At 11:53 pm on December 31, 2020 I finished the last sip of my Manhattan. Turned and celebrated New Year’s Eve and swinging into 2021 with Priya who then proceeded to turn away from the start of Pixar’s Soul and call it a night.
I stepped into the kitchen and made another Manhattan just after midnight. But instead of using my Woodford Reserve, I turned to a Zero Proof Whiskey Alternative I’d discovered at the start of the pandemic, Ritual. It was sweeter. It was lighter.
It was a start.
Having that Woodford Reserve still there on the counter was going to be too tempting; so I packed it up, along with all of the other liquor and beer we had upstairs (wine stayed for Priya) and took them down to the basement.
It was truly a start. My goal was to do a dry January and depending on how it went, I had mentally prepared myself to take a crack at a dry February as well.
It’s Father’s Day (2:03 am, Sunday, June 20, 2021) and I’m proud to say that the sip I took at 11:53 pm on December 31, 2020, is the last sip of what anyone would qualify as an alcoholic drink I’ve taken since; though it’s not the last I’ll ever take by any means (that’s an important point to make as well).
This post is not to sell you on the merits or value of a dry sprint. Rather, this post is to share what I’ve fallen in love with along the way and in my active quest to find things to sip, to savor, to indulge in even, things that scratch the itch to drink when I have it (say, a Hazy IPA, a rich Stout), that offset any social pressures when I socialize (a Gin and Tonic, a Cocktail), and that give me alternatives to the more sugary options we feel stuck in when we do give up alcohol (is sweet the only baseline flavor available to me now?)
Finally, I’ll update this list as time, tastes, and new experiences require. My first step today was to get this down to make it easier for me to support the people who’ve reached out to me about my approach to this experience.
In Pursuit of the Ideal “Time-to-Sip” or Ready Made vs Mixed, vs Crafted
There are many ways to organize this post; I ended up settling on how I think about drinks as someone with a fairly busy schedule: time-to-sip. In other words, I’ve organized this post by the effort required and time needed to get from thirst craving to first sip.
- Ready Made –
- The nonalcoholic, zero spirit industry is booming. The trend has some health driven catalysts, but as with all things, it’s also a byproduct of shifting generational tastes and the nature of generational reactionism (it doesn’t matter what you do when it comes to tastes and styles and indulgences, subsequent generations will naturally react and pivot more than copy). Nevertheless, the byproduct is an extraordinary assortment of now off-the-shelf, ready made alternatives to alcoholic beverages that I enjoy and even prefer.
- Mixed –
- I’m separating “mixed” from “crafted” for a reason: stirring is a hell of a lot easier than measuring, weighing, calibrating, tasting, and presenting. Think of the difference between a Jack and Coke and a truly exceptional Whiskey Sour. Mixing the right zero spirit beverage requires a creative palate and knowledge of your audience; understanding that some people may be more forgiving because it’s nonalcoholic, and some people are more forgiving when it’s alcoholic. Let that sink in, and then laugh about it.
- Crafted –
- There is one book and set of recipes that transformed my experience here. I’ve only had the chance to attempt two recipes from it, but, simply by reading through the recipes, I’ve also created and experimented with a third on my own that I’m extraordinarily happy with.
Non Alcoholic Beer
I’m not going to spend any time on Lagers / Pilsners. You can find these anywhere, and have been able to for decades.
What I was most surprised by, was the broad number of options available … that had depth and breadth of flavor. As someone with a well stocked beer selection, kicking back with a Heineken 0.0 wasn’t going to suffice.
Athletic Brewing Company – Run Wild IPA, Free Wave Hazy IPA, and All Out Stout. First and foremost, all three taste good (IPA), to great (Stout) to virtually indistinguishable (Hazy IPA). These are good drinks and objectively good beers. What makes them additionally worth referencing is they are all available on Amazon, so add them to your next Prime order, get them on a recurring delivery, and you’ll never be wanting. The cans also have a great feel and texture to them, a high quality finish. If you are trying to mask your sobriety (short or long-term) than these are excellent options as well as without deep inspection and attention, nobody will know the difference — in can form, or if poured into a glass.
Brewdog AF Series – Hazy AF IPA, Punk AF Robust IPA, Wakeup Call. These fit the same pattern as the Athletic Brewing Company. They tend to be deeply similar (Hazy AF), while also being lower calorically than Athletic Brewing (Punk AF is 37 calories vs 70-90 for ABC). Similarly available on Amazon and in a variety pack and at about the same price. The key reason I lean toward ABC is they have the Free Wave Hazy at my local liquor store otherwise, if I’d seen these first, I’m certain I’d have embraced Brewdog first.
