Spilt brings non-alcoholic cocktail culture to Edmonton

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According to Joanne Pearce, her mocktail bar Spilt would possibly be up and running by now if they’d just borrowed more money.

Not because they needed it, but because their bank simply can’t process how little they actually need.

“They honestly seem a little confused by it,” notes Pearce, co-owner with Andrew Paul and Token Bitters founder Keenan Pascal of the city’s first establishment dedicated to alcohol-free craft cocktails. “But I remember an article on (restaurateur) Daniel Costa where he was saying that the pop-up model really is the way to go, especially when you’re new, because when you’re just trying to meet overhead you can’t be creative.”

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Creativity is what Spilt is all about, especially because that helps keep costs down. That includes painting the walls and taking a hand in the design and construction of the 300-foot square venue. The Spilt team has been assiduously working on the space, developing a personality that they feel will reflect the spirit of the undertaking. As of now, Paul and Pearce are guessing that Spilt will be open within the next two weeks.

“Bottle shops and tasting rooms tend to have a little bit more of a very clean, minimalist vibe,” notes Pearce. ”Ours is like, real jazzy. We’ve gone with a 1980s art deco revival theme, you know, the speakeasy thing, which definitely had a moment. We’re leaning hard into that and calling it a speak loudly instead because they don’t need to whisper about this one.”

Spilt alcohol-free cocktails edmonton
An offering from new mocktail bar Spilt, 11909 Jasper Ave., in Edmonton Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Photo by David Bloom Photo by David Bloom /David Bloom/Postmedia

Growing popularity, wide possibility

Mocktails and other non-alcoholic drinks may be rising in popularity, but they’ve been around for over a hundred years now. The last few years have seen a boom in establishments devoted exclusively to serving them; the U.S. has a number, including Hekate Café & Elixir Lounge in New York and San Francisco’s Ocean Beach Cafe. Canada lags behind a bit, but visitors to Vancouver can visit The Drive Canteen, while Toronto boasts Zero Bar. All are focused on one thing: inventing new and exciting mocktails as far from the treacly, ginger ale based Shirley Temple as a gourmet meal is from a TV dinner.

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The owners of Spilt are also fascinated by the possibilities of extending the range of flavours possible in a non-alcoholic beverage. Oddly, they see that happening as much in the kitchen as in the bar.

“There are a lot of great, fantastic bartenders in Edmonton that know what they’re doing when building flavour profiles without alcohol,” says Paul. “But when we look at what mocktails can be, they’re almost extensions of meals. So, we’re excited to see what chefs start doing in the mocktail scene, the cooks who know how to make sauces and dressings, that fun alchemy of building complex flavour profiles.”

Paul is quick to add that neither he nor Pearce are chefs, but they have been working at the centre of the Edmonton mocktail scene for a few years now. Pearce released the first volume of her recipe collection, Mock-ups Mocktails in early 2021, utilizing such ingredients as licorice, dandelion root, persimmon, fennel, spruce, bacon and dandelion in alcohol-free drinks like the Phoney Negroni and Forest Bather. Mockups Mocktails grew into a brand, as collaborations with Token Bitters developed into bottled products like the Distemperance Mulled Haskap Mocktail and Distemperance Haskap Citrus Chili Sangria, now available in the non-alcoholic section of specialty stores like Colour de Vino and Sherbrooke Liquor. Pearce’s third book on the topic, Dry Spell, came out in 2023.

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With Spilt, Pearce and Paul have created what they call “a little clubhouse” in which they can work out their wildest ideas.

“This is where we get to play,” says Pearce. “Having a physical location where we can bring it all together and share what we’ve learned is fantastic. Hopefully, we’ll continue learning. I think where mocktails can sort of falter these days is, if you’re dumping in a bunch of zero-proof spirits and hoping that it sticks the landing, it often doesn’t. But, if you take a more culinary approach to it, try and get those bitter orange notes yourself and then use the zero proof almost like a bouillon cube to help augment the flavour, that’s where it tends to be more successful.”

Pearce stresses that education will be a big part of their endeavour. Alongside the bar, there will be a carefully curated bottle shop carrying selections that staff will happily give you the low down on. The space has also been set up for mixology classes.

“We’re also all in for a beer-tasting night,” says Pearce. “It’s not just ‘here’s an alcohol-free beer,’ it’s ‘here’s three sours, three stouts, three IPAs,’ because the variety out there is getting so much better and I think this is an opportunity to get people excited about that category.”

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Building community

If Spilt has a philosophy beyond sober living it’s very much about community, DIY, and keeping things simple and small. Like the drink that Pearce invented involving the juice from small amounts of lightly salted, cut-up tomatoes allowed to drain overnight on a cutting board. The clear juice that comes out of that is used to make what could be called a “clear Caesar.”

“Using those methods you obviously could never produce 1000 litres of tomato juice, but you can do ten of them,” says Pearce.

“I think that that’s what’s most exciting about the bar for me is that it’s getting back to this wild, weird sort of fearless creative place where we can try new things. Also, seeing how excited people are about that, and seeing the community come in around it and to witness it or be a part of it. It just feels a little bit fun. It feels kind of punk rock. I know there’s something happening, and you know, we don’t need to be the nucleus of it, but we certainly want to be part of it.”

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