7 Rules for Making Delicious Alcohol-Free Drinks This Holiday Season
Take a break from the booze with these non-alcoholic cocktails and drink ideas.
Mercedes O’Brien is the queen of creative boozy concoctions, but even the Atlanta-based brains behind cocktail kit service Sippn at Home knows how important it is to make a killer alcohol-free cocktail. Dry January—aka Dryuary—became popular in 2013, and since then, there’s been a growing interest in drinking less and the alcohol-free movement, largely because of the toll alcohol can take on mental health.
At the beginning of the pandemic, people turned to virtual happy hours and became home bartenders, but they’re slowing down now, O’Brien says. “Ever since the middle of the summer, I’ve been transitioning more into non-alcoholic drinks. I think it’s only going to rise more in popularity,” she says.
The holidays are approaching, which means you may be hosting socially distanced soirees or attending even more virtual gatherings. Whether you’re hosting someone who doesn’t drink or you don’t want to drink, non-alcoholic cocktails don’t have to be boring. Below, O’Brien shares seven ways to make drinks that wow without the booze.
If you want to closely replicate an actual cocktail, reach for a non-alcoholic spirit. Seedlip was one of the first distilled non-alcoholic spirits, but more have joined the booze-free party. O’Brien is a fan of Ronsin, a non-alcoholic take on rum with a smoky molasses flavor. “I’ve made a non-alcoholic Dark and Stormy (ginger beer and rum) that always goes really well,” she says. Other zero-proof spirits to check out include the Swedish Gnista and Spiritless Kentucky 74, a barrel-aged drink inspired by bourbon.
Shrubs are vinegar-based fruit syrups that are a sharp combination of sweet and tangy. O’Brien likes to make her own in the fall with cranberries, but brands like 18.21 Bitters make a variety of interesting combinations, including blood orange and ginger. All you have to do to make a fun drink is mix the shrub of your choice with soda. “Serve it in a high ball,” O’Brien says. “You’re going to want something tall with it because of the acid component, and you’ll need a lengthener (like soda).”
One of the things that people get wrong when mixing non-alcoholic drinks is disregarding the garnish. “Make it look like a cocktail as much as possible. Treating yourself to that visual experience is really nice,” O’Brien says. Herbs and cherries are classics, but also try dehydrated citrus wheels and fruit skewered on glitzy cocktail picks.
The way you package an alcohol-free drink is almost as important as the actual drink itself. “It makes you feel like you’re not at the kids’ table,” O’Brien says. Treating these drinks the way you would a cocktail helps the drinker have a full experience. If you’re making a faux margarita, for example, put in a margarita glass with a festive salt rim. Even Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider tastes better in a champagne flute.
Want to avoid a sugar bomb? Think bitter. Q Mixers makes a refreshingly dry tonic water that can be enlivened with a syrup or juice. Their grapefruit tonic pairs excellently with Aecorn, a non-alcoholic spirit reminiscent of Aperol that will hit the United States in late spring. O’Brien likes Sanbitter—a carbonated beverage with flavors similar to Campari—and Jack Rudy’s tonic syrup, which you can add to the soda of your choice.
“You have to have a strong player, and being innovative with what you’re bringing to your drink plays a huge part,” O’Brien says. Making a fun syrup can help your alcohol-free drink shine, and it’s something that you can use for alcoholic drinks, as well (if you’re making both).
If you can, O’Brien suggests going to your local farmers market and using what’s in season. Even carrots can be turned into a syrup. “I would just replace any water content in a syrup with the juice of whatever fruit or vegetable that you would want,” O’Brien says. If you’d rather buy something, 18.21 makes syrups in interesting flavors like lemon basil and spiced honey.
One secret weapon to keep on hand for zero-proof drinks is verjus. Verjus is a tangy juice that resembles wine and is made by pressing unripe red or white grapes. It’s sometimes flavored with spices and herbs. “You could do a red verjus spritzer with cranberry and rosemary,” O’Brien says. “I’ll also use it as an acid substitute in my cocktails by swapping out lemon or lime to give the drink a tanic, ripe, grape feeling to it.”