I also encourage you to connect with your local brewers to see who’s making great versions of local beers in low or non alcoholic options. There are some well reviewed stouts I can’t get my hands on in NJ but would do just about anything to find a way to get into my fridge. Wellbeing Brewing (great name) isn’t one I’ve had luck with as of yet
If it’s not clear, I objectively enjoy the taste of a great IPA and a smooth stout. It’s not the alcohol that makes them something I want to drink, it’s the flavor profile and how it complements times of day, foods, and moods. I’m thankful to the brewers who are bringing their profiles to the market in NA and LA forms.
HopTea – I’ve been a fan of HopTea for a couple of years now. I stumbled across the brand at my local WholeFoods as I was looking for low calorie, low sugar alternatives to coffee, that I could enjoy on a hot day. HopTea are carbonated, hop-infused, teas (green, white, chamomile, and recently, hibiscus, with zero calories and solid doses of caffeine and hop-forward flavors to carry you through. You can find many “Hop Water” type clones but from my experience, HopTea is the runaway best for those looking for caffeine, hop notes, and brisk alternatives.
“Zero” Cocktails (aka Mocktails, but wow, I hate that label)
Beckett’s Nonalcoholic Tonics – These are an absolute runaway favorite on the taste side of things. We’ve tried them all, the Stone Daisy Lime Margarita, the Flying Mule Moscow Mule, the Mystic Dove Paloma, and the Juniper Sky Gin and Tonic. Each nailed the flavor of their alcoholic sibling without being overly sweet to compensate for their lack of “spirit”. The downside is that they tend to skew a bit more expensive unless you buy in bulk (about $4/bottle if you do buy in bulk and include shipping) and what they win you over with by being low in calories (~30 calories per can/bottle) they likely get you with longer-term by using Stevia as the sweetening agent. For me, I can never have enough of these on hand or in the fridge, which is doubly troubling given that they appear to no longer be distributing through Amazon.
Of the nonalcoholic cocktails, Beckett’s was the only one I truly enjoyed in Ready Made form. I tried Spirity for example, and was deeply unimpressed; not because of the flavor, but because of the expectations of the label (if Spirity would have called their Negroni a “botanical, nonalcoholic beverage” I may have managed it differently).
Elixirs and Botanicals
As mentioned above, if Spirity recategorizes themselves, I’ll put them here. For now I’ll focus on the creators of nonalcoholic beverages who aren’t trying to recreate a cocktail but rather are trying to explore objectively great and satisfying flavors for complex beverages that also happen to be nonalcoholic.
Kin – Kin was the first creative, deliberately nonalcoholic cocktail I purchased. I was one of the first to try the High Rhode and I loved it as a novelty. It was expensive, but it felt like an exceptional investment (from the packaging all the way through). Kin kicked off a category branded “euphorics”, more often referred to a “nootropics” but these are effectively botanicals that also claim to have some mind altering/state altering/mood altering/brain boosting capabilities. I never felt that with High Rhode, but I did feel like I had a unique and tasty spirit in my hand — and no hangover the morning after. Since Kin’s release, the market has flooded and I find some of the alternatives, particularly Curious, to be a preferred alternative for me. That being said, I’m excited to try their new Lightwave flavor, which is focused on “calming” and features vanilla, saffron, and reishi.
Curious Elixirs – I loved my Curious Elixirs subscription. The care they take to introduce you to their perspective and approach on each of their 5 elixirs is great for someone taking their first step into complex nonalcoholic beverages. If you don’t like the subscription you will, at the least, walk away with a point-of-view and a way to explore additional options as a result of the initial sampler. These are also on the more expensive side. That being said, my recommendation is to sign up for the sampler and buy the additional order of Curious No. 5 (not included in the Sampler). You’ll find a range of booze free cocktails that are made to be poured into glasses, shaken/stirred with ice, and served garnished. If you wanted to make these a true cockatil alternative though, I believe you’d want to move these to the “Mixed” category and since they’re all sugar free, explore creative ways to add a sweetening agent (think simple syrups, honeys, etc). Curious No. 5 is my favorite; some people think it tastes like balsamic vinegar.
Betera – Very similar to Curious, but with more of an emphasis on “bitterness” as an attribute. Where I found Curious to be spicier and bolder, I found Betera to be brighter and more bitter. The botanicals were more pronounced here and I enjoyed each flavor, drank them faster, but felt less satisfied after each. In the end, I felt like I was drinking an unsweetened fruit juice, and not necessarily in the best way. I see Betera as having a very distinct flavor profile and a very tight audience. That being said, as with all, I highly recommend getting an initial sampler to get you started and find out where on the spectrum of available nonalcoholic beverages you reside.
One thing I have learned is that nonalcoholic spirits I’ve tried do not work on their own. So though they may be positioned as spirits you can include in the Ready Made category above, it felt disingenuous to put them there. Actually, I’d even put Betera and some flavors of Curious in the Mixed Camp simply because making them enjoyable requires more than opening a can or a bottle and moving the container to your lips.
