Without a doubt, zero-proof cocktails have come a long way from the nadir of the sticky-sweet Shirley Temple. It’s now increasingly common to see beverage programs that feature comprehensive non-alcoholic cocktail sections, and a growing number of “sober bars” have dedicated themselves exclusively to zero-proof drinks.
With an ever-widening range of booze-free bottlings and a generation of bartenders that are increasingly fluent in creating complex N/A drinks, we posed the question: Is it possible to build a non-alcoholic Manhattan, one of the booziest and most recognizable classic cocktails around?
“You can,” says Phil Collins, beverage director for TableOne Hospitality, which includes Bar Sprezzatura and La Société in San Francisco, and Mother Tongue in Los Angeles. “And at this point, you should look into it.”
However, others seem divided on if it’s truly possible to make a suitable non-alcoholic version of this spirit-forward classic—or if it should even be attempted.
Yes, It’s Possible to Make a Non-Alcoholic Manhattan (But You Need the Right Ingredients)
Creating a worthwhile non-alcoholic Manhattan relies on having a finely tuned toolbox. Compared to traditional “mocktails” built around juices and syrups, the iconic Manhattan revolves around two key ingredients: whiskey and vermouth. As non-alcoholic distillates have continued to explode in popularity—drinks market analysis firm IWSR estimates the global market at around $10 billion, with compound annual growth poised to outpace that of alcoholic beverages through 2025—there’s suddenly a surplus of purported alternatives for both.
Here’s the catch: these alternatives aren’t exact replicas.
“When people make classic cocktails, they’re trying to capture the essence of the original cocktail,” says Danya Degen, director of operations for Washington, D.C.’s The Duck & The Peach. However, “a lot of non-alcoholic spirits are thinner [and] that has to do with how they’re constructed.” As a result, most bartenders supplement booze-free spirits with ingredients that add some viscosity—rich syrups, juices, egg whites, or aquafaba, for example.
Another hurdle: while traditional whiskey is pretty delicious on its own, many zero-ABV “alternatives” are…not. And in a spirit-forward drink like the Manhattan, there isn’t much to hide behind, compared to say, a Whiskey Sour that’s enriched with lemon, sugar, and egg white, or a Horse’s Neck variation lengthened and sweetened with ginger ale.
“Any time you take on an all-spirits cocktail, you need all the ingredients to be great,” says Degen.
Choosing the Best Non-Alcoholic Whiskey
Whiskey alternatives, in particular, require certain characteristics to carry a Manhattan. “You need a certain sharpness from the thing that’s acting as a rye or bourbon. You need a bit of burn or punch—creating that is the biggest part of building a Manhattan, otherwise it tastes like caramel,” says Degen. “[The non-alcoholic alternative] might not taste good on its own, but has the elements that will lend itself to a spirit-forward drink.”
Her recommendations are the bourbon-like Monday Zero Alcohol Whiskey and Lyre’s Highland Malt, which is meant to resemble blended scotch.
Collins, meanwhile, suggests Ritual Zero Proof Whiskey Alternative, Spiritless Kentucky 74, or Monday, his preferred pick.
“You want to find some oak presence in there to trick your brain into thinking it’s whiskey,” he says. “Monday’s great at keeping that bite. They age it in oak, so there’s some oak presence. [The process] imparts the nuanced tones you’d get in whiskey.”
Choosing a Non-Alcoholic Vermouth
Both Degen and Collins agree on Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso as the best vermouth substitute. Keeping a classic 2:1 whiskey to vermouth ratio, it makes up just one-third of the drink, yet it’s a critical component that Degen calls the “anchor” of a Manhattan.
“Vermouth is the centerpiece of any cocktail that has it,” she says. “You’re adding it to add sweetness without adding sugar.” It takes on a particular importance in a non-alcoholic Manhattan—whiskey alternatives tend to skew lightweight, so the vermouth adds much-needed roundness and weight.
“If you get all those down, you don’t have to worry so much about the rye/bourbon,” says Degen. “You can let it lend those caramel, toasty, hot notes you don’t get from vermouth.”
The Bitter Finish (and Cherry on Top)
Alcohol-based bitters are often dashed into Manhattans to add depth and spice. While you’re unlikely to get buzzed from the minute amount the drink calls for, those who seek complete abstinence may want to source non-alcoholic alternatives. Degen suggests All the Bitter Aromatic bitters, made with apple cider vinegar and vegetable glycerine (although her personal preference is for a dash each of traditional alcoholic Angostura and orange bitters, to add complexity).
Finally, use quality cherries for your garnish. “The cherry is what I always look forward to in a Manhattan,” Degen says. But note that some brands, like Luxardo, are preserved using alcohol. Again, while they’re unlikely to get you tipsy, teetotalers may prefer Amarena cherries, which are preserved in syrup without alcohol.
No, a Non-Alcoholic Manhattan Will Never Be Like The Real Thing
Frankly, not everyone is convinced.
“I haven’t found any zero-proof products that remotely resemble whiskey,” says Ektoras Binikos, co-founder and partner of New York City’s Sugar Monk. Although he was intrigued by the concept—he makes his own non-alcoholic sweet vermouth and is working on housemade non-alcoholic bitters with Angostura bark intended to mimic aromatic bitters—the “whiskey” was a deal-breaker.
“Most of them are trying to work with the vanilla and wood flavors, but they feel flat without the heat from the real whiskey,” says Binikos, who has also tried adding chili peppers to mimic the warming sensation of whiskey, to little avail. “It’s better but nothing like the real one.”
Indeed, even proponents of the non-alcoholic Manhattan note that the available whiskey alternatives tend to keep the drink from feeling like a complete home run. “Would I want to drink this Manhattan every day?” asks Degen. “Probably not.”
Though she wouldn’t be averse to a Lyre’s apéritif on the rocks with a lemon peel, she adds.