There are lots of reasons to take a break from drinking (or so I’ve been told), but among the newer ones is that non-alcoholic cocktails are now, at long last, interesting.
From the dawn of human civilization until about seven years ago—and ignoring coffee and tea, which are largely daytime phenomena—your options were either alcohol or something sugary, bland or both. Your mind may race to some neon-colored electric lemonade mocktail at a TGI Fridays. But ever since Seedlip came out with the first distilled non-alcoholic “spirit” in 2015, the industry, and the experience of the social non-drinker, has utterly transformed. If nothing else, this little NA revolution has shown us that “adult beverage” and “alcoholic beverage” are no longer synonyms.
So let’s start with the good news. What’s different about these as opposed to an unsweet soda like Dry or Gus or even LaCroix is that they use distillation to capture the essence of flavors in the same way alcoholic spirits do, so the experience of them is mature, refined and indisputably adult. An orange soda is liquid candy, but an orange distillate is floral and zesty and juicy and sugar-free. Additionally, the good producers have begun to realize that the slight burn of a good spirit is part of the appeal and so they introduce tannins, acids and/or spice to imitate it. That’s another thing we’ve learned about adult beverages—we tend to want them to bite back.
The bad news is that of the several dozen non-alcoholic spirits I’ve tried, in my opinion none of them are good enough to drink on their own. That’s ok, they’re not really meant for that, but in the spectrum of healthy alternatives to less-healthy things, NA spirits are still more towards black bean patties than they are Impossible Burgers. What’s more, they’re also expensive: While Seedlip is more elegant than LaCroix, it can and has been accused of being a $32 bottle of water, because, well, it is.
Cool and interesting though they are, the best way to use these NA spirits, to absorb their gifts and compensate for what they lack, is to pair them with strong flavors and a fuller body. And while there’s a lot of good ways to do this, from coconut cream to egg whites to glycerine, my favorite for winter is to make a solid ginger-honey syrup. As with the excellent Penicillin, the spice of ginger electrifies the experience and warm broad sweetness of honey compensates for the spirit’s lack of weight, pairing beautifully with each other and with just about everything else, too. It’s good with any spirit in your collection, NAs included, can be served warm or cold and adds just enough punch to make the whole thing, at long last, interesting.
“Penicillin” Sour with NA Spirit
- 2 oz. NA spirit
- 0.75 oz. lemon juice
- 0.75 oz. ginger-honey syrup
For a cold drink:
Add all ingredients to a shaker. Shake hard on ice for six to eight seconds and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a lemon peel or a piece of candied ginger.
For a hot drink:
Pour some hot water in your mug or Irish Coffee glass, to warm it. After roughly 30 seconds, pour out water and then add to your glass the ingredients. Top with 4 to 5 oz. hot water and garnish with a cinnamon stick or clove-studded lemon wheel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
NA Spirit: The nice thing about a good spicy ginger-honey syrup is that it works well in almost every application. For the cold drink, my favorite is a whiskey substitute and my favorite of those so far is Kentucky 74. That would work for the hot drink as well, or you could grab an aromatic spiced “rum” like the “R” from CleanCo or the Spiced Cane Spirit from Lyre’s.
Ginger-Honey Syrup: You ideally want the ginger to be spicy and fresh and for that you have to make it yourself. There are three good ways, in the order in which I prefer them, which is also spiciest to least spicy.
- If you have access to a good juicer, you can literally juice ginger (it’s fibrous and the yield is horrible, but it’s so good) and add 4 oz. ginger juice to 12 oz. honey and stir to mix.
- If you have a good blender, you can do 4 oz. chopped ginger root and 4 oz. hot water to a blender and blend on high for 30 seconds, making a spicy ginger water. Strain out the fibrous solids, then add about 8 oz. honey.
- Otherwise, on the stove, add to a small pot 6 oz. honey, 3 oz. water and a finely chopped 3- to 4-oz. piece of ginger and simmer on low for ten minutes, before letting cool, straining out solids and bottling.