Time-to-sip in this category is a range, but it doesn’t require much foresight, much planning, a variety of utensils. It’s the difference between making cheese sauce for your macaroni and cheese the Kraft way, or the way that starts with “stir and whisk your choice of fat with the flour…” (the latter, is obviously, is Craft, and not Kraft).
Let’s start with assembling the spirits that change you from a person who serves non-alcoholic beverages to a person who has a non-alcoholic bar.
Nonalcoholic Spirits – Replicants
Ritual Zero Proof – Ritual makes a range of spirits. Their Rum is their best option, though I found their Whisky to be solid when mixed thoughtfully. I don’t use Gin in my cocktails so I saw no need to make that purchase. And as someone who tends to struggle mightily with Tequila (thanks again to the guys at my bachelor party), I’ve avoided Ritual’s Tequila. I use their Rum in fruit juices, I use their Rum in teas, I use their rum in seltzers and sodas. As nonalcoholic spirts go, it’s a top notch option, and if you’re getting the Rum for the first time … just go ahead and get their Sampler Pack (Whisky, Gin, Tequila). Thanks again to Amazon for equipping us all to live a healthier, more booze free life.
Lyre’s – As a brand, Lyre’s is a pioneer. They create entire environments around the concept of the “sober bar”. It’s only recently that I found their Spiced Rum. It’s different than Ritual’s approach to rum and I believe the goal for Lyre’s is to substitute for Spiced Rum more literally than Ritual proclaims. Lyre’s is not a spirit I would have on its own on the rocks, but with a splash of anything that augments the flavor profile (ginger ales, pineapple juices, seltzers and sodas) it’s a great way to go. As the summer is upon us, I just refreshed my Lyre’s and if I’m using my own behavior as a signal of interest, I purchased Lyre’s Spiced Cane Rum instead of Rituals — though part of me believes it’s because I’ve had more Ritual than Lyre’s and I’m still formalizing my choices. Note: As the weather opens us up to in-person gatherings, I’m eager to attend Listen Bar.
Free Spirits – I have not tried these but I’m excited to. The way they describe the bourbon is what has me intrigued even though the reviews are challenging to get past.
The above represent the best options for spirits replicated in nonalcoholic forms. That being said, I am starting to believe that similar to excellent vegan and vegetarian food where focusing on “mock meats” (seitans, impossible and beyond burgers) is inevitably short-sighted and a limiting factor. What I’ve started finding true excitement in is with booze free, nonalcoholic beverages that are deliberately and unabashedly nonalcoholic. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it may not lead you to achieve your own greatest potential. In the end, the above are the best karaoke singers of the nonalcoholic world; sometimes though, you want to taste originals.
Non-alcoholic Spirits – True Alternatives
Seedlip – For many, Seedlip is where the bar starts and ends. I’ve found them to be solid, botanical mixers — but prohibitively expensive for the end result. I recommend a Seedlip sampler if for no other reason than the beautiful bottles and the universe of beverages crafted around the experience. They’re a great way to take your first step into a nonalcoholic bar. If you’re like me though, I think with some experimentation you’ll find that a better way to get the Seedlip type experience in a wider array of options and in a much more affordable investment, is through the next option on this list…
Bitters – Yup. Bitters. The assortment available on Bitters is truly incredible. And in a side-by-side comparison of Seedlip and Tonic vs Soda, Bitters, and Tonic, I was effectively able to recreate the general Seedlip taste without the cost. The proof is in the usage; my Seedlip Spice 94 is hovering near 1/2 used, while I’ve torn through several bottles of Bitters in the same amount of time (and to be clear, any usage of Seedlip has been forced and deliberate as opposed to instinctive and a default). Aztec Chocolate Bitters. Angostura Bitters. Orange Bitters. Branded Bitters. Smoked Herb Bitters. The best part about Bitters is that a 3-4 dashes (instead of 1-2 in spirited cocktails) can push the flavor profile far; and Bitters double as an excellent way to bring grilled fruits and vegetables to life (don’t sleep on cooking with Bitters folks).
In addition to the Ready Made items above, I see some assortment of Seedlip and Bitters as a necessary shelf in any truly well stocked nonalcoholic bar with any hope of providing your guests with exciting options that make them forget (or at least embrace skipping) the traditional boozy cocktail.
Many people push back on Bitters as a nonalcoholic alternative because at a standard “proof”, they are 35-45% alcohol. That being said, they have formally been declared as nonalcoholic because of the potable amount; said differently, if you were to attempt to drink enough bitters to “get drunk” you’d get sick before you got drunk. At the 2-3-4 dash ratio of Bitters to beverage, a Bitters inused beverage is going to be between Grape Juice and Orange Juice on the ABV (at a high-level, 41 dashes of Bitters equals 1 fluid ounce). There’s plenty to read on the subject that a simple Google search will get you. The best way to think of Bitters? True Vanilla Extract.
