When Abbie Romanul decided to quit drinking in 2018, she wasn’t sure what her role would be at parties anymore. A consummate hostess, the Melrose resident loved mixing up cocktails for friends, but couldn’t see anyone—herself included—getting excited over Shirley Temples or juice topped with seltzer.
“That’s the thing I was upset about in the beginning,” Romanul recalls. “I made a decision that I know is right for me, but I felt like I was missing out on this huge ritual that had been integral to my life.”
Making sure no one is left out is at the heart of Raising the Bar, a zero-proof cocktail kit subscription service Romanul launched with her husband in 2020. Each kit comes with ingredients and a recipe for making at least four servings of a festive, spirit-free cocktail, with a couple of other options for using the same ingredients. Recent boxes included a hot tea toddy, with Spiritless Kentucky Whiskey, and a sugar plum whiskey sour with a plum shrub (a nonalcoholic syrup made from fruit, sugar, and vinegar).
Romanul comes up with all the recipes herself—tinkering in her kitchen while thinking of what seasonal sips might be enjoyable. As with many small businesses recently, the pandemic gave the Romanuls time to build their concept into reality—and space to experiment.
“We turned our dining room into a warehouse because we weren’t having people over,” Romanul recalls, adding that they have since outsourced packing and shipping but continue to use their home for experimentation. “We built out a repository of every ingredient we could find,” she says, like Lyre’s zero-proof range, and Ritual, which offers tequila, gin, whiskey, and rum, as well as a bevy of bitters, syrups, sodas, and shrubs.
“We’ll usually start with a concept—like, what’s the vibe this month? And then come up with a hero ingredient,” Romanul says. So for the March box, the star was a blood orange cordial. “Spring is coming, so that’s something vibrant and fresh to introduce the season.” From there, she’ll experiment to craft a balance of sweet, tart, and a bit bitter and complex. “You need it to be well balanced and you need it to be sophisticated,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just juice in a pretty glass.”
Ultimately, the blood orange was paired with a saffron shrub, some black lemon bitters, and an unsweetened yuzu sparkling water. The drink, called a Mariposa, is garnished with a hibiscus salt rim. “So all of these different sweet, salty, complex flavors came into play,” Romanul says. “And it really is just through a bunch of trial and error.”
The Mariposa was entirely Romanul’s invention—something she thinks often works better than trying to replicate a classic cocktail. “Where we’ve been most successful, and where people seem to enjoy the drinks the most, is if it’s not a duplicate of a traditional cocktail,” she says. “I’ll be interested to see where the landscape goes—are we going to take our inspiration from the cocktail community, or is it going to be its own new thing?”
The May bundle will feature a totally new thing—the hero ingredient is a spirit called Pentire, distilled in Cornwall, England, from native plants. “Pentire is not trying to be a vodka or gin. It’s in its own category,” Romanul says. “Their whole brand persona is that they are by the sea, so it’s salty and complex.” The drink kit pairs Pentire with flavors of grapefruit, chili, and jalapeno—a little spicy, little sweet.
Romanul says she’s hoping her success is part of a broader change in the relationship to alcohol—from the sober curious movement to erasing the stigma around total sobriety. “It’s exciting to be part of a community of people starting to lose the shame and guilt surrounding the decision not to drink,” she says. “I think, as a society, we’re starting to get to the point where that’s a very valid choice. And that can be the end of the story. Or you can talk about it. It’s really up to you.”
Subscription boxes start at $43 plus shipping. Learn more at weareraisingthebar.com