Behind the Bar
Julia Momose's Spiritfree Movement
Chicago bartender Julia Momose has long embraced the challenge of coming up with nonalcoholic cocktails that are every bit as tasteful and delicious as their spirited counterparts. In fact, at the two-Michelin-starred Oriole where she presides over the menu, she’s even done a pairings menu marrying her zero-proof concoctions with Chef Noah Sandoval’s creations. All the while, though, she’s hated using the term mocktail. So much so, that late last year she posted a manifesto on her personal blog, advocating the replacement of mocktail with the new term, spiritfree. Momose, who is also working with the team at Oriole to open the new cocktail bar, Kumiko, sat down with Tales to explain her word advocacy.
Tales: You’ve been working on spiritfree drinks for a while. How did you initially get interested in making them?
JM: I have been working on nonalcoholic drinks for some time, and I have always had trouble of what to call them. Our staff knew what we could do with them, that I wanted them to be something carefully thought about, that the guests felt special when they ordered them. So, I started to use the term zero proof. It got the message across, but a couple of times, guests asked me what proof was, as in ‘Is this a nonalcoholic drink?’ It was too technical of a term. I was trying to be inclusive and accessible to everyone, but it was the opposite.
Tales: Tell us more about why you dislike the term mocktail. What is it about the word that you dislike?
JM: When people would order a mocktail or a virgin (cocktail), they would apologize or cringe as they said those words. Many bars are set up for cocktails so a lot of guests are afraid to go off of the menu and order something nonalcoholic. Sometimes, they don’t know if the bartenders are okay with that. It can be really intimidating.
Tales: How did your initial interest evolve to the point of creating a manifesto on your proposed new term, spiritfree? Tell us about the genesis for your idea to rename the nonalcoholic genre.
JM: It was back home in Japan, at the grocery store, where I discovered a Japanese nonalcoholic beer, and their slogan is ‘all free.’ It was a really lovely way to say it was nonalcoholic. That was way more empowering, like it was a conscious choice and decision that it was a good thing and that it wasn’t lacking anything. My hope is we can create an environment and language that embraces people (who choose not to drink) and empowers them and also empowers bartenders to get creative. Low proof is on the rise, and more and more people are cutting out alcohol. Some people also switch it up and have a cocktail and then have a spiritfree. I have been making spiritfrees for years, and then I’ve been calling them spiritfrees for about a year now. Last year, I decided to take it public because I realized it’s all well and good if I’m doing that, but I thought maybe I have a solution to help people, and I should share it. I now have friends who bartend (in other bars) who are using the term, and I have had one bartender who lives in Hong Kong tell me that he has spiritfrees on his menu now.
Tales: Tell us about the reaction of your guests to the new spiritfrees.
JM: The reaction has been really great. People are really excited when they hear about it. They say, I can say spiritfree now instead of mocktail, and I think that’s really cool. The main thing is excitement, that they don’t have to have soda water and a lime. It’s been entirely positive.
Tales: Tell us about your approach to spiritfree drinks. How is it similar and how is it different from your approach to spirit-based cocktails?
JM: In cocktails, the spirits work really well with water. Water opens up the nuance in a whiskey, brightens up and opens a gin martini. But with spiritfree, if you’re adding to this beautiful spiced tea base, you’re diluting that. With spiritfrees, you don’t need much water, and you want to do less shaking and more pre-chilling of ingredients and combining them ahead of time. In some cases, when you are using citrus, you want aeration for making a very quick whip shake or just a one-tow, just to chill it a little bit. It’s not so much dilution as it is aeration and chilling. You also have to practice getting the balance right without alcohol and seeing how that works.