The list of items you can use to mix with the above is exhaustive; I’d say long and distinguished but that would take me down a Top Gun rabbit hole few of us have time for. That being said, there are a few core mixers I recommend having on hand that give you an excellent set of beverage aids to augment and extend the items above.
Sodastream – Simple. ‘Nuff said. Get a Sodastream. Carbonation brings nearly all of the above items to life and a near infinite stream of soda water means you never run short. The syrups are on you; go for it if you want. I’ve never used them. But the Sodastream is steady flowing in our household so much so that it owns a place on our counter, near our sink, second only to hand and dish soap. Also, if you’re looking for ROI, the Sodastream we have is about 18 years old. When I was 18 I dressed terribly, had ragged hair, rarely shaved, and wore crappy cologne — all this to say, Sodastream is in way better shape at 18 than I was.
Cherries – Get. Good. Cherries. I found these Fabbri Amarena Cherries at Whole Foods has a really great stock on hand which has been a game changer; but any liquor store worth its margarita salt will have at least a few for you to choose from, none of which will disappoint. The cherries and the syrup will put you in position to transform the look, texture, and taste of all the spirits above, but you’ll find their utility expand dramatically as you look to enhance the botanicals and elixirs without losing the essence and philosophy behind why they were made.
Cocktail Crate – There are tons of mixers, but I am set on Cocktail Crate as my go to. I love everything about them. The breadth of flavors and syrups is outstanding. They’re available at my local grocery stores. And the bottles have a shape and form that help them fit perfectly in a bar, or in a cabinet — not too tall, not too wide, not too deep (part of stocking a bar is being able to stock it, and it’s these mixers and aids we’ve outlined here that take spirits and give them range). I don’t have a strong, comparatively informed opinion here. If you find better mixers with the range, convenience, and stocking/storing function, comment back. My two favorites from Cocktail Crate are the Old Fashioned and the Ginger Bee but you can’t go wrong.
Simple Syrups – I can’t overstate the value of a rich selection of simple syrups. Cardamom is my knock ’em down, drag ’em out favorite, but it barely wins in a Fight Club battle with Rose. For many, the simple syrups will be the best way to make the botanicals sessionable vs simply sippable. They’re also something you can have a lot of fun with on your own (making homemade simple syrups and infusing vodkas are two simple, highly effective ways to personalize beverages — high ROI for little risk and investment.) Please, if you can, avoid Torani. And a second please, don’t hesitate to use that cardamom and/or rose syrup in your cold brew coffee.
Teas – Finally, don’t underestimate the power of Teas to color, to flavor, to augment the beverages you’re creating. Teas come packed with flavor, with aromatics, with caffeine, and with antioxidants, making them an excellent partner and aid to your bar. One that more bartenders, alcoholic or not, should incorporate into their arsenal.
I’m still learning here; but outside of experimenting on the above, if you’re interested in crafting nonalcoholic cocktails the single best and most comprehensive investment you can make will be this book from the team at Alinea, Zero: A New Approach to Non-Alcoholic Drinks (if you’re here, get the Reserve Edition, it’s stunning).
When you shift to Crafted, the list of ingredients is extraordinary. I spent $150 on utensils and ingredients just to make the breakfast stout. 90 minutes later, after realizing how much I’d messed up, I was left with … a really solid nonalcoholic beer and tons of lessons and inspirations on how to improve the recipe going forward. I simply can’t recommend the book enough as more than anything, it will transform your thinking around what’s possible in the non-alcoholic beverage arena.
Paying it Forward
I spent the past 6 months trying to avoid telling a sober story, and wanting to tell a story of creativity, exploration, and what to me still felt indulgent. I didn’t get there right away, but I’m right there today.
At 5:20pm ET on Father’s Day, the sun is blaring, the Suns / Clippers game is on in the background.
And I’ve got a bright, crisp, nonalcoholic espresso stout in my hands.
The Ready Made, nonalcoholic beers made me rethink what was possible in this category.
The Mixed, helped me understand how to bring flavors together.
The Crafted, equipped me with the materials and some of the technical know how to believe that I could make this one myself.
That’s right, the espresso stout I’m drinking right now is my own. Powered by Decaffeinated coffee, Barley, Cacao Nibs, and Hop Pellets … and some powerful carbonation from that Sodastream.
The past six months, I don’t miss the alcohol. I’ve found a universe of flavors where “missing” isn’t the feeling. I’m more in a position where I want those flavors at times too. And with a healthier foundation around what I consume, I do look forward to returning to the drinks I want. And to having less of a binary decision-making process when “What would you like to drink?” is the question coming my way.