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Spirits

The Best Nonalcoholic Spirits for Mixing, According to Bartenders

December 02, 2022

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Punch

Spirits

The Best Nonalcoholic Spirits for Mixing, According to Bartenders

December 02, 2022

Story: Kara Newman

photo: Punch

We asked top bartenders to reveal their go-to nonalcoholic spirits for use in cocktails. Here’s what they had to say.

Whether called zero-proof, spirit-free or no-ABV, nonalcoholic bottles are increasingly on the upswing, and bartenders are using these booze-free distillates to mix all manner of creative cocktails.

But as a relatively new category that’s seen rapid-fire growth in terms of sales—according to Nielsen IQ, in the year ending in August 2022, U.S. retail sales of nonalcoholic spirits grew 88 percent, to $5.03 million—and an explosive number of new entrants, it’s made for a crowded and fragmented marketplace, one that’s extremely challenging to navigate. 

Ask a dozen bartenders for recommendations, as we did, and the responses are all over the map. In an age when entire bottle shops and bar concepts are built around the ever-expanding population of N/A spirits, and many well-known brands offer a dozen options within their portfolio, asking for favorites proved a daunting task.

Still, we found consensus around a few key workhorse bottles.

As a general rule, bartenders caution that while it’s tempting to simply substitute a booze-free alternative for a full-strength bottling, many need a little TLC for mixing.

N/A spirits perform best when mixed with “heavier and stronger flavors,” including nonalcoholic modifiers like flavored syrups or juices, says Kim Haasarud, proprietor of Garden Bar PHX in Phoenix. 

“N/A products often need things such as egg white, aquafaba, carbonation or rich-styled syrups to assist in giving them a bit of a mouthfeel, which is a part of the experience of drinking alcohol,” echoes LP Paylor O’Brien, proprietor of LP Drinks and winner of Netflix’s inaugural season of Drink Masters

Over the past few years, these nonalcoholic drinks have veered from “nice-to-have” options to expected offerings at high-end bars, not to mention the swelling ranks of so-called sober bars. And producers are jumping at the opportunity to populate the nonalcoholic shelf space. (It hasn’t hurt that they’re free from the daunting constraints that alcohol purveyors must vault to bring bottles to market.)

“The world of nonalcoholic spirits is booming,” explains Stuart Weaver, of Lady Jane Denver. “There are so many products currently on the market, a stark change from only a few years ago, and bartenders are now crafting some amazing nonalcoholic cocktails. Ever heard of a No-groni?” 

As a matter of fact, we have. And if you haven’t yet, you will soon. Here are some bottles that will help move the revolution along.

Seedlip Garden 108

The first mass-market distilled nonalcoholic spirit, which came to market in 2015 and was subsequently acquired by Diageo, now includes three botanical bottlings: the vegetal, herbal Seedlip Garden 108 (the clear bartender favorite), earthy Seedlip Spice 94 and citrusy Seedlip Grove 42. Most bartenders employ these as a gin or vodka alternative.

“The Garden 108 works well in replacing gin for non-alc cocktails,” says Nick Amano-Dolan, beverage director of Bon Vivants Hospitality (Trick Dog, Chezchez). “A little goes a long way here, but Gimlets, Martinis and rickey-style cocktails are all on the table.” Similarly, Drew Hairston, who oversees the beverage program for Washington, D.C.’s Maydan, favors it for a “super-herbal” Southside: “It doesn’t try too hard to emulate a full-proof spirit; it brings its own unique character to beverages, making it possible to use alongside spirits as well as on its own.”

Elsewhere, Phil Collins, director of beverage for TableOne Hospitality (Bar Sprezzatura and La Société in San Francisco and Mother Tongue in Los Angeles), leans into the herbal character (botanicals include peas, rosemary, spearmint and thyme) for a zero-proof Bloody Mary “to really punch up those vegetal notes from the tomato juice.”

