As the days shortened and darkened with 2020’s final act, I found my nightly glass of wine coming earlier and becoming two, or three, sometimes chased by shame the next morning.
A disclaimer: I don’t see drinking as a black-and-white divide between good, self-controlled, responsible drinkers and bad, gluttonous alcoholics. Everyone who chooses to imbibe exists on a spectrum of risk, and where you fall depends on your relationship with alcohol.
I’ve always liked to drink, although since college, my relationship with alcohol has mellowed. Pre-pandemic, I’d go out and throw a few back once a week with pals, but for the most part, I felt in control. Until I didn’t.
So, like many folks, I committed myself to a dry January this year. It’s something I’ve done the last few years (sometimes with a No-Drink November thrown in) as a personal health challenge. I see it as a reset: To remember how my body feels at 100 and discover if my constant morass has been a perpetual low-grade hangover. I didn’t intend to put down the bottle forever, but my liver was asking for a month off.
I was off to a strong start—feeling more awake, more productive, just more. But then, last week, right-wing terrorists stormed the Capitol. I found myself paralyzed in front of CNN, eyeing the cabinet and telling myself a whiskey shot wouldn’t be so bad.
It wasn’t terrible. But it also wasn’t great.
Even without the pandemic, January is also notoriously not great for the restaurant industry, as liquor is one of the most lucrative menu items. For Raleigh chef Scott Crawford, the solution is to keep a mix of booze-free options on the menu all year round—an ever-changing slate of creative concoctions that aim to complement what’s on the plate as much as a cocktail would.
“Our basic philosophy is that anyone who comes to our restaurant and chooses not to partake in spirits should still have the same excitement about what it is that they are drinking,” Crawford says.
Crawford has been sober for 16 years and runs a local support group for workers in the restaurant industry grappling with sobriety. When he was a young chef, Crawford says, what began as a “work hard, play hard” mentality morphed into a serious problem.
One night, Crawford attended an industry event. He’d just gotten sober, so he turned down the wine pairing for the evening. But instead of water, the beverage director asked if Crawford wanted to try an alcohol-free pairing.
“By the end of the meal, instead of being the person who everyone was like, ‘Oh, he’s not drinking,’ they were like, ‘What was that? Oh, that’s cool,’” Crawford recalls. “So I was engaged in the conversation and the profile of these beverages. That was a game-changer for me.”
For me, this required a radical perspective shift. It’s easy to look down on mocktails as an inferior alternative, and in many places, it’s just the same tired mix of soda and syrup minus the booze. But Crawford got me wondering: Could I come to see a mocktail as something more—something special, even enjoyable?
So on Friday, I rendezvoused with Crawford at his eponymous Person Street restaurant to give mocktails an honest go. I sit at the end of the low-lit restaurant’s bar and a few minutes later the salty-haired, tattooed Crawford emerges from the kitchen.
The goal of the mocktail menu, which is constantly evolving, is to provide patrons with a booze-free treat as complex and thought-provoking as anything else on his menu. It’s all about balance, he says, in both life and drinks.
“If I’m not balanced, I can’t be creative,” he says.
The first mocktail that beverage manager Jordan Joseph slides me is a savory drink infused with smoked golden beets and a bit of vinegar, capped with a thyme sprig. The champagne vinegar provides the same tingly kick you’d usually get from vodka or gin. But it also makes you slow down and savor every sip.
The next mix I try is a sweet combination of roasted apples and cinnamon that, if I’m honest, doesn’t strike me as terribly different from a shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey in cider. But it’s light enough to serve as a perfect aperitif or digestif bracketing a meal.
The final mocktail is the most mindblowing: an Aleppo pepper-infused tropical snowstorm. It’s a pannacotta-themed painkiller, with notes of fruit and piecrust in every sip, topped by a frothy, emulsified snow-like foam sprinkled with pepper flakes. It’s spicy, sweet, and utterly unique.
In a perfect dish, one element can’t overpower, and it’s the interplay of flavors that elevates even the smallest bite. Here, a beet is more than a beet; it’s a symphony.
Perhaps that’s what I’d been looking for during my temporary sobriety: something to balance out the bitterness but also make me ask the hard questions, evaluate my relationships and goals, and hopefully adjust accordingly. And just like taste, our needs change over time.
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