The World of Modern Nonalcoholic Drinks

From Mocktails to Zero-Proof Spirits, NA Drinks Have Grown Up

A Variety of Mocktails - Nonalcoholic Mixed Drinks

The Spruce Eats / Colleen Graham

Today's nonalcoholic drink scene is exciting and diverse. As more people discover the possibilities of no-proof or low-proof drinks, the options for creating the experience of finely crafted cocktails without alcohol are growing. From mocktail recipes to the growing list of zero-proof spirits, there's no need to sacrifice flavor or the joy of constructing and consuming a well-balanced mixed drink.

What Is a Nonalcoholic Mixed Drink?

Technically, all beverages that don't include alcohol are nonalcoholic drinks. Narrowing it down to those that require mixing a few ingredients, the list consists of beverages like lemonade, sweet tea, and soda fountain drinks. Shrubs (or drinking vinegars) and sodas like the Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers are old-fashioned favorites, and there are virgin versions of popular cocktails, including the piña colada to the margarita. However, the definition and style of nonalcoholic drinks is continually evolving.

No longer restricted to syrupy-sweet soda drinks, mocktails have grown up. Indicative of the name, they're more like cocktails, just without the alcohol. Bartenders and chefs often bring their skills and knowledge to develop fascinating alcohol-free drink recipes. It requires a certain amount of creativity to discover new ways to combine various ingredients and create a mixed drink that's as impressive as any martini or old-fashioned.

Consumer demand for zero-proof cocktails has been growing since the turn of the 21st century. More drinkers want to have a great time without the side effects of alcohol, and nonalcoholic drinks can do that in a spectacular fashion. The increased interest is witnessed in the annual observance of "dry January" and terms like "sober-curious." In response, nonalcoholic spirits started popping up on the market in the mid-2010s. Seedlip led the way with its 2015 launch in the U.K., and it was soon followed by countless spirits designed to take the place of traditional liquor.

How to Make a Great Mocktail

The theory of crafting a great cocktail applies to mocktails: Combine a variety of mixers to develop a balance of flavors and construct a stimulating drink. Frequently, this includes sweet and sour elements (e.g. syrup and citrus) with a base ingredient. Rather than a cocktail's liquor, the base in nonalcoholic drinks ranges from fruit juice to kombucha, shrubs, tea, and coffee. Many are served tall and topped with soda, though drinks like the designated appletini are elegant in a cocktail glass.

Using the same mixing techniques (i.e., shaking, stirring, and muddling), you can often substitute nonalcoholic ingredients into a cocktail recipe. A little ingenuity is required, and it doesn't work for everything (there's no great alternative to absinthe, for instance).

  • Muddle fresh produce, such as fruits and herbs, into liquids like simple syrup and juice.
  • Add a few dashes of bitters for a flavor boost.
  • Sparkling grape juice or cider is an excellent alternative to Champagne in drinks like the Bellini.
  • Replace liqueurs with flavored syrups, and reduce or eliminate the drink's regular sweetener. Almond syrup works instead of amaretto, replace chocolate liqueurs with a bit of chocolate syrup, or add simple syrup to strong coffee for a quick take on coffee liqueur.
  • Use milk or nondairy alternatives as a substitute for Irish cream. Be careful about reactions with high-acid fruits like oranges because the drink may curdle.
  • Simply skip the liquor. The virgin Mary and sweet sunrise are two classic examples that need no adjustment because they're already full of flavor.

How Are Nonalcoholic Spirits Made?

Unlike distilled spirits that use a centuries-old method, there are no rules or set ingredients for making nonalcoholic spirits. It is up to the producer to decide what to use and how to create the finished product. A few try to replicate gin, tequila, whiskey, and other liquors, while some are unique proprietary blends.

