During a recent meal at Oakland’s festive Mexican restaurant, Bombera, as drink orders go out from our group for white wine or pisco sours, one guest asks for the “house fermented soda.” When I spy her glass of fermented pineapple bits and seltzer with a tamarind encrusted swizzle stick that gradually turns the libation a glowing rosy hue, I order the same and ask Lila, who happens to be my daughter, about her choice.
Lila Volkas is a certified nutrition consultant and a kombucha master. She said she ordered the mocktail since she doesn’t usually drink alcohol. In the last 10 years, Lila has taught over 1000 people around the world how to make kombucha. She also leads public workshops and corporate team building sessions, virtually or in person, on other topics such as making healthy snacks and elixirs.
As she describes the world of non-alcoholic beverages, she tosses around terms such as mocktails, elixirs, tinctures, and adaptogens. Since I am a little fuzzy on the subject, I ask Lila if she would introduce me to a few of her favorite places. She seems delighted to share her expertise.
A few days later, we visit the bar at Juanita and Maude in Albany (where I previously savored a memorable meal). This spot, Lila assures me, serves the best mocktails in town. These drinks, she adds, will be more complex than the soda — a simple and delicious combination — that we had at Bombera.
Sitting at the bar, we are entranced by bartender Julia Drazic, who with balletic grace, pours, shakes, stirs and twirls, almost dancing with various bottles and silver shakers as she creates the alcoholic cocktails ordered by the other guests. We ask for the two zero ABV drinks that are currently on the menu, one called Clark Kent (strawberry, Szechuan, dandelion, clove) and another called Keyser Söze (passionfruit, lime zest, black tea, mint).
As Drazic serves our elegant drinks, we appreciate the classy presentation, with just-snipped mint and a tiny marigold. Then we are impressed with their sophisticated wave of flavors. “You can’t chug these,” Lila said. “You need to sip them to appreciate their complexity.”
Drazic told us she is “happy that in the last five years, the industry has been paying more attention to mocktails; it’s exciting to have more options for people to celebrate with. Without the fiery alcohol, we have to balance the bitter, fruity and tart and make it look appealing, because presentation is part of the experience.”
Another value at Juanita and Maude is what Drazic calls “sustainable closed loop cycle,” the effort to use every part of the animal or plant. She mentioned that she is sometimes inspired to invent a cocktail that might incorporate the leftover parts of the pineapple, or the peel from a grapefruit used in other dishes.
Drazic told us she and fellow bartender Michael Huynh create a new round of cocktails and mocktails every three months, then brought us a sample of one they are still working on. It’s a version of the trending Sbagliato, incorporating Lyre’s Italian Orange “impossibly non-alcoholic spirits” and sparkling wine. Sublime!
Since I am quite taken with Lyre’s Italian Orange and its essences of ruby grapefruit, blood orange and pomegranate, Lila suggests a visit to Akali Rye in Oakland, where owner Jessica Moncada stocks dozens of non-alcoholic beverages as well as a curated collection of spirits which focus on the products of “underrepresented talent (Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Women and LGBTQ) and businesses that utilize environmentally sustainable practices.”
Moncada showed us to her wall of non-alcoholic drinks and described the range of customers she caters to, from those who prefer “imitation spirits” (that is, non-alcoholic versions of conventional alcoholic spirits), to those who choose beverages flavored with botanicals, herbs or fruit.
Moncada set a table with a half dozen of her wares for the curious to taste, so Lila and I took the tiny cups and poured. We both like the look and the vibe of an old medicine show in the hemp-based Pathfinder but discover that Lila’s favorite is Ghia’s orange peel, elderflower, yuzu, ginger, rosemary and lemon balm, which is too bitter for me.
I prefer the Roots Divino aperitif with bittersweet orange, wormwood, and gentian, which she finds too sweet. (Of course, these are often mixed with other beverages). Lila tells me the wormwood in my favorite sample has traditionally been used to offer digestion support, while gentian has been used for the liver.
