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Sober is the new drunk at juice-cocktail bar

by Angela Erika Kubo

In an izakaya or pub in Tokyo, a glass of orange juice can look out of place among a sea of beer mugs. For a nonalcoholic drinker who chooses to avoid pints for whatever reason, going out in Japan can be hard. While beer or wine lovers have a wide variety to choose from, those who can’t drink are stuck with four or five soft drinks on the menu.

Aurora Lounge, located on the 45th floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, is one of the most non-drinker friendly places in Tokyo. Its 45 Refresh! Non Alcohol Cocktail menu has as many cocktails as floors that the lounge is from the ground.

“In the last four of five years, we’ve been seeing more and more nonalcoholic versions of beer, umeshu (plum wine) and cocktails,” says Atsushi Komiya, the manager of Aurora Lounge.

This explosion in popularity can be partly attributed to an increased awareness over driving safe. With more police cracking down on drivers who step into the car under the influence, drinkers don’t want to risk getting in trouble.

The popularity of joshi-kai, women’s only gatherings, in the past years has also helped the spread of nonalcoholic concoctions. Some restaurants offer special courses and menus to attract these gatherings. Since women tend to have a lower alcohol tolerance, these menus also include fruity cocktails or nonalcoholic drinks served in cocktail glasses and garnished with fruit to give the appearance that the drinker is consuming alcohol with everyone else.

“Some people who go to parties don’t want to ruin the moment by being the only one holding a nonalcoholic drink,” says Komiya.

The bartender at Aurora Lounge serves me this month’s special: fresh strawberries blended with passion-fruit juice, orange juice and syrup (¥1,750).

Or if you’re in the mood for traditional Japanese flavors, the menu also has a Japanese-inspired cocktail section that includes a matcha virgin mojito (¥1,400). The green-tea powder gives the cocktail a slightly bitter taste — perfect if you don’t have a sweet tooth.

In fact, there are actually more than 45 nonalcoholic cocktails available. With many different fruits, syrups and other ingredients at their disposal, the bartenders at Aurora Lounge are able to whip up something original or give you a virgin version of a favorite alcoholic drink. For example, you can request a virgin red eye or shandygaff using nonalcoholic beer. Or you can have your server give you a glass of grapefruit juice with salt around the rim to give your buddy the impression that you’re drinking a salty dog.

Also, you can bring your kids and make them feel as if they’ve reached adulthood (and also provide some entertaining photos to your Facebook friends) by ordering something suitably impressive for them. Just remember that they can’t step inside the actual bar.

Aurora Lounge, Keio Plaza Hotel 45F, 2-2-1 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-3344-0111; www.keioplaza.co.jp/restaurant/aurora/index.html. Angela Erika Kubo is a freelance writer and bar lover based in Tokyo. Follow her on Twitter @aekubo.