If you want to mix up great non-alcoholic cocktails, it’s helpful to start by thinking about, well, alcohol.
“Making zero-proof cocktails requires a very good understanding of what non-alcoholic base spirits lack in comparison to base spirits with alcohol,” says Lauren “LP” Paylor, a bartender and the CEO of Focus on Health, a nonprofit that provides health and wellness programming for the hospitality industry.
Traditional spirits and liqueurs contribute much more than alcohol to a beverage. Any distilled spirit will add body and texture to a drink, and the ethanol gives off a burn that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a shot. Each spirit will also add its own unique flavor to a cocktail. Barrel-aged spirits like whiskey and añejo tequila may have tannic notes, while gin and liqueurs like amari are often infused with herbs and other botanicals.
When properly balanced, all these elements help make a delicious cocktail, but you don’t strictly need alcohol to achieve any of them. In addition to trying one of the many non-alcoholic distilled spirits that have hit the market in recent years, you can source and make ingredients—from tannic teas to flavorful syrups—that contribute body, aromatics, and overall complexity.
Here are some easy ways to build flavor in drinks—no alcohol required.
A new wave of non-alcoholic spirits (41 of which we cataloged in a taste test) has made the task of crafting innovative zero-proof drinks at home easier than ever. Most of these bottlings are not meant to be sipped neat, but rather to be mixed and add complexity to non-alcoholic cocktails, like the herb-forward Garden Collins or the fragrant Far Afield.
When you’re experimenting with non-alcoholic spirits at home, keep in mind that they typically contain a higher proportion of water than their boozy counterparts, says Alex Jump, a bar industry veteran and the director of operations for Focus on Health. This ratio affects the amount of perceived dilution in the finished cocktail, which can be compensated for with a shorter shake time or the incorporation of additional ingredients to build body.
You’ll also want to play with proportions. As we found in our taste test, a 1:1 ratio of non-alcoholic spirit-to-mixer generally works better than the more standard 1:3 when mixing highballs. Hyatt national bar director Miranda Breedlove’s Non-Alcoholic Negroni, which is composed entirely of non-alcoholic distillates, leans heavier on the bitter aperitifs than the gin analog to compensate for the lack of alcoholic heat.
Tannins are a group of bitter and astringent compounds found in a variety of plants, as well as manufactured food and drinks like wine, chocolate, and barrel-aged spirits. Teas—particularly black teas—are high in tannins, and can be used in cocktails to evoke some of the notes provided by barrel-aged spirits like bourbon or scotch.
Beyond simply contributing tannic notes, many tea varieties offer additional layers of complexity, says Jump.
When using tea as a cocktail ingredient, be sure to oversteep it, or make a tea that’s stronger than what you would normally drink. This will create a more concentrated brew that can stand up to the flavors of other ingredients. Cool the tea to room temperature before using it in cocktails.
Our favorite ways to use tea in non-alcoholic drinks
- Black tea to evoke the tannic quality, or “grippiness,” of bourbon and other barrel-aged spirits
- Lapsang souchong, a black tea smoke-dried over pine leaves, that contributes a strong smoky flavor
- Kuding, a Chinese medicinal tea, which offers intense bitterness
- Green tea for mellow herbaceousness, as in the Garden Collins
- Hibiscus tea for tartness, as in the Berry Smash
A common criticism of non-alcoholic drinks is that “they’re just juice.” But even juices encompass a dizzying array of options—and not just sugary fruit ones.
Freshly-squeezed citrus juices, which are essential in full-proof cocktails, add acidity and brightness to any drink. You can also employ a juicer or extractor to make fresh-pressed juices from fibrous fruits and vegetables like carrots, apples, beets, and pineapples.
Bar pro Natasha David uses fresh-pressed juices as the base ingredient of several non-alcoholic cocktails in her 2022 book Drink Lightly. Fresh beet juice gives earthy depth to her Mental Note cocktail, while celery juice adds an herbal, vegetal component to her non-alcoholic Spicy Margarita. She suggests fine-straining fresh juices before using them in cocktails to ensure a smooth texture.
