Because the rules that apply to full-spirited cocktails aren’t always the same when it comes to lower-alcohol or spirit-free versions, the low- and no-ABV movements in America have spawned an entirely new way of thinking about drinks — both in technique and ingredients. “I like to be ingredient-minded rather than cocktail template–minded. I start with either a key ingredient or ingredients I want to use, and then think about the purpose the drink is to serve,” says Chicago bar owner and cocktail book author Julia Momosé.
Josh Harris, of Bon Vivants Hospitality in San Francisco, agrees, saying that the focus should be on flavor rather than on alcohol. “If you think of all ingredients as flavor components, then it won’t matter whether those components have high alcohol, low alcohol, or no alcohol. Building the best N/A [drinks], low-ABV drinks, and full-ABV drinks should all have the same intention.”
Here, the experts offer their tips and tricks for building beautiful, flavorful, low- and no-alcohol cocktails.
Flavor Over Formula
Classic cocktail formulas aren’t necessarily the entry point to low-ABV drinks. Instead, lead with ingredients. “Rather than trying to make a spirit-free or low-ABV version of a cocktail, start from ingredients and build from there,” says Momosé. “It is less about taking away and more about starting fresh and building from the ground up.” MARTINI & ROSSI® East Coast brand ambassador Daniel Kutch agrees. “Remember that you aren’t balancing against the proof of alcohol, which plays a part in how you construct any cocktail recipe.”
It’s all too easy to end up with lemonade when creating spirit-free drinks. “You have to be careful how and in what form modifiers are being added,” says New York bartender Harrison Ginsberg. He likes to rely on the texture and tang of verjus to add complexity, as well as fortified and aromatized wines such as MARTINI & ROSSI Ambrato Vermouth to add length and balance. Momosé recommends finding ways to use teas, herbs, and spices to bring in a depth of flavor and add weight to the profile. Bitters are another great way to add flavor, but Kutch cautions against using bitters with an alcoholic base if the drink is meant to be spirit-free: “Be conscientious about bitters for truly N/A drinks, since most are created from a neutral-alcohol base. Seek out a zero-proof bitter in these cases.”
“When working with zero-proof and low-proof ingredients, remember that many of the ingredients already have quite a lot of water content,” says Momosé. She often shakes with a large piece of ice for a shorter time or uses the “throwing” technique — long-pouring from one shaker tin to another — to reduce dilution and add aeration. Ginsberg says to be mindful of the amount of tea or herbal infusions used, as they are essentially flavored waters.
Complex Yet Simple
Just because a drink has less or no alcohol doesn’t mean it has to be less complex. “When the alcohol is taken away altogether, length and complexity are the two most important things to keep in mind,” says Harris. But, he adds, “Remember that complex flavor doesn’t [have to] mean complex drinks.”
Low- or no-ABV drinks are not meant to reverse-engineer full-ABV drinks, urges Harris. “Don’t think of these drinks as ‘less than.’ Sure, you can consider the things you know about other drinks, but it’s better to build from the ground up. Give them their own constructions and identities.” Momosé has a similar philosophy: “Great spirit-free and low-ABV drinks are not about substitutions or compromises — they are thoughtfully created from diverse and distinct ingredients and are defined by nothing else but themselves.”