Food & Drinks

The Golden Age of Alcohol-Free

If there’s any indicator that non-alcoholic cocktails have entered a second golden age, it’s the enthusiasm with which bartenders have begun integrating alcohol-free products and cocktails onto their shelves and into menus. Across the country, drink-makers both professional and amateur are reassessing what it means to create alcohol-free drinks beyond the usual fruit-syrup-soda formula. As bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana tells Julia Bainbridge in her book on the subject, Good Drinks: “It’s not about making a drink minus booze. It’s about taking the care to make a balanced drink, and it happens not to have booze.”

The category of no-ABV spirits is being beefed up, too, led by Seedlip, a line of distilled flavor-driven NA spirits made in the United Kingdom. As a pioneer in the non-alcoholic space, the brand has pushed the category to innovate, and in doing so has changed the concept of what a spiritless cocktail can mean. “There’s a lot to be said for the trail they blazed,” says Douglas Watters, owner of Spirited Away, a non-alcoholic spirits store in Manhattan. “They’ve eased people into the category.”

Julia Momose, owner of cocktail bar Kumiko in Chicago, calls Seedlip “the original” non-alcoholic spirit. “I love their approach as a company,” she says. Rather than attempting “to evoke the flavors of an alcoholic spirit,” she says, the brand created an entirely new set of flavor profiles unrelated to traditional categories like gin or whiskey. Though she began experimenting with their offerings by simply mixing them with tonic or ginger ale, Momose soon saw the potential for each bottle’s nuances to unfold. “The Garden 108 has a flavor profile that is so hard to capture—pea pods and young greens.” She was especially eager to work with a product that was crystal clear: “It’s a challenge to make a super flavorful [non-alcoholic] drink that still has the clarity of a beautiful Gin & Tonic or Negroni,” she says.

In her Garden View, a play on a summer menu staple called Fields of Green, she takes inspiration from both the Garden 108’s fresh, structured flavors and her Japanese upbringing. Momose begins building flavor with a shichimi-lemon syrup, which combines lemon peels with shichimi tōgarashi (Japanese seven spice) for a “sunny red profile,” then adds the “deep, hay-like quality and warming tones” of sencha tea, whose passion fruit notes provide a comforting sensation. The backbone of the cocktail is the Garden 108. Altogether, Momose says the cocktail is meant to evoke the cozy feeling of looking out at a crisp winter landscape through a yukimi shōji—windows in Japanese architecture built specifically to view snow.

For Kelsey Ramage, owner of the drink delivery service Dolly Trolley Drinks in Toronto, Seedlip inspired her to look beyond citrus and syrups. “I have a whole new way of building NA drinks,” she says. “I’m thinking about fermentation, kombucha, verjus and tea. They were already here, we just weren’t thinking about them.” With its hard-to-replicate fresh, green flavor, Seedlip is a go-to brightener for Ramage—so much so that she even reaches for it as a modifier when making alcoholic drinks. “The Grove 42 works well with gin or sherry, or spirit-free drinks that require a more nuanced citrus element beyond lemon or lime.”

For her Winter Leaf Fizz, built upon Seedlip’s Spice 94, Ramage wanted to skip the well-worn territory of baking spice and ginger; turning to a local Toronto tea importer for alternate ideas resulted in a vibrant force-carbonated rooibos tea. This she adds to a housemade cranberry “wine,” whose acid and fruit structure bring in a fermented note while adding viscosity, while “the Spice 94 adds a richening element that often feels like it can be missing from NA drinks.”

At True Laurel in San Francisco, Nicolas Torres has helped build out the bar’s roster of NA offerings by experimenting with seasonal produce and fermentable products. “We were sick of making gingery lemonades with a bunch of soda filler,” he says. “On the fly, these new NA products work to fill volume and the flavor profile.” At his bar, Seedlip’s garden-driven aromatics and flavors work as a complement to their produce-focused program. “We think about flavor pairings outside of the spirit, and look to the season first,” says Torres.

Root beer, with its complex aromatics, was the starting point for his Soil Expedition cocktail, as was kefir whey. “I learned that a culture could be made from kefir grains, and thought it would be cool to make a root beer with it,” Torres says. Flavored with an old-fashioned mix of star anise, sarsaparilla, burdock root, sassafras, licorice root and lavender, Torres’ kefir–root beer base is underscored by Seedlip Spice 94 and the citrus punch of Grove 42. “The kefir culture adds a kombucha tang,” says Torres. “It’s like A&W, but a lengthier ride.”

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