House-made sodas at Sunday in Brooklyn (image: Evan Sung)
The holidays have come and gone, and we’re deep into another Dryuary. Studies have shown that swearing off alcohol this month helps reduce overall intake in the months that follow. And while we’re fans of good booze and good cocktails in moderation, we’re also aware that everyone can use a break from time to time.
The good news is you don’t have to sacrifice the quality and complexity of your drinks just because you’re avoiding booze. Nowadays, bartenders are appealing to guests on the wagon by providing a small but thoughtful selection of nonalcoholic and low-ABV cocktails.
“A good zero-proof cocktail should be made with the same approach to balance as a cocktail with alcohol,” says Noah Small, the beverage director at Empellón in New York City. “The only difference is that a zero-proof drink doesn’t need to tame a spirit. It should still transmit flavor and look appealing, even extravagant.”
With the rise of boozeless menus at top bars and restaurants worldwide, along with the launch of acclaimed zero-proof spirits like Seedlip, the bar for nonalcoholic cocktails is certainly being raised. Looking to elevate your own selection beyond the virgin Daiquiris of yesteryear? We’ve outlined the best ways to craft a zero-proof cocktail selection.
Green Apple Soda at Sunday in Brooklyn (image: Evan Sung)
1. Remember Balance Is King
This seems obvious, but it can’t be overstated: The principles of good bartending also apply to nonalcoholic selections—in fact, even more so. Without the presence of alcohol, each of the other ingredients will have a larger role in the flavor of your drink.
“A good nonalcoholic cocktail needs to have balanced acidity and body, with appropriate water content and dilution, and be served at the proper temperature,” says Kyle Davidson, the general manager and beverage director at Chicago’s Elske, which offers a nonalcoholic cocktail pairing with dinner. “At a cocktail bar, you have a wide range of juices, syrups, garnishes and herbs that are not mixed and will make drinks that resemble the built cocktail without the booze.”
2. Let Carbonation Be Your Friend
“I like the addition of bubbles in the form of sodas, hopped sodas and ginger beer,” says Felisha Leger, the bar lead at chef José Andrés’ China Poblano in Las Vegas. If your guest is open to carbonated drinks, a splash of soda or another sparkling element helps even out more tart and sweet flavors. When working with a limited selection of ingredients, consider riffing off refreshing classics like the Eastside Rickey using a base such as Seedlip in place of gin or vodka.
“People tend to love anything light and refreshing—like fresh-pressed juices blended with herbs and unfamiliar spices,” says Brian Evans of New York City’s Sunday in Brooklyn. “We did a pandan–green-apple soda that was incredibly simple but sold best out of any of our spirit-free offerings.”
Kamas Arrow at Death & Co in Denver
3. Spin the Globe for Inspiration
There are so many iconic beverages from cultures around the world, from Central American horchata to American milkshakes to Vietnamese iced coffee. You can use these as inspiration for nonalcoholic drinks of your own to create something new and original while also familiar. At Death & Co in Denver, for example, Tyson Buhler riffs on the flavors of a mango lassi, an Indian yogurt-based drink, with his Kama’s Arrow, made with mango purée, vanilla syrup, Coco Lopez, lemon juice and a dash of cardamom bitters.
4. Think Like a Chef
Restaurant bars in particular are well-equipped to zero-proof cocktails because of the diversity of ingredients available from the kitchen. Leverage your fresh fruits and vegetables, considering that those who ask for nonalcoholic drinks are oftentimes doing so for health reasons.
“Some nights, the sales of nonalcoholic cocktails rival or even exceed regular cocktails,” says Kim Stodel, the bar director at Los Angeles’ Providence, which is known for its zero-waste cocktails. “People who choose not to imbibe really appreciate the option. As for ingredients? Citrus is definitely the workhorse of the nonalcoholic cocktail. Having the right blend can help create a great canvas for other flavors.”
Also tap into those chef-driven techniques—clarifying, infusing, pickling—that have become popular in cocktail bars. “Modern techniques and equipment that are typically applied to specialty cocktails could be utilized for zero-proof drinks to really give the feel that the guest’s nonalcoholic option is not an afterthought.” says Ambrose Burke, the bar manager at Eastside in Minneapolis. “Clarifying juices, dehydrating or pickling fruits and vegetables or even candying herbs can really take nonalcoholic drinks to the next level.”
Peas & Thank You at Providence (image: Kyle Deven)
5. Check the Bottom Shelf
Oils, shrubs, rosewater, nonalcoholic bitters? You can often get creative with some of the ingredients you’ve had sitting around in the bar that haven’t made their way into other drinks. “Oils like sesame and avocado can add strong flavors and textures when used in small amounts, and non-citrus sources of acidity like verjus, acid phosphate and vinegar-based shrubs offer unexpected ways to create light, refreshing drinks,” says Alex Schmaling of Chicago’s Beacon Tavern. “While most bitters are made using alcohol, there are several brands, like Fee Brothers, that are generally nonalcoholic. These provide a wide array of flavors to play with and create interesting drinks.”
6. Throw In a Little Something Bitter or Herbal
“Alcohol provides a mild harshness that forces you to drink a little slower than if you’re just tossing back a zero-proof cocktail, so they should have something a little herbal or even a tiny bit bitter to create a pump to the breaks,” says Rob Rugg-Hinds, the head bartender at The Eddy in New York City. “Otherwise, one guest may finish their drink in a couple of minutes, while everyone else with full-proof cocktails are still sipping theirs.”
Rugg-Hinds says one of his favorite ingredients to use in zero-proof cocktails is mauby, a drink made from a Caribbean bark that contains no alcohol. “Mauby has root beer sweetness, a pointy anise note and a bitter medicinal finish—just a quarter or half ounce of it can add great complexity and something other than sweetness,” he says. “Four out of five times, if somebody at my bar orders a mocktail, mauby is going in.”
Key Lime Phosphate at Beacon Tavern
7. Create Nonalcoholic Versions of Your Booze Ingredients
While Seedlip and other nonalcoholic spirits can be used in place of booze, you can take things a step further by creating zero-proof alternatives of vermouths and amari that offer the same flavors and aromas.
“With the latest round of zero-proof cocktails we’ve added to our menu, we developed recipes for nonalcoholic vermouth and nonalcoholic Campari to incorporate that depth of flavor that guests are looking for in cocktails,” says Maxime Belfand, the bar director at New York City’s Saxon + Parole. “It was important to our team to find ways of creating those layers of flavor that are typically found in products with booze in them, so we decided to create a few of our own experiments to produce products that work for zero-proof cocktails, as well.”