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Veteran bartender Anthony Mitchell makes his twist on the classic Old-Fashioned, with non-alcoholic bourbon, at the Revel Room in Wicker Park.

Veteran bartender Anthony Mitchell makes his twist on the classic Old-Fashioned, with non-alcoholic bourbon, at the Revel Room in Wicker Park. Mitchell quit drinking four years ago and has amassed a collection of spirit-free elixirs.

Manuel Martinez

My search for Chicago’s most creative mocktails this winter

As a sober person, my standby of club soda and lime may be consistent. But it sure as heck isn’t very festive. As parties and holiday meet-ups fill my calendar, I’m on the hunt for drinks that are merrier — and more interesting.

I’ve known that superior options are out there, just waiting for me to order them — after all, the non-alcoholic and mocktail market has exploded in recent years. But I have questions: What’s something I can reliably order just about anywhere that’s seasonal and not overly sweet? What bars are pushing the creativity on mocktails? And what’s a good spiritless sparkling for New Year’s? To help find answers, I called up three Chicago drink experts who, in their own ways, are clued in to the city’s spirit-free scene.

My first stop was The Revel Room, a bar on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, where I paid a visit to veteran bartender Anthony Mitchell. When I walked in, Mitchell was nursing a can of Liquid Death and had set one out to offer to me. Mitchell, like me, is sober. But, unlike me, he is deeply steeped in beverage knowledge acquired over nearly two decades in the bar business.

Sporting a full beard and a black hoodie, Mitchell has the air of a natural bartender, which is to say it’s easy to imagine him shooting the breeze with anyone who walks in the door. The 38-year-old Palatine native got his start in Chicago’s dive bar scene, before climbing the ranks in spots like Little Goat, La Sirena Clandestina and Boka. Today, Mitchell is a partner at both Revel Room and Nights and Weekends in West Loop.

Mitchell poses for a portrait inside the Revel Room in December 2023.

Mitchell poses for a portrait inside Revel Room in December 2023.

Manuel Martinez

But four years ago, Mitchell realized that if he wanted to continue working in the food and beverage industry, he had to do something that might seem counterintuitive to some: Quit drinking.

“I don’t drink because it just doesn’t fit in my lifestyle anymore,” he said. “I wasn’t f---ing up my life, I wasn’t tanking my career ... Nothing crazy other than, I woke up one day and I was like, I feel like s---, I hate this.”

A non-alcoholic drink at the Revel Room

The non-alcoholic and mocktail market has exploded in recent years, and bars like Revel Room are adding more intriguing spirit-free ingredients to their supply.

Manuel Martinez

He’s been sober ever since and in the last few years, he’s had a front row seat to the non-alcoholic beverage industry’s rapid rise. For more than a decade, he’s been a liquor buyer for the establishments he works at, so he’s well known among distributors.

“They know me as Anthony who used to drink and then when I quit drinking they all were like, ‘Oh, well, Anthony doesn’t drink anymore, I’ll bring him all the non-alcoholic s---.’ So, I’ve had everything,” he said from behind the bar, as blinking Christmas lights pulsed behind him. After considerable taste testing, Mitchell favors hop waters and is quick to spring for any non-alcoholic offering from Marz Brewing.

A shelf of non-alcoholic elixirs

There is a surge in new non-alcoholic elixirs, driven by the popularity of brands like Three Spirit.

Courtesy of Billy Sunday

From the bevy of options he stocks, Mitchell pulled three bottles onto the bar. First, he poured a splash of Nightcap — billed as a non-alcoholic elixir — from the brand Three Spirit, which he says he’ll throw back when a customer wants to take a shot with him.

He slid it across the bar to me and I took a sip. “Is it cinnamon?” I asked.

“No, like, sichuan peppercorn,” he explained in an even, professorial way. “That’s the other thing, a lot of spiritless people try to mimic the burn.”

My favorite from the trio of tasters was an actual cinnamon offering — spiced NA whiskey from the brand Kentucky 74 that Mitchell and his colleagues, some of whom are also sober, have dubbed “fake Fireball.”

“But better,” I said. “So much better.”

He also carries Old Milwaukee “near beer,” which he’s a big fan of, and has played around with making homemade sodas, including one that tasted like corn.

But his main advice to nondrinkers looking for ordering tips is to lean into the vibe of wherever you are.