Homemade syrups are integral components of many cocktails, adding flavor and viscosity, but these elements are particularly crucial in non-alcoholic drinks. A basic simple syrup, or equal parts granulated sugar and water dissolved together, can act as a blank canvas for new flavors. Experiment by steeping ingredients like fresh herbs, grated ginger, and vanilla beans in the sugar-water mixture. Once you’ve established a profile you enjoy, mix and match multiple elements to create new flavor combinations, or go further afield and try to incorporate less-obvious ingredients like fennel, sweet potato, or garlic scapes. The sky’s the limit.
Some tips for extra-savvy home bartenders: Jump recommends using an immersion circulator, also known as a sous vide machine, which allows vacuum-sealed ingredients to infuse under low heat to extract as much raw flavor as possible. David incorporates lactic acid, an organic acid found in foods like yogurt and kefir, in syrups like the Tahitian vanilla syrup to “ramp up the implied mouthfeel.” Seek food-grade powdered lactic acid when using in cocktail applications.
Our favorite syrups to help punch up non-alcoholic cocktails
- Ginger syrup or cinnamon syrup can help replicate the heat of alcohol.
- A tea syrup will add a tannic quality to your drink, which can evoke barrel-aged spirits.
- Oleo saccharum, made by macerating citrus peels in sugar to extract and sweeten their natural oils, can act as a stand-in for liqueurs like Cointreau, and often provides bolder citrus flavor.
- Verjus, or the non-alcoholic pressed juice of unripened grapes, can help replicate the juiciness of aromatized wine, says Jump. It’s too tart on its own to stand in for sweet vermouth in drinks like a non-alcoholic Negroni or Manhattan, but Jump suggests making a verjus syrup with red verjus, water, sugar, and baking spices like cinnamon and cloves.
“If you want the flavor and piquancy of alcohol, vinegar can do it,” says Derek Brown in his 2022 book Mindful Mixology. Like alcohol, vinegar involves a combination of acetic acid and water that has undergone fermentation. The resulting sharp, tangy, and sour notes can help to create some of the “bite” of alcohol and open up a wide range of flavors to play with.
When using vinegar in cocktails, stick to high-quality, undistilled varieties. Brown prefers a “workhorse vinegar” like Dynamic Health Organic Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, though champagne vinegars are often also a good entry point. As vinegar profiles can vary widely, start with just a teaspoon or two for a single-serving drink. A 1:5 ratio of vinegar to other ingredients by volume is a good ceiling, but taste as you go along to find the desired balance—remember it’s always easier to add than subtract.
Sugar helps to mitigate the harsher aspects of vinegar, and can always be added to cut down on bite. An equal volume of sugar (simple syrup, honey, molasses, agave, and maple syrup are all popular options) to vinegar is a solid starting point, but again, taste as you go along until you find the balance that works best for your cocktail.
Shrubs are vinegars that are infused with fruit and sugar, also sometimes called drinking vinegars. They typically work best in cocktails that do not already have an acidic element like lemon or lime juice, says Jump. A shrub is a drink in and of itself, but you can top with soda water for a simple non-alcoholic cocktail.
Other Great Ingredients for Non-Alcoholic Cocktails
“There are lots of things that make you feel a certain way when you’re drinking a drink, that you can still feel even when you’re not drinking an alcoholic cocktail,” says Jump. Here are some other ingredients to consider incorporating into non-alcoholic drinks.
- Egg whites or aquafaba to give drinks a silky texture and frothy head, as in the Vitamin Parade and Shot in the Dark
- Sparkling water for effervescence, as in the Rosemary-Pomegranate Soda
- Ginger beer for effervescence and heat, as in the Berry Smash
- Fruit purees and jams for body and flavor, as in the Mental Note
- Fresh herbs for flavor and aromatics, as in the Mint-Basil Limeade
- Bitters for aromatic complexity, as in the Tonic Rickey (Most bitters contribute a scant amount of alcohol to a drink; to make a drink 100% non-alcoholic, you can use an alcohol-free brand like All the Bitter.)
- Non-alcoholic wines and beers for additional complexity, as in the Far Afield