Vanilla Sex, Time to Ketch Up and Don’t Look Down: Bartenders get creative in nonalcoholic drink competition

Shanzeh Ahmad | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — During a night of alcohol-free imbibing, voting and judging, Vanilla Sex took home the top prize for best spirit-free drink, followed by Time to Ketch Up and Don’t Look Down, all drinks crafted by local bartenders for a special “No ID” competition and tasting event in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

About 350 people bought a ticket to attend the event at Artifact Events. People lined up in front of bartenders tossing and turning shakers to get a sample of their drinks. The guests’ votes determined the top three drinks that moved on to three judges, who ultimately selected the first-, second- and third-place bartenders, who each received a cash prize.

Krys Irizarry, a bartender at River North’s Untitled Supper Club, won first place with Vanilla Sex, a riff on a Porn Star Martini using a house-made nonalcoholic spiced rum, vanilla, ginger beer and nonalcoholic sparkling wine.

Bartender Krys Irizarry, right, hugs judge Nigal Vann after Irizarry won Chicago’s No ID Alcohol-free Cocktail Competition and Tasting Event on Jan. 18, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS) 

“It feels like such an honor to be recognized in this category that is kind of niche, and just to be included in that, it’s exciting and I can’t wait to make more,” Irizarry said.

Irizarry said the nonalcoholic drinks space is only going to expand in 2024, with tastier, trendier options that perhaps weren’t around or as common a few years ago.

“I think we’re going to see more pungent flavors,” Irizarry said. “You’re going to get a lot of spices. You’re going to get a lot of citrus.”

Elias Soto of Three Dots and a Dash placed second with his drink, Don’t Look Down, made with verjus rouge, grapefruit juice, Chinese five-spice syrup and Q club soda. In third place was Dave Silva, of Avli, with Time to Ketch Up, which had a cherry tomato reduction, smoked paprika, fresh lime juice, mint and ginger beer.

Bartender Elias Soto’s alcohol-free drink called Don’t Look Down that he made while competing in Chicago’s No ID Alcohol-free Cocktail Competition and Tasting Event. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS) 

The event was held in part due to Dry January, a popular cultural phenomenon in which people choose to abstain from drinking alcohol for the month. Several Chicago-area establishments have come out with fresh nonalcoholic drink menus to mark the occasion, like Pizzeria Uno’s new nonalcoholic cocktail program and spirit-free cocktails at Michelin-starred restaurants Esmè and Galit.

Proceeds from the event went to Ben’s Friends, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the sobriety of people in the food and beverage and hospitality industries

Nigal Vann, a United States Bartenders’ Guild board member and one of the three judges, said he was really excited to take part in his first nonalcoholic competition. He said nonalcoholic options are more than just a trend, but a growing part of drinking culture.

“There’s clearly a market for it, so if you are a bar that doesn’t have a spirit-free and nonalcoholic section on the menu, you’re clearly missing out right now,” Vann said. “Bartenders are working to stay relevant in this category and give it the same attention, creativity and love that it deserves.”

When finding a winning cocktail, Vann said he was looking for complexity with the “same energy that goes into a traditional cocktail.”

“I need it to be aesthetically pleasing, and I need it to still be flavorful and not just be something as simple as juice and soda like something that we used to see when we asked for a nonalcoholic cocktail,” Vann said.

Miranda Breedlove is the national director of bars for Hyatt Hotels’ lifestyle division and oversees a collection of luxury boutique hotel bars in the Americas. Another competition judge, she said she helped launch “Zero Proof, Zero Judgment,” a Hyatt Hotels program that puts spirit-free drinks on bar menus that match the caliber of traditional cocktails.

“We’ve turned away from feeling that there is that stigma to not drinking like that you’re not fun or cool anymore,” she said. “It’s almost the reverse. The globe has made wellness cool and sexy where people have a lot of respect for people who take care of themselves and this is a really great way to still have an incredible experience while also being able to take care of yourself.”

Dustin Drankiewicz, owner of Paper Plane Pizza, and the third judge of the evening, said he has been working in the nonalcoholic drink space for about three years. He said he used to drink alcohol but chose not to anymore.

“I am a fan of this space because it helps me stay connected,” he said. “I get to still see my friends and not have the remedial effects of alcohol the next day.”

Ian Tranberg and Maria Pirotte live in Lakeview and decided to check out the event for date night. Both are taking part in Dry January as a hard reset after a long holiday season, Pirotte said.

Ian Tranberg, right, samples a drink while attending Chicago’s first No ID Alcohol-free Cocktail Competition and Tasting Event with Maria Pirotte, left, at Artifact Events in Chicago on Jan. 18, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS) 

“We’ve been playing around with the idea of being sober more throughout the year,” Tranberg said. “Seeing so many products that are readily available, it makes you feel like, ‘I can really do this’ and ‘I really could be sober and it would be fine and I wouldn’t have any anxiety about what to drink at a party and everything tastes really good.’”

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