Now, we’re getting into elixirs, which Lila explained are “functional beverages,” which means that their ingredients are intended to support various bodily organs and functions, by way of ancient herbs and other ingredients. Many contain adaptogens, which Lila explained as plants and mushrooms that herbalists, acupuncturists and naturopaths commonly use in their practices to help the body respond to stress, anxiety and fatigue.
Since I have never really heard these claims, I told Lila that I’m a little dubious.
She agreed that there are a lot of health fads out there, and that it makes sense to question them. It’s important to look into the research, she said. A study published in Chinese Medicine, the peer-reviewed journal International Society for Chinese Medicine, for example, supports some claims of the benefits of adaptogens, as do some doctors with UCLA. Other researchers take a more skeptical approach. Most agree, however, that many of the herbs presented in these elixirs have been used around the world for hundreds of years.
I am not completely convinced of the health benefits of these elixirs, but I’m willing to be open.
We meet at The Well Café in Oakland and order an elderberry spritzer and a mushroom coffee. I especially like the mushroom coffee, a warming beverage made with a blend of several ingredients that are new to me. Lila explains their qualities: dandelion root is said to support the liver, ashwagandha root is said to support the nervous system, schisandra berries are said to offer adrenal support and some say the chaga and reishi mushrooms support the immune and nervous systems. The Well’s house blend also contains chicory, cinnamon, and carob for flavor. After drinking it, I feel calm, yet alert, but without any caffeine jitters.
As I begin to inquire about more of the Well’s offerings, the staff informs me that sadly, it will close permanently on Nov. 3.
I am disappointed, as I was just starting to get into this elixir business, but Lila tells me that I can make these drinks at home (as she does) and takes me to Twisted Thistle Apothecary on Piedmont Avenue. That business stocks a wall of ingredients in categories such as “relaxation,” “energy” and “aphrodisiacs.” In the mushroom department, they carry several blends that claim to “promote healthy brain function” or “improve stamina and respiratory function.” (I asked Lila how they taste, and she said that they’re meant for function, not flavor. You have been warned.)
As a last toast to our mutual research project, we visit Tupper and Reed, a classic Berkeley cocktail bar, founded in 1906.
Their cocktail menu shows just one no-ABV choice, but bartender Rachelle Merlo offers to make Lila something she’s working on for next month, with tangerine syrup, lemon and orange juice, thyme and tonic water.
The menu also lists “Dealer’s Choice.” When I inquire, Merlo said I could pick some ingredients that appeal to me from their conventional alcoholic drinks, and she will create something special — and without booze — for me. I spy beet juice and rosewater in a Halloween cocktail. Merlo adds to those two elements ginger beer, chai piloncillo, lemon and soda water. The resulting deep red beverage has a pleasant, earthy note.
Looking back on our exploration of local mocktails, Lila said that the experience made her “feel seen and cared for.”
“Instead of just being served a soda or juice as an afterthought,” she said, “someone took the time and effort to create these multi-layered beverages and that’s what makes them so satisfying.”
It’s also a way, Merlo said, to bring people together — which is one of the reasons bars exist in the first place. “I’m a big believer in having mocktails,” Merlo told us during our visit to Tupper and Reed. “People ask for them every day now, and it lets a group of friends all enjoy their various drinks together.”
3459 Champion St. (near MacArthur Boulevard), Oakland
Juanita and Maude
825 San Pablo Ave. (near Solano Avenue), Albany
3256 Grand Ave. (near Santa Clara Avenue), Oakland
Twisted Thistle Apothecary
4156 Piedmont Ave. (near 41st Street), Oakland
Tupper and Reed
2271 Shattuck Ave. (near Bancroft Way), Berkeley
Featured image: Jessica Moncado’s wall of non-alcoholic options at Alkali Rye. Credit: Anna Mindess