The Mocktail Man
Roman Albaugh and the growing demand for zero-proof drinks
By Ashlee Cowles | Dec. 2, 2023
The holiday season can be a tricky time of year for those abstaining from alcohol, regardless of the reason. There are only so many flavors of La Croix, and when it comes to seasonal gatherings, a festive drink can add to the experience of getting into the holiday spirit. Fortunately, we are living in an exciting new era when it comes to non-alcoholic offerings, which provides those who aren’t partaking in alcohol with a lot more options.
And if that’s you, you’re far from alone. The number of people searching for zero-proof alternatives continues to increase steadily. Between 2021 and 2022, sales of non-alcoholic beers, wines, and spirits totaled $395 million and grew 20.6 percent.
Roman Albaugh, owner and founder of the Bartending Company, has certainly noticed the increased demand for non-alcoholic offerings and is playing a role in bringing these alternatives to the Grand Traverse region.
“The demand [for non-alcoholic alternatives] is increasing exponentially,” says Albaugh, and the available options are increasing in response.
From Firefighting to Mixology
Albaugh didn’t initially set out to become a mixologist and business owner, though. Born in northern Michigan, Albaugh pursued a career as a firefighter right after high school and found himself doing ride-alongs with his dream fire department in Oakland, California. He eventually realized firefighting wasn’t for him—which he says “came as a shock to a lot of people”—but he also didn’t have a Plan B.
“So I did what a lot of people do,” Albaugh explains. He went into the service industry “in the meantime” while figuring out the next step.
Albaugh soon found himself working at an upscale hotel restaurant where he was able to learn from a bartender who had trained in a world-renowned bar in New York City. Albaugh began as a barback, moved up to bartender, and eventually managed the hotel’s lobby bar. Along the way, he was mentored by different bartenders who each had their own talents and areas of expertise, and he credits those relationships as the beginning of his passion for mixology.
In 2017 Albaugh returned home to northern Michigan, where he quickly noticed an opportunity in the market after learning that there weren’t many beverage catering services in the region. As a result, The Bartending Company was born—a premium beverage caterer that provides consulting, cocktail classes, and bar service for events such weddings and private parties.
At these events, Albaugh noticed that more and more of his clients were requesting a zero-proof drink option—something that wasn’t alcohol, wasn’t super sugary like soda or a syrupy mocktail, and wasn’t boring like water. Creating these drinks became an exciting challenge for him.
Initially, Albaugh experimented with teas and infusions as replacements for the flavorful spirits typically found in a classic cocktail. “But these required a lot of prep work,” he says. Confident there had to be a better way, Albaugh began to ask, “How do we make this easier?”
Not long after he helped local chef Loghan Call plan a six-course, alcohol-free dinner, the two friends won a TCNewTech pitch night that led to the co-founding of Audacia Elixirs in 2021.
Recreating the Effect, Not the Spirit
Audacia Elixirs aims to reimagine drinking through providing zero-proof offerings. The process has taken time; though the business was founded in 2021 and there was lots of buzz about getting products on shelves quickly, Audacia hit its stride in the closing months of 2023.
Their elixirs are now in use at local bars and restaurants like Iron Fish Distillery, The Little Fleet, and Yard & Lake of Northport. Retailers are stocking Audacia now too, and you can find products at Edson Farms, Oryana, and Peninsula Provisions, among other spots.
Unlike other non-alcoholic replacements, Audacia’s concoctions do not bother trying to mimic a specific spirit, such as gin or whiskey. The reason? Whenever Albaugh tried mixing drinks with one of the zero-proof spirits already on the market, he found himself disappointed. The non-alcoholic substitute just didn’t have the same flavor profile as the spirit it was meant to imitate.
He decided to try a different approach.
“Instead of recreating the spirit,” says Albaugh, “we tried to recreate what the spirit does in a cocktail.” And in most classic cocktails, the spirit’s primary purpose is to provide a two-ounce base to which other sweet or sour elements can be added.
With the help of Naomi Call, a certified herbalist and local nutritionist who makes her own botanicals, Albaugh began working on Audacia’s base recipes. One of his favorite ingredients for creating mocktails is Audacia’s Citrus Botanical base, which has some bitterness to it that pairs well with the ingredients he would use in a tequila-based, margarita-style drink.
In addition to lemon and lime, Albaugh says he’s “been on a grapefruit kick these last couple of years.” While he always avoids the overwhelming sweetness you’ll find in many virgin drinks or frozen beverages, natural sweeteners such as agave, honey, or maple syrup have an important role to play in the flavor profile of a zero-proof cocktail. Albaugh also enjoys using fresh herbs such as mint and rosemary. Tarragon can also give the body of a non-alcoholic alternative more complexity, as the herb’s licorice taste is similar to the flavors found in certain cocktails.
That Neat Flavor
Now that Albaugh has a few years of creating non-alcoholic recipes under his belt, he’s leaning into the overall presentation of both his cocktails and mocktails. To that end, he uses a lot of edible flowers that he grows himself in both infusions and as garnishes. Flowering herbs such as thyme, mint, clover, and chive also work well as garnishes that are both beautiful and aromatic.
Those who enjoy drinking a specific spirit “neat” present perhaps the greatest challenge to any mocktail mixologist. Most non-alcoholic bases are meant to be mixed with, but Albaugh says “You can sip our Citrus Botanical…” as it’s “more on the bitter side. It’s not the flavor profile of a whiskey neat, but it has a similar effect.”
The team at Audacia is also working on a new elixir that will hit the market soon, one that will be similar to an aperitif or after-dinner drink.
And if you’re trying to cut back on your booze intake but are fine with a small amount of alcohol, Albaugh offers this tip: add five to 10 drops of bitters to soda water or a zero-proof cocktail. Bitters are very low in alcohol but go a long way in improving the overall flavor of a drink and can give it more of that neat spirit bite.
Speaking of making your own drinks, it’s time to break out the fresh herbs and add one of these flavorful mocktails from Audacia’s Recipe Portal to your holiday menu.
The Pumpkin Patch
2 oz Audacia Celestial (Citrus Botanical) Elixir
2 oz apple cider
1 oz orange juice
1 rosemary sprig
1 small piece of ginger
1 pinch of pumpkin pie spice
Mince ginger and add to the shaker first with rosemary, then muddle. Add ice and the rest of the ingredients, shake well. Double strain into a glass and add ice. Garnish with an apple slice, orange peel, or rosemary sprig.
The Thorny Botanist
2 oz Audacia Ambrosia (Floral Berry) Elixir
1 oz tart cherry juice
1 oz cranberry juice
1/2 oz maple syrup (simple syrup or honey work well too)
Rosemary or thyme sprig(s) (One rosemary should suffice, but if using thyme, use three to four springs.)
Add all ingredients, including rosemary/thyme, into a shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a rocks glass with ice (or no ice). Garnish with rosemary/thyme—or cherries if you have them!
Find Audicia Elixirs products by visiting audaciaelixirs.com/locations. Photo by Ben Law.