When my younger sister Audrey was around eight years old or so, she loved a Shirley Temple. We were only allowed to drink soda on special occasions, so they were a rare treat. The fizz of the Sprite, the candy-apple red grenadine syrup that faded to a pale pink, and the garnish of a maraschino cherry combined to create a sugar-filled elixir. The delight she took in this beverage was so well known that when a family friend invited us to his wedding, he had a special label made up for the syrup at the cocktail bar. It said “Audrey’s Grenadine” in swirly green script. I don’t even know how many Shirley Temples she downed that night, and she got to take home the grenadine bottle afterwards.
As adults, Shirley Temples no longer have quite the same allure, but my sister and I both still enjoy a good mocktail from time to time, just one that’s a little more sophisticated. Mocktails, zero proof, no ABV: there are many different names for the same idea — sometimes it’s fun to go out to a bar with friends and enjoy a drink, but skip the alcohol. Maybe you’re the designated driver, maybe you don’t like the taste, maybe you’re abstaining from alcohol due to a medication or other health issue, or maybe you simply want to wake up early the next morning feeling fresh, hydrated, and well-rested.
There are several places in Champaign-Urbana that offer mocktails. Nola’s Rock Bar in Urbana has a whole page of their menu dedicated to mocktails. In Downtown Champaign, Nando Milano and Watson’s Shack and Rail also offer several alcohol-free options.
I wanted a mocktail in Downtown Champaign from Punch! Bar & Lounge. If you’ve ever had a cocktail at Punch!, you know that that each one is crafted to pack as much flavor as possible into a single drink. They apply that exact same care and attention to detail to their mocktails. What really makes the Punch! mocktails stand out is that they go beyond mixing juices, syrups, and sodas. They use Seedlip — sugar-free, non-alcoholic spirits made from distilling herbs, spices, peels, and barks — to impart complex flavors.
My friends and I stopped by on a Friday night to sample the mocktail selection, and we truly couldn’t choose a favorite. Whether you’re looking for something fruity, herbal, spiced, or creamy, Punch! will have an alcohol-free drink for you.
The Ginger Grove ($7.50) was refreshing and lightly carbonated. Not too sweet and not too tart, my friend described it as what they wish lemonade tasted like. A sprinkle of ginger and nutmeg on top added warmth and complexity.
The Little Red Corvette ($7.50) was a bright red showstopper with a pink paper umbrella and edible orchid blossom for a garnish. It had a sweet yet herbal flavor — like a cherry soda mellowed with tea — and a delightfully foamy top.
Tangerine ($7.50) was a combination of orange juice and lime, although I thought it tasted like it had a hint of pineapple. Punch! uses the Seedlip Garden flavor for this drink, which is made of thyme, rosemary, spearmint, and (surprisingly) pea plants. This drink really depended on the Seedlip to elevate it beyond a mixed juice garnished by mint.
If you’re in the mood for something creamy, go for the Optimus Lime ($7.50). It looked like a milkshake and tasted like a liquid key lime pie. Yet, it was one of the less sweet mocktails we tried at Punch! Bar. I’m glad they toned down the sweetness with this one as that made the drink feel more like a cocktail and less like a dessert.
When I spoke to several of the Punch! bartenders about their mocktails, they described some of their reasons for putting so much effort into their alcohol-free drinks. One bartender explained that the mocktail menu is always very popular, but it is especially popular in Dry January when many people are seeking to limit their alcohol intake after the excesses of the holidays. Another told us about the many baby showers he had observed where all the guests had big, fancy drinks, and then the mother-to-be just had a Coke. In fact, Punch! is seeking to expand their alcohol-free menu even further.
On the night we stopped by, they had just started experimenting with zero-proof spirits designed to mimic the flavors of gin, bourbon, and tequila — and they were willing to let us taste some of the results.
So, of course, we had to stay for a round of alcohol-free classic cocktails. We tried a gin and tonic ($9), a whiskey sour ($9), a margarita ($9), and a paloma ($9). Out of the four, the gin and tonic did the best job of mimicking the real beverage. My friend said that if she was craving the taste of the gin and tonic, this would satisfy that craving.
The paloma and margarita were interesting because the zero-proof tequila mimicked the back-of-the-throat burn of alcohol by being a little bit spicy. The bartender explained to us that the same receptors in our mouth register the burn of heat, alcohol, and spice. It felt a little strange — but not unpleasant — to feel a burn in the same spot and at a similar level to alcohol, but to taste that it was spiciness instead. Both the margarita and paloma were good, but the grapefruit of the paloma helped make it feel a little more balanced against the zero-proof tequila. The whiskey sour was our least favorite. It was still enjoyable to drink, but it didn’t really taste like whiskey, and the flavor combinations weren’t as interesting as the paloma or margarita. It tasted a bit like ginger, with the same spicy burn as the tequila drinks. By the time we finished up, it was getting late, but with a clear head, I knew I’d have no problem getting up the next morning.
Next time I return to Punch!, I’ll bring my sister, so she can see how sophisticated a flavor an alcohol-free drink (that’s not a Shirley Temple) can have. I can’t wait to see what new mocktails will be on the menu for us to try.
Punch! Bar and Lounge
217 N Neil Street
Su-Th 4 to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 4 p.m. to midnight