Next-Level Cocktails & Mocktails: A Blast From the Past

A person crushing mint for a vibrantly tangerine cocktail.

Every August my parents would pack up the family wagon with the kids, the dog, coolers, the beach umbrella and our beach paddle set—packed, summer after summer, in the same worn grocery bag—and head to Martha’s Vineyard. We’d spend the week with my father’s lifelong friend, Gordon and his family, who would make the long trip from the midwest to the east coast for our annual summer beach vacation. 

Besides lazy days body surfing in the Atlantic (without adequate SPF) and excursions to town, a lot of time and thought went into planning the cocktail hour and nightly dinner, which the men shopped for and prepared. The men, who were both foodies before the term existed, would make fresh lobster, clams casino, gazpacho or steamed mussels with farmstand corn, ripe tomatoes and a berry pie from the local bakery. 

The food was fresh and delicious but the cocktails, for the adults, and kiddie cocktails for the younger set, is where the fun came in. They would scope out berry brambles for fresh blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and blueberries for daiquiris. There was fresh mint and basil muddled into rum, whiskey or fresh fruit for juleps, sours and punches. It was a different drink every night. Each one better than the last. It turns out they were out of step with the 70’s—the pre-mixed, pre-made, prefab era they were living in—and very much in step with the way the best cocktails are created today.

A pair of vibrant pink cocktails in stemless wine glasses.
A ice shaver KitchenAid® Stand Mixer attachment on the 2023 Color of the Year Stand Mixer.


Cocktails have long been an important ingredient in a good party or festive gathering. Today, mocktails have joined the party as unique, sophisticated, alcohol-free adult beverages. Recently there’s been a push towards making craft, artisanal and signature cocktails and mocktails more interesting and unexpected with high-quality, seasonal and locally-grown additions—fruits, berries, herbs—and creative garnishes. The result is memorable, flavorful drinks that are easy to customize for the season, the occasion and the guests you’re serving. 

a note on mocktails

Some people use the terms mocktails and virgin, or kiddie, cocktails interchangeably but they are actually different things. A mocktail is a specially crafted drink that’s designed to deliver a flavor or “spirit” without alcohol. A virgin cocktail is an alcohol-free version of a specific cocktail. For example, a Virgin Mary is an alcohol-free version of the timeless brunch beverage, Bloody Mary.

A white KitchenAi® espresso machine on a coffee bar, being used to make espresso martinis.

“Go rogue, put on your mixology cap and start experimenting...”


To make your drinks deliciously sippable you want to incorporate layers of flavor, including bitter. For years, my mother’s beverage of choice was Campari and soda with a twist of orange peel. When I was younger I thought the drink tasted like a rusty penny (not that I’d actually ever tasted one) but today I find the bracing taste refreshing. Bitters can help add complexity and depth of flavor to your beverages and they’re simple to make at home where you can get creative and add a personal touch. This all-important ingredient is made with aromatic botanicals like seeds—anise, coriander, carraway, cardamom—citrus peel, roots—burdock, licorice, gentian—barks—wild cherry, cinchona, quassia—nuts, flowers & herbs—lavender, hibiscus, yarrow, mint, sage, thyme—coffee and cacao beans

The bittering agents (usually 10-50% of the blend) are placed whole in a glass jar with a high-proof alcohol and infused for anywhere from a day to several weeks. When you’ve achieved the flavor you’re after, you just remove the solids by straining the mixture through cheesecloth. You can use the bitters as is or combine them with your favorite sweetener or dilute them with a little distilled water. 

An Old Fashioned or Manhattan are classic cocktails that use bitters, but don’t stop there. Go rogue, put on your mixology cap and start experimenting by combining different bitters with different spirits, sparkling waters, juices and other ingredients. A little goes a long way, just a few drops of bitters added to your drinks is all you need to bring that intense, distinctive taste to your party.

A set of three lavender lemon cocktails.
A series of sliced tangerines.
A small windowsill herb garden.


You can add to the craveability of your cocktails and mocktails with homemade syrups. A basic simple syrup is the ideal ingredient to put your unique spin on. A typical simple syrup starts by bringing a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water to a boil. Don’t be afraid to play with the ratio, make it thicker and more concentrated with a little extra sugar or use brown sugar or honey, instead of white sugar, for a subtle flavor twist. Once you have your basic simple syrup you can make it anything but basic by adding your favorite ingredients. Spice it up with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Make it hot with jalapenos. Add seasonal fruits, fresh herbs and extracts to create delicious syrups for your drinks.

