Bartender Basics: How to Make Nonalcoholic Cocktails on a Budget

Animation of tea, herbs and apple cider vinegar going into cocktail shaker
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Terms like “mocktail” make nonalcoholic drinks sound complicated and bartender-y. The truth is, whether you’ve added a dash of honey and lemon to a cup of tea, or mixed cranberry and seltzer over ice, you’ve created a nonalcoholic cocktail using the same basic principles that go into their alcoholic counterparts.

The same rules that govern the balance of sweet to sour, or bitter to sweet, can be used whether alcohol is a factor or not. What’s more, you don’t need to completely restock your kitchen or home bar to make satisfying nonalcoholic concoctions. Whether you’re going full detox or are just looking for something refreshing without the added booze, here are a few tips for making nonalcoholic cocktails.

Keep equal parts sweet to sour

The same principle behind the Golden Ratio (2 parts spirit, 1 part sweet, 1 part sour) also works for nonalcoholic drinks, while substituting the spirit for sparkling water or other zero-proof ingredient. What makes the ratio work isn’t the alcohol, but the equal balance of sweet and sour elements.

In practice, this means that one ounce of lemon or lime juice combined with one ounce of simple syrup, which is just equal parts sugar and water mixed together. Flavored syrups, like the juice from a jar of maraschino cherries or DIY grenadine, can also be used in place of simple syrup for an added dimension.

Bartender Basics: How to Make Infusions and Syrups

Once you’ve got your sweet and sour combination, you can add the mixture it to an array of nonalcoholic bases to create a drink with a flavor profile akin to most drinks in the sour family (daiquiris, gimlets, margaritas). Most fruit juices will work as a base, as long as they’re not too sugary. You can also substitute sparkling water, tea or other nonalcoholic ingredients. Lime juice, simple syrup, seltzer and a healthy pinch of mint is all it takes to get the refreshment of a mojito without the booze to weigh you down.

Tea is your friend

Tea is an underrated ingredient in both traditional and nonalcoholic cocktails. It’s extremely versatile in mocktails as a stand-in for brown spirits. Tea’s tannins and astringency can provide the balance an alcoholic drink may gain from barrel-aged spirits. It’s best to brew tea destined for cocktails at double strength to prevent its flavors from being overwhelmed by the other ingredients.

For sour cocktails like those above, which involve sugar and citrus, lighter herbal teas like chamomile or lemon verbena, cooled to room temperature, can be used as your base in place of a spirit. Many popular herbal tea blends you’ll find at the supermarket even contain a lot of the same botanical ingredients as gin (dried lemon and orange, juniper, lavender, angelica).

Lapsang souchong, a tea from Fujian, China, is smoked over cypress or pinewood fires. This makes a fantastic replacement for drinks that may favor a smoky or peaty Scotch. Kuding tea is an extremely bitter option that, while an acquired taste for some, offers an herbal profile akin to many amaros, particularly when used in small amounts.  For a less astringent choice, yerba mate can also lend similar, eucalyptus-like notes.

Use herbs

Nonalcoholic cocktails are a great time to experiment with herbs and spices, both to recreate the aromas and flavors of popular spirits, but also to find combinations that work without the burden of balancing the pungent flavor of alcohol at the same time.

Everyone knows mint works well in iconic drinks like mojitos and juleps, but try experimenting with other ingredients like basil and rosemary. It helps to keep your favorite culinary combinations in mind—cilantro may sound like an odd cocktail ingredient, but the same way the herb pairs well with lime at your favorite taco joint, shaking it into a nonalcoholic gimlet with a bit of lime and simple syrup makes for a delicious drink.

If you’re able to get your hands on them, spruce tips are also a fantastic ingredient in beverages, and can be bought online or in many brewing supply stores. Infused in a syrup or just added when shaking your drink, they provide pleasant aromas of pine and resin, but also contribute a touch of tannic bitterness that can help make your drink taste more like a proper cocktail and less like a punch. Fun fact: Early American brewers often used spruce as a bittering agent in lieu of hops for their beers, including an early recipe from noted homebrewer Benjamin Franklin.

Vinegar, the un-spirit

The trend of taking vinegar out of the kitchen and putting it behind the bar has grown in recent years. It’s also one of the more versatile tools for replacing alcohol in your drink. This is due in part to its nature as a naturally fermented ingredient that offers an array of complex flavors, and a low pH that mirrors that of many alcoholic beverages.

Shrubs have become a common ingredient in many cocktails bars. This Colonial-era concoction commonly involves a combination of sugar, vinegar and fruit, left to mature over a few days. Shrubs are used as an ingredient in alcoholic cocktails, but this simple-to-make mixture can also be sipped on its own or combined with other ingredients like seltzer for a zesty, refreshing nonalcoholic beverage.

Bartender Basics: DIY Substitutions for Common Cocktail Ingredients

A close cousin to the shrub is switchel, an apple cider vinegar-based concoction that has origins in both the Caribbean and Colonial New England. While recipes can vary, this drink commonly features vinegar infused ginger, then sweetened with maple syrup, molasses, honey or brown sugar. Ingredients are usually allowed to rest for a period of a few hours to a few days before consuming, though some producers barrel-age their switchels for longer periods, not unlike a whiskey.

While commercial brands of switchel are increasingly available, it’s also easy to make your own at home.

Nonalcoholic spirits

If you don’t feel like delving into the world of homemade infusions and science experiments, the market for nonalcoholic spirits has never been bigger. Early adopters like Seedlip have steadily risen in popularity, offering non-alcoholic distilled botanical mixers. However, a wealth of other options have entered the scene in recent years, from Proteau’s vermouth-style aperitif, to Australia-based Lyre’s line of alcohol-free bottlings meant to approximate everything from London dry gin to faux-amaretto and absinthe. However, many nonalcoholic spirits are priced akin to their alcoholic counterparts, so be prepared to spend accordingly.

Curious for more? Discover 12 of our favorite non-alcoholic “spirits.”

Published on January 22, 2021
Topics: Bartending Basics