The Ultimate Hostess Challenge: Entertaining People Who Don’t Drink

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We non-drinkers are legion, and we come from all walks of life: Mormons, Muslims, pregnant Christians; pregnant heathens, straight-edge punk kids; the sober, the underage, the antibiotic-taking, and the designated driving; the so-far-hung-over that even the hair of the dog is too much. Anyone can throw a half-decent party skating by on the lubricating power of alcohol — frat boys have done it for years — but the true display of hostess fortitude is the ability to show a good time to the guest who declines to imbibe. With this challenge in mind, I offer a holiday guide to entertaining the non-drinker.

Holidays are the recurrence by which we mark the gradual passing of time, the circle of life, the changing of selves and seasons, the slow accumulation of wisdom, and our measured descent into death. Or, to put it another way, this is not a time to pander with a yummy, punny mocktail. While of course any effort on the part of a host to accommodate a guest is appreciated, there are certain cold facts we must face when discussing holiday hospitality for the non-drinker.

For one, it must be said that the non-drinker does not aspire to drink a rum-free piña colada like it is his tenth birthday at the Rainforest Cafe. Nor does he wish to toast with sparkling Martinelli’s like a child play-shaving his face beside a group of Champagne-drinking dads. In the briefest terms, a good non-alcoholic party drink should not seem to be missing a key ingredient (alcohol), nor should it seem like a mere ingredient itself. While any drink is fine on an ordinary day, the booze-free party drink should be able to stand alone as a great drink in its own right.

The chief purpose of offering an nonalcoholic drink at your party is to give the non-drinker a cup with which he might occupy his hands during conversation. There is nothing inherent to a party that calls for the conspicuous and continuous consumption of liquid itself, and so really the hallmark of a good booze-free option is something that (a) can be consumed at relatively the same rate as everyone else’s booze-full drink, and (b) can arguably be considered “a special treat” (it is a joyous time of year, after all). In the time it takes a moderate drinker to consume one cocktail, the average non-drinking cocktail-party mingler can consume probably twice or thrice as many cans of Diet Coke or flat glasses of water, resulting in too-frequent trips to the bathroom. In one sense, serving your guest a slow-cooling cup of coffee will solve this pacing problem, but if we’re being frank, a cup of coffee is less a holiday treat and more a necessary daily ration for survival. To carry a circumstantial mood through to the last detail, you might prepare a pot of something hot and novel — mulled cider, Dutch anijsmelk, yerba maté, or not-from-the-box hot chocolate. Chai can be made from scratch by boiling a sachet of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and ginger, then adding a few black tea bags and milk. The boutique tea chain DavidsTea overdelivers with hot-beverage options. Try brewing a seasonal offering like sweet almond green, hot-chocolate pu-erh, or decaf banana nut.

For the host who strives to avoid the stove, an acidic cold drink will solve the pacing problem just as well. In recent years, the vinegary taste of kombucha has escaped the anarchist co-op, and overachievers can drive this astringent trend to its logical end by preparing a shrub. This soft drink, once popular in colonial America, combines carbonated water with a vinegar-based fruit syrup. The best shrub I ever had came (fittingly) from Vinegar Hill House in Vinegar Hill. Their chef Mike Poiarkoff suggests the following method of preparation:    

Chop and pack three to five beets, two small apples, and a thumb of ginger into an airtight plastic or glass container with one-and-a-half cups of sugar. Press plastic wrap against the mixture to remove all air, then cap and store in the fridge for three to five days, mixing daily until the sugar has dissolved and the fruit has expelled its juices. Once this dissolving and expelling is complete, remove the plastic, pour white vinegar over the mixture, and refrigerate again for three to five days, continuing to stir daily. When the mixture turns to syrup, strain and toss any fruit chunks, then measure two-ounces into a Collins glass and top with club soda. For garnish, any fresh herb will do. 

If this is all too much, you can still get by on seltzer. Polar brand, available in the bodega, or the recently trendy La Croix both come in a wide variety of flavors like cucumber-melon, apricot, cantaloupe, and the mocktail-ish (but still acceptable) raspberry mojito. You can doctor up plain seltzer with cut-up fruit or a splash of juice, or serve it plain, but don’t skimp. The Rolls Royce of plain seltzer comes from Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, whose product is so carbonated they made their motto, “Good seltzer should hurt.” However you decide to stock your non-bar, don’t make a thing out of it. Set out the drinks and your guests will find them. Nobody likes being singled out, unless, of course, it’s for presents.