Holiday Spirit Sans Spirits: The Nonalcoholic Cocktail Revolution

By Cara Strickland, guest contributor

A PCC nonalcoholic drink on a table with candles

Holiday Spirit Sans Spirits: The Nonalcoholic Cocktail Revolution

No matter what our traditions as we celebrate the holidays, many people like to have a drink in hand. But there is no reason that drink has to be alcoholic. Nonalcoholic drinks used to mean that you had to leave your tastebuds at the coat check, but no more. Now there are myriad options for every drinker (because you’re still drinking, you’re just not drinking alcohol).

The way we drink now

The way we drink now

You might wonder why the options for nonalcoholic drinks have expanded so dramatically recently. Maybe you’ve noticed there were only O’Doul’s (nonalcoholic beer) on the menu at many restaurants in past decades, and you’ve never known anyone who ordered even those.

Today, whether from health challenges, new research on alcohol consumption or different goals for social gatherings, many people aren’t drinking alcohol anymore or are drinking a lot less. Millennials and Gen Z are drinking significantly less than their predecessors and feeling positive effects, further fueling that nonalcoholic cycle. While some people aren’t drinking at all, many more are moderating their drinking, meaning that there is suddenly a market for something like Athletic Brewing. That’s an entirely nonalcoholic beer company known as a runner’s beer, because it won’t make it hard to get up in the morning for your run the next day or dehydrate you before or after exercise. Athletic has shared that most of their customers haven’t stopped drinking, but still buy Athletic beer because it hits the spot and works well when they want the evening to keep going but don’t want to feel alcohol’s effects.

Some people choose to alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, similar to having a glass of water between glasses of wine or beers, but without compromising taste. With so many options, especially in the beer world, there is beginning to be a range on menus and in markets appealing to a wide swath of consumers, drinkers and nondrinkers alike.

Making nonalcoholic beverages

Making nonalcoholic beverages

What is a nonalcoholic (NA) drink anyway? The question isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

Beer is the easy one, both to drink and to understand. Both small and large producers have started making truly excellent NA beers, and they are still identified by regular beer terms like golden ale and IPA. Many people actually say they enjoy a wider range of styles in the nonalcoholic form (I enjoy NA IPAs and never liked the loaded versions).

Beer is made the normal way and then the alcohol is removed. Legally, the amount left has to be below 0.5%, which is similar to kombucha’s alcohol content. Nonalcoholic wine is also made this way, with the same legal limit, but has more challenges in terms of flavor. Right now, your best bet in the wine world is sparkling wine and some whites and rosé wines, though red is getting there. Red wine, darker beer and brown spirits can be harder to get right because so much of their body comes from the alcohol itself. But it is worth having a tasting to see if there is something you might like. It’s also a great choice for mulled wine, an especially nice holiday option.

Nonalcoholic spirits and aperitifs are harder to nail down in terms of process. Like their alcoholic counterparts, they have an alchemy to them. Most are not yet designed to be sipped, but rather to be mixed, even with just tonic. The best way to experience NA spirits, then, is to make a cocktail. They are usually a very complex mix of aromatic spices distilled to create something with a flavor that suggests their doppelgängers. These are probably the most polarizing NA beverages on the market today. Some people love a beverage in this category and others find it completely wrong for them. There is very little in between. I’ve found that the best way to experience these drinks is to find a cocktail you enjoy and sample several of the spirits in it (if you can buy smaller bottles or do a tasting, even better). Then you don’t have to commit to a whole bottle.

It also doesn’t hurt to seek out other people interested in this topic. If you’re all experimenting together, the initial expenditure isn’t so significant and you can trade bottles and share the cost. There are also great communities online that can offer a virtual tasting experience and lots of firsthand research for the curious or those who are just getting started—and beyond.

Keep in mind, you might need to use a little more (or less) of your spirit to make a cocktail than you might with the alcoholic version. With the alcohol removed there is sometimes less “bite,” but often a producer will use something like a hot pepper extract to suggest a burn. The best way to figure out what suits you is to sample. You might be surprised to like something you don’t like in an alcoholic version, so feel free to branch out. For example, I’m not a whiskey fan, but I love NA whiskey sours and hot toddies.

