Cocktails without the kick are gaining popularity.
—by Jeanne O’Brien Coffey
A few years ago, the choices for a nonalcoholic drink—even at an upscale bar—were mainly limited to sparkling water with a twist of lime or an insipid faux beer. These days, new zero-proof examples of classic spirits, from aperitifs to gins to whiskeys, seem to crop up every week. They’ve become so popular that Michelin-starred restaurants now offer nonalcoholic pairing menus.
According to a study done by Nielsen, millennials are leading the mindful-drinking charge: Two-thirds reported trying to reduce their alcohol consumption last year. They’re not alone. Drinking has been trending downward across the board for years as people focus more on health and wellness.
“All statistics show that alcohol per capita consumption is in decline,” says Mark Livings, CEO and cofounder of Lyre’s Spirit Co., which offers 13 different zero-proof sips, from Italian Orange, with a flavor profile like Campari, to Dark Cane Spirit, which echoes aged rum. But people still want the familiar flavors and textures of their favorite cocktails, whether giving up imbibing for a day or permanently, he says.
That desire has created an entirely new category of beverage, as makers scramble to craft drinks that skip the alcohol while keeping the flavor intact. Some, like Lyre’s, rely on blending fruits, spices, and botanicals, while others, like Damrak VirGin, use classic distillation methods but eliminate the alcohol—which, it turns out, is no small feat.
“I’d love to say distillation was an easy choice for us,” says Tanya Cohn, global brand manager for Damrak VirGin, whose parent company, Amsterdam-based Lucas Bols, has been crafting spirits since 1575. “In reality, it took our team two years to perfect the recipe, trying different methods of extracting flavor.” The company uses the same stills for making Damrak VirGin as for the company’s spirited Damrak Original Gin, melding 10 botanicals that spotlight citrus peels. “It’s quite a challenge to have a stable, consistent product without alcohol involved,” says Cohn, noting that it is actually more costly to produce Damrak VirGin than its boozy sibling.
The results were worth it. The zero-proof spirit, bright with fresh citrus notes in combination with other botanicals, is a great stand-in for gin in everything from a French 75 to a gin and tonic.
For the sober curious not interested in mixology, there is a growing category of bottled nonalcoholic cocktails to explore. Curious Elixirs, for example, offers ready-to-drink bottles that evoke classic tipples, from Negroni to Aperol Spritz, carefully crafted from exotic ingredients like ashwagandha, rhodiola, gentian, and holy basil.
With so many options on the bar, mindful drinking is here to stay, says John Wiseman, founder of Curious Elixirs. “After thousands of years, humans are finally reevaluating our relationship with alcohol, yet we still want something delicious to celebrate with. It’s not that alcohol is bad; it’s that too much alcohol is bad.”
COCKTAILS FOR CLEAR HEADS
Seeking a more mindful relationship with cocktails? Try these spirit-free alternatives to popular summer drinks.
APEROL SPRITZ: Swap out the Aperol for Ghia, a bitter aperitif full of Mediterranean-inspired flavors of lemon balm, elderflower, and rosemary. drinkghia.com
AMERICANO: Remake this classic blend of sweet vermouth and Campari, topped with soda water, by combining Lyre’s Italian Orange and Aperitif Rosso. lyres.com
GIN AND TONIC: Switch the gin with Damrak VirGin for a sunny, citrusy take on this poolside classic. damrakgin.com/damrak-virgin
NEGRONI: Skip the mixology and pop open Curious Elixir No. 1. It’s bitter, herbaceous, and just a touch juicy. curiouselixirs.com
MINT JULEP: Replace all or part of the bourbon with Spiritless Kentucky 74 to stay clear-headed on Derby day. spiritless.com