Placebo cocktails are taking non-alcoholic drinks to the next level


Evelyn Chick, bar manager at Pretty Ugly, created "fauxmaro,” a non-alcoholic version of amaro, an Italian bitter liqueur used in many cocktails.
Evelyn Chick, bar manager at Pretty Ugly, created “fauxmaro,” a non-alcoholic version of amaro, an Italian bitter liqueur used in many cocktails.  (Rick O’Brien)  
Fauxmaro Spritz is a little like an Aperol Spritz.
Fauxmaro Spritz is a little like an Aperol Spritz.  (Alexa Fernando)  
Made with beet shrub, this bright and beautiful cocktail is one of Pretty Ugly's "placebo" offerings.
Made with beet shrub, this bright and beautiful cocktail is one of Pretty Ugly’s “placebo” offerings.
  (Alexa Fernando)  

The placebo effect is real.

At least it is over at Pretty Ugly, a Parkdale bar that’s taking non-alcoholic drinks to the next level with its line of “placebo cocktails.” Unlike most “mocktails,” which are really just syrup-juice-soda combos, these placebos could pass for the real deal. They look like a real cocktail, they smell like a real cocktail and, most importantly, they taste like a real cocktail. The secret to this successful illusion? Hard work and months of planning by owner Robin Goodfellow and bar manager Evelyn Chick, who decided that the only way to make a convincing faux cocktail was to actually make non-alcoholic “booze.”

“I gave Robin the first version to try about four months ago,” Chick says in reference to her house-made “fauxmaro,” a non-alcoholic version of amaro, an Italian bitter liqueur used in many cocktails. “But we’ve actually been thinking about these flavours for a while and started experimenting the moment we started getting really good local seasonal produce. It’s summer time and now our foragers are back.”

Read more: Mocktails are the real deal for a Dry July

Chick’s secret fauxmaro recipe involves carefully balanced roots, herbs and local fruits and the end result is a dry, complex tonic that tastes very close to real Italian amaro. In addition, the pair make a non-alcoholic aperitivo (think Campari), a plum “wine” and a beet-vinegar base that’s made according to the ancient “shrub” technique of preserving seasonal fruit with vinegar and sugar. It’s sweet and tart at the same time and, when transformed into the bright-red Turnbuckle cocktail, is a real thirst-quencher.

Why go to all this effort to make non-alcoholic drinks that break the mocktail mould? Goodfellow and Chick noticed an increase in the number of people in their circle who were either drinking less or not drinking at all (be it for health, financial, religious or other personal reasons), but still wanted to go out with friends. Part of the experience of being at a bar like Pretty Ugly, though, is tasting new and interesting things and the placebo program allows people taking a break to stop being a mere observer and, instead, take part in the fun.

“The name ‘placebo’ was given to us by Matty Matheson,” (the acclaimed chef known for his work at Parkdale’s Parts and Labour, his television show on the Vice network and his frankness about his drug and alcohol abuse in his 20s) Goodfellow says. “I was telling him I don’t want to call it a mocktail and he came up with the name right away. It’s perfect, because the name gives it its own, new category.”

Although few bars are likely to devote months to making their own “spirits” and then designing placebo cocktails around them (Pretty Ugly has four, so far), given the excitement the placebos have generated on social media, this is almost certainly a trend to watch, especially since Seedlip, a British non-alcoholic distilled faux-spirit, is scheduled to launch in Canada early this fall. Seedlip comes in two flavours: Garden 108, which tastes like subtle dill with light floral notes, and Spice 94, which has a robust baking spice flavour profile.

Seedlip is most often paired with tonic, to make a faux G&T, but Goodfellow, who hopes to see the pair of products at his colleagues’ bars, thinks it’d be great to see Seedlip used as the base of a minimalist, chilled, stirred drink, invoking a gin martini — but with no alcohol whatsoever. Perhaps it will inspire him to work on his own colour-free, non-alcoholic spirit, since he has no plans to rest on the laurels of his current placebo list.

“Now that we’ve figured out how to do this, we’re gonna start getting really fun with it, making the faux spirits clearer, funkier and more interesting,” Goodfellow says. “This is, like, our first draft. It’s only going to get better.”

Move over mocktails, the placebo is coming for you. And it’s the real deal. Or, pretty darn close, at least.



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