For flavor, zero-proof spirits rely almost exclusively on natural botanicals such as fruits, herbs, spices, and other plants. Many producers are inspired by traditional medicine and herbalism, and these ingredients can have effects on physiology. Far more subtle than alcohol, a blend may boost your mood, be stimulating, or instill a relaxed feeling. Balancing this aspect with flavor to create a drinkable beverage requires a deep understanding of each plant along with a lot of research and experimentation.

The botanicals go through any number of flavor extraction processes, and distillation is among the most common. Rather than the fermentation used in alcohol production, the botanical may first be macerated or infused into a low-proof combination of alcohol and water. According to Seedlip's founder Ben Branson, the alcohol is removed during distillation. Damrak Gin distiller, Monique ten Kortenaar uses water alone to create hydro-distillates and replicate the taste of the brand's alcoholic gin. Three Spirit founder, Dash Lilley, employs additional methods, such as carbon dioxide extraction for extremely delicate botanicals and the use of powdered extracts.

Despite their diverse approaches, each maker insists that the technique must be adapted to the chemical compounds of that particular ingredient. The botanicals are processed individually to allow for the greatest control, and some ingredients require more care and attention. For example, more than one distiller admits that extracting oil from citrus peels is especially challenging.

With the extracts prepared, the spirit is blended before bottling; flavoring enhancers like citric acid and preservatives are often added to the mix. NA spirits may include natural or artificial sweeteners, and several are sugar-free. Some contain trace amounts of alcohol, but it cannot be over 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. It's standard to find an ingredient list and nutrition information on the bottle, and it's always good to read the label to know what you're drinking. It's not uncommon for the spirits to be naturally gluten-free, vegan, or kosher as well.

How to Drink Nonalcoholic Spirits

With the growing market of zero-proof spirits, you can simply swap out a cocktail's base liquor for its nonalcoholic alternative. For instance, the dark 'n stormy mocktail uses no-ABV rum and a zero-proof tequila is excellent in ranch water. Even those that don't mimic a traditional liquor can work as a substitute; use a botanical spirit instead of gin or vodka and a maltier spirit in brandy, rum, or whiskey drinks. The thicker spirits can also replace liqueurs for a flavor twist, though the recipe's sweetener may need to be adjusted.

The majority of zero-proof spirits are designed for mixed drinks, though a few are nice straight. When exploring the options, try each spirit alone in a chilled glass or on the rocks to get a sense of its flavor and how to use it in drinks. Simply topping the spirit with soda is a common serving suggestion. The botanical options are great with tonic water or club soda, and many of the darker spirits are excellent with ginger ale.

In mocktails, it's often best to limit the recipe to just three or four ingredients. Accent the spirit with a sweetener, citrus or another fruit juice, or fresh fruits or herbs, and top the drink with a sparkling mixer. Coffee, kombucha, and tea can be a good fit for some zero-proof spirits, too.

Popular Nonalcoholic Spirit Brands

Seedlip was the first, and founder Ben Branson noted that by 2022 he counted over 200 zero-proof spirit brands. Since there are no style points and each is uniquely formulated, it's best to sample several to see which you enjoy best. To get started, try these popular brands:

  • Damrak VirGin 0.0
  • Ghia
  • Haus
  • Lyre's
  • Ritual
  • Seedlip
  • Three Spirit

Where to Buy Nonalcoholic Spirits

With the increasing popularity of zero-proof spirits, there is a good chance of seeing them in local stores. You might find them near the drink mixers in liquor stores or the natural food sections at supermarkets. Most nonalcoholic spirits have a "where to buy" section on their websites. Since they don't contain alcohol, the shipping regulations of liquor, beer, and wine don't apply, so it's easy to buy them online.

How to Store Zero-Proof Spirits

Nonalcoholic spirits do not have the extended shelf life of liquor because alcohol is a preservative. The majority, however, include a preservative, are shelf-stable, and do not need to be refrigerated. Check the label for confirmation, but most will keep well at room temperature out of direct light for about six months once the bottle is open.