Now it seems every week brings a new contender in the zero-proof spirit and cocktail world, some bottles promising boozeless stand-ins for gin, bourbon and tequila, others offering whole new frontiers of mysterious brews. Many of these offerings are cloaked in marketing verbiage that mixes the branding of health food (Natural! Organic! Vegan! Gluten-free! Farm-to-bottle!) with that of the booze industry (sexy relaxed party-time feelings!) in fascinating ways.
Some of these drinks are also coming closer to the ready-to-drink experience people like in wine and beer. As the author of the terrific “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason,” Julia Bainbridge has spent a lot of hours testing recipes for booze-free concoctions, but “for people who don’t want to roll up their sleeves and steep a bunch of citrus peels with tea and various spices to get a base ingredient that they then mix with something else, it’s great to have more products that you can really lean on,” she says.
And sometimes, even the mixology-inclined need a break. People ask for Bainbridge’s favorite way to drink particular nonalcoholic products, and “the beauty of these products is that I don’t really have to do anything to it and I still get the bitterness and complexity that I would otherwise have to cook my way toward,” she says.
I’ve written before about my ambivalence about Dry January — namely, that sometimes the month may gloss over unhealthy drinking that picks back up in February — but I think bringing more nonalcoholic drinks to the market is an unambiguously good thing. With some caveats, it’s clear that drinking less alcohol is a wise approach for people’s mental and physical health, so I’m down with the proliferation of beverages that provide tasty booze-free options.
I just wish more of them were … you know … tasty.
A while back I cracked open a promising boozeless cocktail that sounded like it would be right up my alley only to find a beverage blasting into my nose and throat like a freight train, all heat and herbal roar and no sweetness whatsoever. It was undrinkable on its own; I ended up cooking it into a syrup to use in rum drinks. Other times I’ve hit the opposite end of the spectrum: bottles that seem to have left their promised flavors on the delivery truck, tasting like water left in a cabinet that, a decade back, might have held a few juniper berries.
Note, this problem is in no way unique to the booze-free category. “Like anything, you’ll have to taste through a bunch of bad bottles to get to the good ones,” says Bainbridge.
No one with sense will try a sip of some weird Frito-dill-pickle whiskey and conclude that all spirits are bad. But the booze-free subgroup is still relatively small, and I worry that a few (sometimes fairly pricey) disappointments could scare people away from the category. It’s a new variation on the dismay I used to experience back in the ’90s over bad vegetarian options. After all, human nature makes the calculus pretty simple: If you want more people to do things that are good for them (or good for the planet or animals or whatever), make doing that thing as pleasurable as possible.
A growing market of pickier plant-based eaters have helped weed out the oat-pea-mash-glue burgers, increasing our odds of buying something vegetarian and delicious. The alcohol-free cocktail world, by comparison, is still in its relative infancy, and consumer choices haven’t had as much time to thin the herd.
Derek Brown, creator of the much-lauded Columbia Room in D.C. and author of “Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World,” has just finished writing his new book, “Mindful Mixology,” covering low- and no-alcohol drinks (it should be out in time for next Dry January). He suggests that skeptical explorers need some perspective as they taste into this new-ish category. Humans were exploring putting juniper into wine for centuries before they figured out how to make gin, and “when gin first came out … it wasn’t good,” Brown says. “I think with a lot of these nonalcoholic spirits, some of them need time to develop the procedures to do it. They’re learning, and they’re just going to get better and better. And some of them are pretty good already.”
One challenge, I think, for booze-free producers is going to be deciding on what market of drinker they want to appeal to. People abstain from alcohol for all sorts of reasons — pregnancy, a desire for sobriety, a dislike of the taste, religion — but for the growing number of consumers who are opting out for health reasons, it’s unlikely that a nonalcoholic drink loaded with sugar will have much appeal. And yet, for me, some of the less successful nonalcoholic drinks have failed primarily because they don’t provide the contrapuntal sweetness that makes, say, a Negroni work.
The ones I’ve tended to like best thus far (and yes, there are some exceptions, as you’ll see in my list below) have tended to be the products that didn’t present themselves as a booze-free version of something that already exists. It’s tough to taste a bottle that slyly hints at being a rum without comparing it to the original. Which is not to say the original is inherently better, it’s just what set my expectations. With the drinks presenting themselves as their own thing, I’m more able to stop fretting about what’s missing and focus on what’s actually there.