When you’re stocking your bar with syrups, don't forget the shrubs. These vinegar-based syrups typically infuse vinegar with fruits or berries to bring a tangy bite to sweet syrups.

A top-down view of a jar of honey.
A small metal bowl of crushed herbs, with lemon wedges on the side.

“One of the most popular methods for making a signature cocktail is to take a traditional recipe and add your own twist.”


Creating a special cocktail or mocktail for weddings and other celebrations is a great way to bring a little extra flair and personality to your event. This can be accomplished any number of ways. One of the most popular methods for making a signature cocktail is to take a traditional recipe and add your own twist. For instance, a traditional Negroni consists of equal parts sweet vermouth, gin and Campari which is garnished with orange peel. For a sweet spin, keep the gin but replace the Campari with Aperol and add seasonal fruits muddled with a little sugar. For a refreshing end of summer cocktail consider using plums, nectarines or peaches. Garnish with cherries and a little orange peel. 

My niece was married in a pretty candlelit ceremony last December and her signature drink was a holiday-inspired Moscow Mule. Cranberry juice was mixed with vodka and ginger beer, in place of lime juice. The drinks were served in chilled copper mule mugs, garnished with fresh cranberries, orange and sprigs of fresh rosemary. The drinks added to the warm and festive vibe of the celebration. This could easily become a festive mocktail by mixing the ginger beer with your favorite red berries and non-alcoholic cordials —which are sweet combinations of fruits, syrups and sugar— in place of vodka. Serve the drink the same as you would any Moscow Mule, in a cold copper mug with a spring of mint or rosemary.

Another popular way to design a signature cocktail or mocktail is to use ingredients in colors that match the theme of your party. The ever popular Mimosa is traditionally made with orange juice and champagne. Try substituting pink grapefruit juice and a hint of orange liqueur and pineapple juice to create a pretty pink version of the drink. Raspberry lemonade, sparkling water and a little grenadine make a delicious zero-proof, Mimosa-inspired pink drink. Garnish with edible pink flowers or pink sanding sugar to complete the pink theme.

To make a simple signature cocktail, mix flavored versions of cocktail bar standards—honeysuckle vodka, marmalade gin, smoked maple whiskey, coconut rum—with sparkling water and festive garnishes.

A series of ingredients, including a pineapple, honey and various herbs.
A set of Moscow Mule cocktails in their signature copper mugs.
A set of mimosas.


Although not all cocktail and mocktail garnishes are food items—umbrellas, plastic trinkets, straws—the best are. A good garnish should not only make drinks look festive and inviting, they should help round out or enhance the flavors of your drinks by adding hints of sweetness, savoriness, saltiness, brininess, freshness, acidity and spice as you sip.

Garnishes can be as simple as an artfully executed curl of citrus, to impart flavorful oils in your drinks, or as elaborate as themed, “mini-meal” bloody mary skewers. The key to any good garnish—as is true of all cocktails and mocktail ingredients—is quality. The days of limp citrus wheels and soggy maraschino cherries have been replaced with fresh, thoughtfully curated high-quality items. Gourmet olives stuffed with bits of garlic, or blue cheese, sprigs of homegrown herbs, fruit and berry skewers, freshly ground spices and fine chocolate for dusting—have all become bar staples. 

Don’t overlook other finishing touches like flavored and colorful sanding sugars and salts for the rims of glasses. Ice cubes infused with citrus, berries, cranberries, pomegranate seeds and sprigs of fresh herbs can amp up the appeal of your mocktails and cocktails. To take your cubes up yet another notch, use juice, coconut water or tea instead of water. These cubes will add extra flavor as they melt into drinks.

A set of three Hibiscus cocktails.
A well-garnished cocktail with cinnamon sticks, orange slices and more.
A cocktail with a salted rim, cinnamon sticks and orange slices.

“The key to any good garnish—as is true of all cocktails and mocktail ingredients—is quality.”


It’s been decades since my father and Gordon were mixing up inspired next-level cocktails at the beach. Today they’re both pushing 90. They’re still world travelers and still eating and drinking well with seasonal and locally grown ingredients. Here’s to the trendsetters. Cheers.

A group of people raising their glasses in a toast at sunset.