Of all the non-alcoholic cocktails, the crisp, clean martini is the hardest to replicate.
A classic martini is made with two key ingredients: gin and dry vermouth. If either isn’t up to par, the martini won’t be, either.
By comparison, highballs, which are lengthened with fizzy mixers, and sour-style drinks like daiquiris or margaritas that are flavored by a mix of tart and sweet components, can be forgiving. Though it may be accented by a dash of bitters or a twist of lemon peel, the austere martini offers nothing to hide behind.
An ever-widening array of non-alcoholic “botanical elixirs” exist, styled after those used to flavor gin.
Yet, many miss the mark perhaps because they haven’t been made by producers that understand or value gin.
That has slowly changed, as a number of legacy gin producers have rolled out non-alcoholic bottlings.
England’s Salcombe, Amsterdam’s Damrak, and Amass, which makes gin in Los Angeles and elsewhere, have brought booze-free bottles to U.S. shelves in the past six months. Damrak was released in “Sober October,” while Salcome and its New London Light (NLL) debuted during “Dry January.”
In England, gin’s spiritual birthplace, options are more robust.
“Non-alcoholic Gin” was the top search term in the faux alcohol space by UK consumers on Amazon last year. In general, the UK has outpaced America in non-alcoholic offerings. According to a December 2020 study from Distill Ventures, the UK had 42 non-alcoholic spirit brands, while the U.S. had 29.
It might not be a surprise that martini lovers eye two London Dry-style zero-proofers, for now only available in England: Tanqueray 0.0%, launched in February, and Gordon’s 0.0%, introduced in December.
Diageo, owner of both brands, declined to specify when either bottling might be available in the U.S. That hasn’t stopped bartenders stateside from buzzing about the Tanqueray offering, in particular.
To be clear, none of these non-alcoholic “gins” are exact replicas of the original. Martini enthusiasts should recalibrate expectations a bit.
For example, the citrus notes tend to be more pronounced, instead of piney juniper. Some use capsicum heat to mimic gin’s alcohol bite. But they can also be pleasing.
Salcombe’s NLL, for example, hits the right aromatic notes, as it channels bright lemon peel and spice.
The only non-alcoholic vermouth I’ve discovered is Blutul Bianco. It’s excellent, but it’s produced in Germany and can be a challenge to find in the U.S. It can be purchased in limited quantities via Amazon, however.
Some non-alcoholic spirit experts like Chris Marshall, founder of Austin’s Sans Bar, and Sam Thonis of Brooklyn’s Getaway Bar, recommend Lyre’s Apéritif as an alternative to wine-based aperitifs like Lillet Blanc.
“I have found Lyre’s to be the closest at matching flavors of sweeter spirits [and] liqueurs, but it’s still a far cry from the real thing, in my opinion,” says Thonis.
Vermouth is just wine that’s been aromatized and fortified, so a small measure of non-alcoholic white wine like Teetotaler Wines can pinch-hit in a martini, possibly supplemented with a splash of sweet-tart verjus.
For those who feel ambitious, follow the lead of Ryan Chavis, beverage manager at New York City’s Union Square Café. He infuses spices, citrus peels and bittering agents into an alcohol-free wine to DIY a proper vermouth.
In general, the same rules used to make a standard-issue martini apply to non-alcoholic variations.
Go with whatever proportions please you. Two parts Salcombe’s NLL “gin” to one part Blutul Bianco “vermouth” is my sweet spot. Marshall suggests a drier build, with two ounces of Lyre’s Dry London Spirit to ¼-ounce Lyre’s Dry Apéritif.
A couple dashes of orange or grapefruit bitters can add complexity, particularly if you don’t use a wine or aperitif with natural bitterness. Most bitters contain some alcohol. For those who seek zero proof, try those made by Dram.
Like the full-proof version, the drink is best served extremely cold. That can be achieved via stirring with ice (or shaking, no judgments), it’s even better pre-mixed and stashed in the freezer, which thickens the texture a bit. You can stash glasses in the freezer, too.
But don’t leave your non-alcoholic martini in freezer too long. More than 20–30 minutes, and it will freeze solid.
Presentation matters, as well. Some might argue it matters even more for a no-octane drink, so do it up with beautiful glassware and garnishes. In all its forms, the iconic martini deserves no less.
Three Non-alcoholic Takes on Gin:
Launched in U.S. in January, it’s a distinctly lemony, light-bodied take that finishes with an exhale of dried sage.
Botanicals: There are 15 in total, which includes juniper, cardamom, ginger, habanero capsicum, orange, sage, cascarilla bark (quinquina, a bittering agent) and lemongrass.
Sweet spice leads this bracing gin alternative that finishes with a dusty tickle that suggests black pepper, coriander and anise.
Botanicals: Juniper, Valencia and Curaçao orange peels, ginger, angelica root, lavender, cinnamon, coriander, star aniseed and lemon peel.
Created to channel “the towering firs and coastal mountains of British Columbia,” this is notably earthy and lush, as it channels lemon verbena, pine and mint tones.
Botanicals: Juniper, coriander, orris root, angelica root, lemon peel, cardamom, sorrel, cucumber, apple, mint, parsley, sumac, rosemary and thyme.