“Know your surroundings. What are you going to walk into Rainbo Club and order a Pago Pago? No, you’re going to order a beer, so order an NA beer or a soda water,” Mitchell said. (A Pago Pago is a pineapple daiquiri that I admitted to never having heard of.) “If you walk into Three Dots and a Dash, where you can order a Pago Pago, why not order a crazy mocktail?”

With that question in mind, I wondered who I could call to get the scoop on innovative mocktails. The search led me two miles up Milwaukee to the Logan Square cocktail lounge Billy Sunday. There, general manager Corban Kell and his crew are as serious about the sophistication of their spirit-free drinks as they are about the rest of the menu.

The interior of Billy Sunday

At Billy Sunday in Logan Square, the dedication to mocktails started years ago with a sober bartender.

Courtesy of Billy Sunday

Kell talked like a chemist when describing the process of crafting and creating new NA concoctions — an experimentation process that’s so ever evolving that he laughed when I asked what nondrinkers should order at their bar this holiday season. The Billy Sunday menu changes monthly or even weekly, Kell said. But currently, the Lupine Lady is the star of the spiritless options, which the menu describes as “lavender and thyme infused verjus, lime, mint, basil and sparkling water.”

“It reads so simply, but it is just one of the best sparkling NA cocktails I’ve ever had,” Kell said. “We force carbonate ours, we run it through draft lines, so just like every component is sparkling all the way through.”

Billy Sunday’s dedication to solid non-alcoholic drinks started with another sober bartender — a former employee who a few years back threw herself into blowing out the menu, Kell said. That put the cocktail bar a bit ahead of the mocktail curve.

“The holy grail for me in regards to mocktails, spirit frees, whatever you want to call them, is honestly going to be the body of the thing, like getting that complexity of flavor,” he said.

Billy Sunday's Lupine Lady

An example of a seasonal mocktail on Billy Sunday’s menu is the Lupine Lady, made of lavender and thyme infused verjus, citrus, mint, basil and bubbles.

Courtesy of Billy Sunday

In general, Kell says the key to a good mocktail is using tea as the base and avoiding the cliche and sugary sparkling lemonade route. It lacks what customers want now: Something interesting.

“I think initially people were just happy to have an offering, but I think people are getting really hungry for creativity,” he said. “It really is just like an absolute race for innovation.”

Of course, not all holiday gatherings happen out on the town with an expert mixologist, which got me thinking about strategies for at-home festivities. For advice in this realm, I turned to entertaining expert Mary Moss.

Since 2020, Moss has been slinging NA drinks and hosting tastings to teach customers how to mix up good drinks, with or without alcohol, at Beverly Dry Goods, the store she operates in the South Side neighborhood it’s named for.

Beverly Dry Goods storefront and non-alcoholic spirits

Beverly Dry Goods owner Mary Moss stocks her shop with a bevy of non-alcoholic spirits, including botanical spirits from the brand Amethyst and NA wines and sparkling options.

Courtesy of Beverly Dry Goods

In the past few years, Moss said she’s witnessed her customer base become more cognizant of having a good mocktail on hand when they entertain. Plenty of guests aren’t drinking for any number of reasons.

“I think one of the great things is hearing that mindset shift, whereas before, there was really no consideration for those people,” she said

Among shelves of gourmet foods, mixers and homeware items, Moss said the NA drinks fly out the door the quickest. The current stars of the show are bubbly NA wines, such as No & Low Sparkling Chardonnay, which Moss uses in her Jingle Punch recipe. The holiday drink calls for cranberry apple juice, NA rum, ginger ale and the No & Low stirred up in a punch bowl.

At a recent holiday-themed tasting, Moss made another easy option that can be thrown into a crockpot at a party. The base is Kentucky 74’s spiced whiskey — the same one Anthony Mitchell calls “fake Fireball.” She added apple pie-flavored infusion kit from the brand InBooze and some apple cider and voila: A merry mixture, free of booze, but with plenty of holiday spirit.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.

Two festive recipes for booze-free holiday hosting


Mary Moss’s Holiday Cooler

  • 1 oz Portland Syrups Spiced Cranberry Syrup
  • 5 oz OddBird Blanc de Blanc
  • Pour over ice, garnish with an orange wedge

    * * *

    Mary Moss’s Jingle Punch

    • 4 cups cold cranberry apple juice
    • 2 cups Caleño Dark & Spicy (NA Rum)
    • 2 cups ginger ale
    • 1 cup cold fresh orange juice + slices for garnish
    • 1 (750ml) bottle No & Low Sparkling Chardonnay

    Combine all ingredients in a punch bowl. Add orange slices for garnish.

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