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How to make delicious non-boozy cocktails with alcohol-free spiritsExpert tips for pairing products and flavour profiles to make sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks.

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Expert tips for pairing products and flavour profiles to make sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks

Jen O’Brien · CBC Life(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Important note: Many non-alcoholic drinks contain a small amount of alcohol (lower than what would require it to be disclosed on the label), making them unsuitable for anyone looking to avoid alcohol entirely. As well, many alcohol-free products use herbs and other ingredients that pregnant people or those with medical conditions may be advised to avoid.

There's been much discussion (and finally, some data) about whether we're collectively drinking more alcohol these days. But there's no question that seriously delicious no-alcohol drink options have arrived.

While the want for sophisticated no-spirit drinks is not new, it seems even more of us are demanding them, and both mixologists and manufacturers are ready to match expectations. Christina Veira, a co-owner of Toronto's Bar Mordecai who also teaches courses on spirits, said she's noticed that people are reimagining their relationship with alcohol, and many are swapping in a few alcohol-free cocktails when out for drinks. Indeed, a recent reportfound non-alcoholic beverages are gaining traction, with global sales expected to reach $2.2 trillion by 2028. 

Veira said the "ritual of going out for drinks" is important across cultures — whether it's alcoholic beverages or tea — and she's welcomed the rising demand for non-alcoholic drinks, offering more of them on her menu. "I think we can shift what that [ritual] has to look like," she said.

A changed cocktail scene

Just as non-alcoholic drinks have evolved, so too has the terminology surrounding them. "Mocktails" and "virgin" drinks, likely hangovers from the heyday of the Shirley Temple and Virgin Mary, have been replaced on bar menus with less passé wording. 

"Personally, I think these terms are a touch outdated," said Kaitlyn Stewart, Vancouver-based cocktail consultant and curator at Likeable Cocktails. "I much rather use the terms 'spirit-free' or 'NA cocktails.' I don't want someone to feel like they're getting a subpar version of a cocktail."

Kate Boushel, a Montreal-based bartender and beverage director at Barroco Group, agreed. "'Mocktail' is kind of an annoying word because it makes you feel like it's not the real thing," she said. "But it might be the real thing for you." 

The scene is looking up though, with worthy booze-free options available now, especially for cocktails.

"The want and need has always been there — we just haven't had access to quality cost-efficient products until as of late," said Stewart, whose popular TikTok accountfeatured "no and low" cocktails throughout the month of January. "With more and more products hitting the shelves every day, the demand is visibly increasing for top-notch offerings. The boring cranberry soda is taking a back seat to skillfully crafted spirit-free martinis and mules."

Mixed drink know-how

So how do you use these new products to create a great non-alcoholic cocktail? 

The experts agreed it's all about experimenting to achieve a balance of flavours. Some non-alcoholic spirits are ideal for emulating traditional libations, while others lend themselves better to entirely new creations. The trickiest part of perfecting a spirit-free sipper is nailing the mouth feel, they noted, something usually provided by alcohol. While you won't necessarily get the burn of an alcoholic cocktail with an alternative, the right mix of sweet, sour, bitter and body can produce the same complexity you'd expect in a stiff drink. The experts recommended playing around with sugar and non-alcoholic bitters to add dimension, and being mindful of citrus levels as some non-alcoholic spirits are more acidic than their boozy brethren. 

Non-alcoholic spirits with botanicals like Ceder's or Seedlip, work well for recreating drinks like a gin and tonic, said Veira, who recommended starting with two ounces of a gin alternative, then topping with your favourite mixer. She also suggested exploring all of the different tonics on the market these days. "Tonics have this natural bitterness to them as well as sweet," she said. "Getting an aromatic tonic versus a Mediterranean one versus a lemon one can change your whole cocktail experience."  

Boushel recommended experimenting with non-alcoholic vermouths such as Martini Floreale. She described its flavour as dry and round. Mix roughly two ounces with roughly three-quarters of an ounce each of fresh lime juice and a rich simple syrup (like cane syrup), and you'll end up with a great non-alcoholic gimlet, she said. Boushel also said to start with equal parts non-alcoholic sweet red vermouth like Lyre's Aperitif Rosso, a citrusy bittersweet non-alcoholic aperitif such as Martini Vibrante, and a gin alternative to create a twist on the classic negroni — then play around with the proportions to get the mouth feel right.

If you're someone who loves to make rum and Coke, daiquiris or punches to entertain, a rum alternative like Fluere, which is a non-alcoholic cane spirit, could come in handy. Veira said she likes to use it to recreate tiki-bar classics like the Jungle Bird. "This is a drink that you can make for someone, and it's going to be so rich in complexity that no one's going to think it's non-alcoholic," she said. Her method is to mix roughly one ounce of non-alcoholic aperitif, such as Novara, with 1½ ounces of Fluere, 1½ ounces of pineapple juice, half an ounce of lime juice and half an ounce of simple syrup.

You can create a refreshing no-alcohol spritz too. Veira prepares her version with non-alcoholic sparkling wine such as Gruvi — which she said is not too sweet and mimics what you'd get from a cava or a prosecco — alongside a non-alcoholic aperitif, like Aecorn or Novara, and sparkling water in equal parts.

Stewart, Veira and Boushel all cited herbaceous botanical spirits such as Seedlip as non-alcoholic bar-cart essentials. Veira said its aromatics have inspired her to experiment with new flavours, noting that they work particularly well in tea-based cocktails and tea punches incorporating verjus, sumac or shrubs. "Try one part homemade shrubs, two parts Seedlip and top with soda if you like," she said. Boushel uses the brand's Garden 108 variety in place of vodka for non-alcoholic Bloody Caesars. 

According to the experts, open-mindedness and a willingness to create worthy alternatives are key to getting non-alcoholic cocktails right — and to making your next gathering more inclusive. Veira stressed the importance of having thoughtful no-alcohol drinks when entertaining to allow everyone to feel comfortable in your space. Boushel echoed the sentiment: "By having a diversified cocktail offering, you're telling people that your space is also safe for anyone."


Jen O'Brienis an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien.

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