A quick disclaimer: By writing this week’s column I am in no way endorsing sobriety.

Nor am I condemning it. I’m merely acknowledging that every good host must make allowances for those among their set who choose to abstain for whatever reason.

In fact, back in the days when we were hosting regular cocktail nights, there were enough non-drinkers attending that I was encouraged to step up my bartending game and find something more interesting to offer them than merely fruit juice cut with ginger ale. Off I went to the library and came home with a book of “mocktails.”

The use of that term alone should have warned me off but when I cracked the spine and discovered the recipes were compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, I should have tossed the thing in the bin.

Oh, I know, one is not to condemn MADD (nor destroy library property). The drunk driving rate is serious business indeed and certainly, discouraging such reckless behaviour is a worthwhile goal. But there is working for society’s betterment and then there’s being all Anti-Saloon League about it and if I had any doubts about these “mothers” being an imperious bunch of joy killers, here was proof.

What the book promised were hundreds of alcohol-free mixed drinks that were festive and fun but, from the introduction to the drink descriptions, condescension suffused every page. This was fun in the way having my mother chaperone my first boy-girl party was fun.

The recipes hewed to the fruit juice plus other fruit juice plus fizzy drink yields something that warrants a zany name school of thought. Damn the ratios! If it has sugar, pour it into the bowl! It was 100 pages of Roy Rogers variants. Never has grenadine seen such a workout. Fine fodder for the kiddie menu but nary an adult beverage in the book.

I will concede there was one thing MADD understood about cocktails: that the ritual of their construction is part of what makes them enjoyable. The bartender’s labour adds value to the drink she or he mixes.

Cocktails are an inherently Marxist enterprise.

What they miss is that a cocktail is a challenge. A challenge to create and a challenge to appreciate. Drinking alcohol requires a measure of daring. It is an acquired taste. Remember that first swig of your dad’s beer (for me it was Carling O’Keefe with the little suit of armor on the label) and how you thought, “Christ! This is what grown ups drink?”

Yes, it is. As evidence: now you sit around all grown up with all your grown up friends discussing the hoppiness of various ales. (Yes, you do.) That’s what being a grown up is all about. Martinis are dry. Scotches burn. Bitters are bitter. Gin is flavoured with juniper berries for crying out loud. There is no reassuring Howdy Doodiness to any of this.

Cocktails are an adventure but MADD would rather have you frozen in amber as that little kid in the powder-blue outfit with the wide lapels, sitting in a booster seat at the Ali Baba Steakhouse sipping a Shirley Temple.

And there’s no reason for it. World cuisine is replete with complex, subtle, grown-up fare. Why must our beverages, once the intoxicants are removed, be so timid?

Since reading that MADD book, I’ve searched for more interesting alcohol-free beverages and am pleased to report I’ve found a few. Some of the first really promising ones I came across were in a book called Retro Cocktails: Shake It Baby by Kate Moseley. The cover, the layout, it’s all quite juvenile but in the back pages are a couple intriguing — curse the term — mocktails. For instance…

Strawberry Balsamico
5 fresh strawberries
1/2 part sugar syrup
dash of balsamic vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
Blend strawberries and simple syrup with four ice cubes. Pour purée into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with a dash of balsamic vinegar and a grind of black pepper. Garnish with a basil leaf and a strawberry.

Strawberries with balsamic vinegar and black pepper might sound crazy (and like a waste of good strawberries) but there’s good reason to put these together. In fact, mixing balsamic vinegar with fruits such as strawberries has long been a feature of the cuisine in Modena, Italy — the city where balsamic vinegar originates. And, as for the black pepper, there was a chemistry paper published a few years back (I think it was chemistry, I’m working from un-Google-enhanced memory) that showed how certain flavours mix together in pleasing ways and apparently the taste of strawberries combined with black pepper is one of the amiable unions the researchers recommend.

So there you have it. Both tradition and science sanction this cocktail.

Personally, however, I mixed this up and found it a little wanting. The preponderance of ice washed out the flavours too much and the contributions of the pepper and vinegar were too small. I wanted something a little more audacious. So, I played around with the ratios a bit and have come up with a provisional variant which you can see in the pic that accompanies this post. I’ve dubbed it…

The Abstinent Modenesi
2 oz strawberry purée
1/2 oz balsamic vinegar
1/4 oz simple syrup
1 tsp black pepper
Shake well with ice. Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a grind of black pepper and a basil leaf.

I find this much more appealing. The balsamic is much stronger here but there’s not so much that it overpowers the berries. Similarly, the pepper flavour carries through the whole drink adding a nice hottness. That grind of pepper on the surface even burns the lips a bit. (Oh, incidentally, that strawberry purée is just strawberries — no crushed ice in with it.)

An added bonus is that I have a decent crop of basil right now so my garnish was as fresh as possible.

Anyway, there you have it. If you’re on-the-wagon or if you never bothered jumping off to wallow around in the gutter alongside the wagon-trail with all of us drunkards, there are options beyond water, milk and soda (and beyond otherwise problematic drinks like coffee and tea).

Despite the best efforts of the MADD’s mocktail makers, spirit-free drinking need not be un-spirited.