  • Price: $35

Lyre’s Italian Orange/Lyre’s Italian Spritz

While Lyre’s makes a broad range of N/A spirits, bartenders specifically praised the company’s bittersweet aperitivo range, including the red bitter–like Italian Orange and the Aperol-adjacent Italian Spritz. The Amaretto and American Malt bottlings also received multiple mentions.

“Lyre’s has crafted the widest and most effective range in plugging-and-playing into classic cocktail builds,” says Brian Evans, director of bars for Sunday Hospitality, including Hotel Chelsea’s Lobby Bar and El Quijote. “While some expressions are far more successful than others within their range, I find their portfolio removes a lot of the heavy lift of R&D,” he says, praising the Italian Spritz in particular for, well, spritz-style drinks

Similarly, London-based bartender Chockie Tom notes that the bitter orange aperitif has “an excellent mouthfeel and nice weight to it,” though “it’s a tad sweet compared to alcoholic versions.” She’s used it to build a zero-ABV Garibaldi Spritz, subbing tonic water for sparkling white wine, and a Spaghett variation using nonalcoholic lager. In addition, “it can be substituted in the original recipes for a low-ABV version.”

L.A.-based bartender Steviee Hughes, meanwhile, used the Lyre’s portfolio to build a full-on nonalcoholic cocktail menu for the July wedding of her friend Jodie Sweetin, the former Full House actress, who is outspoken about her sobriety. Options included a Jungle Bird built around Lyre’s Italian Orange and Lyre’s Dark Cane spirit, plus fresh pineapple, coconut syrup and lime, alongside a full-strength traditional version. “I made it so whether people were drinking or not drinking, they could all feel like they had cocktails,” Hughes says. “Not just some fruit juice.”  

  • Price: $36

Spiritless Kentucky 74

Billed as “a nonalcoholic bourbon,” Louisville, Kentucky-based Spiritless is first distilled and oak-aged as a whiskey, and is then de-alcoholized. Citric acid and cane sugar also are part of the formula.

“It has the mouthfeel of a real spirit—warming down the throat,” says Haasarud, who uses Spiritless as a key ingredient in a nonalcoholic take on the Old-Fashioned, which is filled out with spiced chai. 

Meanwhile, at New York’s Barbuto, bar manager John Dillon also uses Spiritless in a zero-proof Old-Fashioned that’s “as warm and cozy as the classic,” as well as in Whiskey Sour variations that “are deep and complex with oak and a little vanilla.”

  • Price: $37

The Pathfinder Hemp & Root

Fermented and distilled with hemp, this herbal “elixir” made in the Pacific Northwest functions almost as a nonalcoholic amaro. Nikolas Vagenas, bartender at New York’s Lullaby, places the flavor profile somewhere between a bracing alpine style (like Braulio) and sweeter, lighter varieties (like Cynar or Meletti). “It’s strong but approachable,” he says.

He serves it Americano-style, splitting the base with Wilfred’s aperitif, a red bitter–like N/A spirit, served over ice and topped with soda.

Elsewhere, Laura Unterberg, head bartender at Nashville’s The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club, employs the ginger-spiced amaro in Hot Toddy variations, “elevated” Espresso Martinis or in a wintery flip, with a whole egg and nonalcoholic sweet vermouth.

  • Price: $39

Pentire Seaward

Based in Cornwall in the United Kingdom and distilled with coastal botanicals, Pentire Seaward features an invigorating blend of sea rosemary, sea buckthorn, wild seaweed, pink grapefruit and woodruff (a flowering plant with a sweet, hay-like character). 

Hawksmoor NYC bar manager Adam Montgomerie notes its “wonderful bright flavor profile,” and showcases it in a straightforward highball simply topped with Fever-Tree tonic water and garnished with a grapefruit slice. 

“Although they don’t say so, I would categorize this one as a gin alternative,” says Unterberg, of The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club, describing Pentire Seaward’s flavor profile as “briny, vegetal and bright.” She pairs it with Aecorn nonalcoholic vermouth and celery shrub for a boozeless but “spot-on” dirty Martini or Gibson.

  • Price: $40

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