A note about pricing

A note about pricing

You might be wondering why nonalcoholic beverages are as expensive or sometimes even more than their loaded friends. The short answer is this: they often take as much or more work to make, and their research and development is higher. We already know how to make rum, but working to make a rum-like spirit from scratch takes time and lots of experimentation, none of which are free.

On the beer and wine side, producers have to make the beverage the traditional way, then go through the extra step of removing the alcohol. Until this category becomes more mainstream and more large producers hop onboard, it will be difficult to see lower prices. But things are constantly changing. Heineken and Guinness are onboard, and even Corona has an NA option. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed each of these even though, again, I wouldn’t normally choose their alcoholic counterparts.

Beyond basics

Beyond basics

This beverage category is quickly becoming varied and full of unique drinks you may not have seen before. If you’re not looking to drink something that is trying to be like alcohol, you can seek out flavorful elixirs that might remind you of a cocktail but aren’t trying to be like booze. You can find spirits infused with CBD and even nonalcoholic bitters, which go well in everything from NA (or not NA) cocktails to coffee and hot cocoa. With so many exciting options to choose from, you’re sure to find a new favorite tipple, and your body, mind, and all the ghosts of Christmas present and future will be grateful for the ways you are taking care of yourself. So let’s all drink to that.

 

Cara Strickland is an award-winning writer and former food critic specializing in food and drink.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was originally published to correct the percentage of alcohol allowed in nonalcoholic beverages.

PCC recommends

PCC recommends

Interested in sampling some nonalcoholic drinks? PCC “wine guys” Jeff Cox and Peter Boeger recommend the following, with additional commentary by Cara Strickland:

Wines

Wines

Newblood chardonnay, rosé and red blend:

The Wine Guys say: “Newblood wines are made by a first-rate South Australian wine producer, Nugan Estate, and imported by our friends at Southern Starz. We were mightily impressed at the quality of these wines and excited to have the opportunity to be the first retailer in Seattle to offer them.”

Giesen Sauvignon Blanc:

The Wine Guys say: “Giesen is a well-known New Zealand winery, who’ve long been known for their excellent sauvignon blanc. This non-alcoholic version tastes remarkably like…sauvignon blanc. Admirably, at $15.99 there’s no added charge for the alcohol that’s removed.”

Giesen is known for sauvignon blanc but also offers a wide range of other excellent wine options, including a very good red, rosé and sparkling options, all at similar affordable price points. Interestingly, their NA wines have done so well that they have now outpaced their loaded options.

Though PCC doesn’t carry them yet, a woman-owned Seattle brand to watch is Joyus, a line of sparkling wine with a fruit-forward profile made by a completely sober founder and intended to help bring all sorts of joy to your gatherings, large and small.

Spirits

Spirits

Wilderton Botanical Spirits is a Northwest innovation, based in Hood River, Oregon. They currently have three different spirits, all delightfully Oregon-quirky.

Bittersweet Apertivo is a sort of  Campari or Aperol duplicate but has lots of its own character. Even so, you can mix it easily into a spritz.

Lustre blends the flavors of orange tarragon and lavender into something that is not quite gin but still is great with tonic.

Earthen won gold at the world alcohol-free awards in 2023 and features the cozy flavors of white peppercorn, pine-smoked tea and cardamom. This is not whiskey, but it’s perfect with ginger ale at the end of a long fall or winter day.

For something more traditional, check out Monday spirits (online at drinkmonday.co). This San Diego brand has been cleaning up at the awards circuit. Choose from gin, whiskey, mezcal and, their newest offering, rum.

NA Beers

NA Beers

Nonalcoholic beers are the forefront of the alcohol-free movement, and the PCC selection is growing and evolving, just like the regular beer selection. PCC carries two completely NA beer producers (Best Day and Athletic, both excellent), plus nonalcoholic offerings from one large beer company (Clausthauler) and one microbrew (Crux). Stay tuned for more.

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