Bottles I liked (some with caveats)
This is, by no means, a comprehensive list. Other bottles I’ve seen praise of include Kentucky 74 (billed as a nonalcoholic whiskey) and Sacré (a maple-syrup and herbal brew). I’m also looking forward to mixing with Lyre’s Dry Aperitif and playing with Noughty, a de-alcoholized bubbly chardonnay that I hear avoids the overly sweetened issue dogging many nonalcoholic wines.
Seedlip: Some consumers initially took Seedlip for a booze-free gin, but it actually has three distinct flavors — Garden 108, Grove 42 and Spice 94, which taste of, respectively, fresh peas/herb, citrus and allspice/cardamom. They mix nicely with tonic, ginger ales and other sodas. What I’m looking forward to is the launch of Aecorn, a nonalcoholic citrusy aperitif from the same makers. It’s already available in Britain but will arrive in the United States this spring. $32 for a 700-milliliter (24-ounce) bottle, or $89 for three. seedlipdrinks.com
Casamara Club: These nonalcoholic “leisure sodas” (a term I assume is meant to distinguish them from the serious sodas out there studying global debt relief models) were described as “amaro” club sodas, and based on that, I expected fizzy Fernets or effervescent Aperols, bittersweet flavor bombs. The flavors of Casamara Club are more subtle, and not particularly bitter or sweet. But the line really grew on me, especially the Onda, which has a nice sage note and just a whisper of salt, as well as the Alta, which has hints of the bitter orange prominent in so many Italian red bitters. $24 for six-pack or $36 for 12-pack of 355-milliliter (12-ounce) bottles, casamaraclub.com
Proteau: I genuinely liked both of the offerings from this company started by John deBary, a former beverage director of Momofuku. Ludlow Red eyeballs like a big fat cabernet but is instead a blend of blackberry, fig vinegar and a complex assortment of herbs. The vinegar may scare you off, but it shouldn’t — it’s actually balanced here, avoiding the nasal assault associated with some shrubs. The Rivington Spritz contains hibiscus, rhubarb, strawberries and a bit of gentian, but its bitterness is nicely balanced. $19.50 for a 750-milliliter (25-ounce) bottle, $39 for two. drinkproteau.com
New London Light: This 0-percent ABV (alcohol by volume) bottle from Salcombe Distilling is not explicitly described as a gin stand-in, but it comes from a maker of good gins, and “New London” is suggestive of the direction. This was one of the few base “spirits” I found pretty drinkable on its own. It has a nice whiff of juniper on the nose but is bright and lemony on the palate. $35 for a 750-milliliter (25-ounce) bottle. us.salcombegin.com
Kin Spritz: This company is going all in on selling the sizzle of nonalcoholic drinks. I felt cooler just visiting its website, then dumber as I tried to grapple with their pitch of “euphorics,” adaptogens, nootropics and botanics that purportedly have some social-life-enhancing, mood-elevating effects without any alcohol. It reminded me of when I get my car fixed and the mechanic tells me the doodlehopper is broken — I don’t understand enough about cars to assess whether they’re just milking me for cash. But in the case of Kin Spritz, I also don’t care, because the canned cocktail is delicious and doesn’t cost nearly as much as the doodlehopper repair. (Though I haven’t tried it yet, I’ve heard good things about the taste of their Dream Light. It has melatonin in it, and honestly, even if we’re not socializing right now, who doesn’t need more sleep?) $27 for four-pack, $47 for eight-pack, $79 for 16-pack of 237-milliliter (8-ounce) cans, kineuphorics.com
Monday Gin: Several sources I trust told me they liked this bottle. When I first tasted it, I decided I didn’t trust them anymore. I was fine with its bitterness, but my bottle had a weird mint mouthwash note I wasn’t crazy about. But then I reminded myself: When does anyone drink gin straight from the bottle? And sure enough, mixed with tonic, over ice with a twist of lime in a G(ish) & T — it’s good stuff. $40 for a 750-milliliter (25-ounce) bottle, $94 for three. drinkmonday.co
Ghia: I’d recommend this one with a caveat: It is for people who really like bitter drinks. I’m talking more bitter than a Negroni, more bitter than Fernet, more bitter than a bad divorce. It’s complex and comes in punching hard. You can tell folks who make a big deal out of drinking Malört that they have no idea what hardcore really is. $33 for a 535-milliliter (18-ounce) bottle, $65 for two, $170 for six. drinkghia.com
Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso and Italian Orange: Lyre’s makes a range of nonalcoholic spirits, and several are quite good. My favorites are these two. While they’re on the sweeter side, they make for lovely stand-ins for some of the red Italian bitters and are terrific mixed with soda or tonic — or with a nonalcoholic gin. $36 for a 700-milliliter (24-ounce) bottle, $184 for six. lyres.com
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