How to Make Balanced Non-Alcoholic Cocktails, According to Bartenders
Non-alcoholic beverages may be one of the most exciting areas of the drinks world right now. (Yes. You read that right).
This is an area, where there’s very active improvement. Bartenders are really working hard on it, and the drinks are getting better and better. Companies are trying to develop better products, and there are new things to taste in this category. So, how do you go about making an elegant non-alcoholic drink, fit for an adult? There are no rules, no fixed canon of classic non-alcoholic cocktails and no prescribed ways to make them.
When developing non-alcoholic cocktails, trial and error is the way to go. Believe in your own palate and use that as a starting point. Throw some experiments at the wall and see what suits your own tastes. If you like it, your customers will too.
Build your Non-alcoholic Bar
The introduction of alcohol-free spirits has really blown this space open. At the moment, the category is in its very early stages. Late last year, NielsenIQ’s SVP of Account Development, Kim Cox noted there was a 315% increase in online non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic beverage dollar sales in the latest 12 months.
Riff on Tradition
Some bartenders make alcohol-free versions of traditional cocktails. That said, you can’t recreate a Negroni exactly. Ethanol tastes and behaves in a particular way, so simply removing the gin from a Negroni and replacing it with a non-alcoholic substitute is a recipe for failure.
Instead, take a step back and consider the experience a Negroni delivers. It’s sweet up front, then bitter and dry at the end. It tastes of stewed plums, rhubarb, vanilla and bitter orange. Next, think about how to convey that using teas, herbs, spices, vinegars, fruits, vegetables and other non-alcoholic ingredients. The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) is a great resource for flavor combinations.
The Negroni may not be the best place to start. It’s difficult to deliver those kinds of assertive, bitter flavors without investing in gentian root and significant time in front of the stove. Instead, bar professionals suggest looking at the DNA of a margarita, a Collins or a spritz. It’s easier to control those brighter, cleaner flavors and get a good result.
Non-alcoholic beverages may be one of the most exciting areas of the drinks world right now.
Think Like a Chef
Some bartenders are driven by the farmers’ market. When rhubarb is in season, let it be the main event. Make rhubarb consommé with the stalks and then incorporate vanilla, juniper berries, lemon peels and whatever else will best play supporting roles. Draw out the flavor from the rhubarb.
Consider treating non-alcoholic drinks like a dish, considering its sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami elements. When you don’t have a bottle to just pick up and throw in the glass, you have to think a little harder.
Working with fresh produce? Taste the juice to gauge the level of sweetness or tartness, then think about complementary flavors. Also, consider your technique. Roasted fruits and vegetables will give you richer, more caramelized flavors than raw ones.
Fresh herbs are your friend. Anise, tarragon, lemon thyme—these bright herbs give you a punch in a clean, enlivening kind of way. Try diluting clarified quince and pear juices with an infusion of fresh sage, which has notes of pine and eucalyptus.
Tea is also a useful tool. Part of the pleasure of having a great wine or cocktail is the way it dries out your palate and draws you back in. The tannins in some teas will do the same thing. Plus, there’s the range within the world of tea. Woody pu-erh will give you something different from light, floral chamomile. You can also play with steep times.
Spices, nuts, vinegar, sugars, orange blossom water or rose water can all be used in drinks, so get creative. A pinch of salt at the end ties everything together.
Have No Fear
“It's more about confidence than having a specific skill set. Be comfortable with your own taste—sample options at bars and restaurants, and taste things before investing in ingredients and home trials.
Then, play around with folding those ingredients into teas or other beverages that you like.
Perhaps most importantly, lean into the idea of it being non-alcoholic. It’s not about making a drink minus booze, it’s that you’re making a drink. And it happens not to have booze.