GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Bill Elliott spent Thursday evening watching more than 100 people eating slider burgers and taking shots of chocolate chip cookie-themed drinks.

The event, the HERO Campaign HEROtini finals, was the culmination of a competition among 33 local bars and restaurants to craft the best nonalcoholic cocktail — or mocktail — in South Jersey.

It’s not a new concept (Shirley Temples are a classic example, and a favorite of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid), but mocktails are trending in South Jersey restaurants and beyond.

On the East Coast, Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York has offered mocktails for years, and on the West Coast, California’s Love and Salt started featuring mocktails two years ago, according to the food-news site Eater.

“And they’re not just for designated driving,” said Elliott, who, along with his family, established the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers after his son was killed by a drunken driver in 2000. “Maybe someone is pregnant, or maybe someone just doesn’t want to drink something alcoholic. So they’re becoming more popular, in general.”

The popularity was evident on a recent evening at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club, where the HEROtini finals were held. Bartenders served up plastic shot glasses of dessert- and fruit-themed mocktails while a buffet line formed on the far side of the ballroom.

Though a small alcoholic bar was tucked into a corner of the room, the night was for combating drunken driving via creative recipes.

Atlantic City’s Ducktown Tavern presented the “Coagulated Mary,” a vodka-free spin on the bloody mary that featured secret ingredients and was topped with mini burger sliders.

John Exadaktilos, who owns the tavern, said it is the responsibility of bar owners to provide these alternative cocktails for designated drivers, to ensure everyone gets home safe.

The Coagulated Mary will not necessarily be on the tavern’s menu moving forward, but those who are familiar with it can order it and the bartenders will make it, Exadaktilos said, adding the contest has gotten his creative juices flowing.

“We’re thinking about next year’s cocktail already,” he said.

The Windjammer in Somers Point entered a dessert cocktail that features chocolate syrup, coconut cream and club soda, homemade blue simple syrup, and whipped cream and a cookie on top.

Windjammer bartender Kathy Ryan said it’s a good idea to have variety for customers.

“A lot of times at our bar there will be someone who isn’t drinking, and we can then offer this drink if they want,” she said.

Dave Martin, a bartender at Doc’s Place in Somers Point, said that while the mocktails are great, he’s been happy to raise awareness of the HERO Campaign when talking with customers.

“It allows us to discuss designated drivers so people can get home safe. It’s the first summer we’ve done this, and people did come in to try it,” Martin said.

The winning mocktail for the HEROtini Challenge was the “No-jito” from Tomatoe’s in Margate. But the winning bar was less important than the turnout the campaign received.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, more than 370,000 votes were cast for categories including best mocktail, best bartender and best establishment.

Christine D’Alessandro, event coordinator for the HERO Campaign, said the night’s success wouldn’t have happened if not for the support of the local bars.

“Asking bars to get behind a mocktail — that’s not something they’re pushing in the summer, but these bars were on board and that’s why it worked so well,” she said.

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @acpressmaxreil

I’ve written for multiple publications including Levittown Now, Passyunk Post, Philadelphia Neighborhoods,Temple News and JUMP Magazine. I’ve covered arts, entertainment, business, music, sports and local government. Experienced in videography.

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