Allow the mixture to strain until it stops dripping, about 30 minutes. Stir, but do not press it through the cheesecloth. Discard the solids. Place the grated apple, fennel and cardamom into a large, sealable jar and pour the rhubarb syrup over the mixture. Seal the jar and store on a counter in a cool place for 3-4 days. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth to remove the solids, then pour back into a clean, sealable jar. Store in the refrigerator. Makes about 1½ cups. Properly refrigerated, it will keep for several months.