Mocktail? Spirit-free cocktail? Whatever you call them, modern nonalcoholic drinks are delicious, and deserve to be given the same degree of attention we pay to the classics. The tricky thing is that when you remove alcohol from the equation, you’re also removing texture, viscosity, certain flavors, and that telltale back of the throat “burn” so many of us associate with a stiff drink. So, while the options in the nonalcoholic drinks category have been improving and growing at a rapid clip for the last few years, there remains a bit of a learning curve.
Any home bar set up, alcohol free or not, will benefit from having a few specific tools on hand. You don’t need the fanciest cut crystal mixing glass to make delicious drinks, but at bare minimum you should have the following:
Sweeteners do more than balance a cocktail’s sour notes; they add flavor and texture too, which are especially important when making nonalcoholic drinks. You should master a classic simple syrup (known in the industry as 1:1 because it is equal parts sugar and water) as well as its sibling, the rich simple syrup (known as 2:1, twice as much sugar as water). And think beyond white sugar: darker sugars like muscovado, demerara, and our own Okinawan Black Sugar offer a world of nuanced flavor. Some of our other go-to sweeteners include honey, maple syrup, pomegranate molasses, and pine cone bud syrup, not to mention the wide world of fruit preserves. Yes, you can (and should!) be using jam and marmalade in your cocktails! They bring not only texture, but a lovely fruity tartness, and the variety of flavors is literally endless.
Lemons and limes are de rigueur, and there’s a reason they’re considered classics. They are supremely versatile, and work as well in a margarita as they do a martini. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t shout out oranges; orange juice is particularly fun in shaken drinks, as it adds a super fluffy mouthfeel and airy texture. But perhaps our favorite of all is the grapefruit. Whether you juice it or use it as a twist, its pithy bitterness, bright aromatics, and tangy-tart flavor adds a nice pop and helps to boost the citrus notes of many different drinks.
Adding something bubbly to a drink (nonalcoholic or otherwise) does a lot: it adds texture, body, and lift, not to mention that mysteriously unquantifiable something that makes a drink so refreshing. Along with classics like seltzer and tonic, we’re huge fans of imported bittersweet sodas from Italy like Sanbitter, Crodino, and Stappi. Their diminutive nature (they are often packaged in tiny 100ml bottles) belies their huge impact, as they offer a concentration of flavor and aroma rarely seen in alcohol-free products. We’re also big fans of the new school of so-called Ready To Drink (RTD) canned nonalcoholic offerings from brands like Ghia, For Bitter For Worse, Lyre’s and Casamara Club. You can certainly drink RTDs on their own, but we love using them as mixers to add extra layers of flavor to our spiritfree concoctions.
Another way to add not only visual pop but more flavor and aroma to non-alcoholic beverages is with garnishes. We often employ a simple citrus twist, but things like fresh and dried herbs, berries, pomegranate seeds, and even flowers from your garden can be a simple way to take a drink to the next level.
We hope this guide encourages you to experiment with nonalcoholic cocktails at home. The options for zero-proof drinks are literally growing by the day, and there are so many new, interesting, and (most importantly) delicious products out there to play with. Just remember that a well-equipped home bar doesn’t need to be a huge investment, and that with just a few tools and ingredients and a bit of creativity, a whole new world of flavor opens up.