How to Make Balanced Non-Alcoholic Cocktails, According to Bartenders

Gaby Mlynarczyk mixes non-alcoholic cocktail
Gaby Mlynarczyk/Photo by Eugene Lee

Non-alcoholic beverages may be one of the most exciting areas of the drinks world right now. (Yes. You read that right.)

“As a person who’s been writing about drinks for a long time, sometimes it feels like there’s nothing new under the sun,” says Maggie Hoffman, author of The One-Bottle Cocktail (Ten Speed Press, 2018) and Batch Cocktails (Ten Speed Press, 2019). “This is an area, though, where there’s very active improvement. Bartenders are really working hard on it, and the drinks are getting better and better. Companies are trying to develop better products, and there are new things to taste.”

So, how do you go about making an elegant non-alcoholic drink, fit for an adult, at home? There are no rules, no fixed canon of classic non-alcoholic cocktails and no prescribed ways to make them.

That’s why Ryan Chetiyawardana, whose London bars have won numerous awards and is arguably the world’s most influential bartender, thinks trial and error is the way to go.

“Believe in your own palate and use that as a starting point,” he says. “Throw some experiments at the wall and see what suits your own tastes.”

Here, more tips from bartenders putting real energy into making grownup, balanced non-alcoholic drinks.

Ryan Chetiyawardana and a pineapple leaf highball.
Ryan Chetiyawardana recommends creating non-alcoholic cocktails with bright flavors, like this pineapple leaf highball/Photo by Harriet Clare

Build your Non-alcoholic Bar

The product that really blew this space open was Seedlip, a botanical-driven, alcohol-free “spirit” that launched in Britain in 2015 and came to the U.S. shortly after. Founder Ben Branson uses a specific maceration, distillation and filtration process for each ingredient in all three Seedlip varieties: Garden 108, which tastes like peas, rosemary and thyme; Spice 94, made with allspice, cardamom, grapefruit and bitter barks; and Grove 42, which combines blood orange with ginger and lemongrass.

The first 1,000 bottles of Seedlip sold out in three weeks. The second 1,000-bottle batch lasted three days, and the next was snapped up in just 30 minutes.

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Other non-alcoholic spirits and aperitifs have since come to market. This month, drinks giant Diageo purchased a minority stake in a line of low- and no-alcohol spirits called Ritual Beverage in partnership with Distill Ventures, a beverage startup investment firm.

“At the moment, the category is in its very early stages,” says Frank Lampen, cofounder of Distill. Non-alcoholic beverages make up a quarter of Distill’s portfolio and, over the next few years, Lampen expects the birth of many more brands.

At Redbird in Los Angeles, bar director Tobin Shea creates spirit-free drinks using Seedlip as well as Proteau’s Ludlow Red.

“They cut the sweetness,” he says, which speaks to a persistent complaint about nonalcoholic cocktails: too much sugar.

Shea’s Frankie Valli cocktail is a mixture of Ludlow Red, Seedlip Spice 94, lime juice and a hibiscus and rose tea syrup served on crushed ice in a tall rocks glass. “It drinks like a sangria,” he says.

Riff on Tradition

Some bartenders make alcohol-free versions of traditional cocktails. That said, you can’t recreate a Negroni exactly. Ethanol tastes and behaves in a particular way, so simply removing the gin from a Negroni and replacing it with, say, Seedlip Garden 108, is a recipe for failure.

“If you take the thing out of the thing that makes it ‘the thing,’ it can no longer be ‘the thing,’ ” says Branson.

Instead, take a step back and consider the experience a Negroni delivers. It’s sweet up front, then bitter and dry at the end. It tastes of stewed plums, rhubarb, vanilla and bitter orange.

Next, think about how to convey that using teas, herbs, spices, vinegars, fruits, vegetables and other non-alcoholic ingredients. The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) is a great resource for flavor combinations.

The Negroni may not be the best place to start. It’s difficult to deliver those kinds of assertive, bitter flavors without investing in gentian root and significant time in front of the stove. Instead, bar professionals suggest looking at the DNA of a margarita, a Collins or a spritz.

“It’s easier to control those brighter, cleaner flavors and get a good result,” says Chetiyawardana.

Kingfisher's Sean Ulmstead and Sunomono cocktail
Kingfisher’s Sean Umstead treats non-alcoholic drinks like a dish, balancing their flavor components/Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Think Like a Chef

Some bartenders are driven by the farmers’ market. When rhubarb is in season, Gaby Mlynarczyk, author of Clean & Dirty Drinking (Chronicle, 2018), lets it be the main event. She’ll make rhubarb consommé with the stalks and then incorporate vanilla, juniper berries, lemon peels and whatever else will best play supporting roles.

“It’s all about drawing out the flavor from the rhubarb,” she says.

Mixologist Hansuk Cho, who creates non-alcoholic pairings for Chef Dave Beran’s tasting menu at Dialogue in Santa Monica, California, is inspired by beverages like wine as well as her own personal sense memories.

“During autumn, my hometown in the countryside of Korea is filled with a toasty scent because the farmers are burning the crops to get ready for the next year,” she says. To turn that into a drink, she toasted grains of barley and made a tea from them. She then sweetened the liquid slightly with a syrup flavored by charred corn husks.

“Usually, I have a fruit element and a floral element in my drinks as well as some acid, but I wanted to give this more of a whiskey feeling,” says Cho.

Sean Umstead, who owns Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, treats non-alcoholic drinks like a dish, considering its sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami elements.

“When you don’t have a bottle to just pick up and throw in the glass, you have to think a little harder,” says Umstead.

Mixologist Hansuk Cho and non-alcoholic blood orange drink
Mixologist Hansuk Cho uses teas, herbs and produce in her non-alcoholic cocktail pairings for menus at Dialogue restaurant/Photo by Jeremy Zelikovic

Working with fresh produce? Taste the juice to gauge the level of sweetness or tartness, then think about complementary flavors. Also, consider your technique. Roasted fruits and vegetables will give you richer, more caramelized flavors than raw ones.

Fresh herbs are your friend. “Anise, tarragon, lemon thyme—these bright herbs give you a punch in this clean, enlivening kind of way,” says Chetiyawardana.

Cho dilutes clarified quince and pear juices with an infusion of fresh sage, which has notes of pine and eucalyptus.

“On the tongue, it’s not overwhelming because the mouthfeel of the orchard fruit is round and deep,” she says. “But when it comes to fragrance, the sage punches you in the face…in a good way.”

Tea is also a useful tool. “Part of the pleasure of having a great wine or cocktail is the way it dries out your palate and draws you back in,” says Chetiyawardana. The tannins in some teas will do the same thing.

Plus, there’s range within the world of tea. Woody pu-erh will give you something different from light, floral chamomile. You can also play with steep times.

Spices, nuts, vinegars, sugars, orange blossom water or rose water can all be used in drinks, so get creative. A pinch of salt at the end ties everything together.

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Have No Fear

“It’s more about confidence than having a specific skill set,” says Chetiyawardana. “Be comfortable with your own taste.”

He recommends that people sample options at bars and restaurants, and to also taste things before investing in ingredients and home trials.

“Professional places get you past your comfort zone and help you tune your palate,” he says. “Maybe you realize you love sumac and kombucha actually does turn you on.”

Then, play around with folding those ingredients into teas or other beverages that you like.

Perhaps most importantly, “lean into the idea of it being non-alcoholic,” says Chetiyawardana. “It’s not about making a drink minus booze, it’s that you’re making a drink. And it happens not to have booze.”

Published on January 22, 2020
Topics: Drinks


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