How I was able to celebrate with the new non-alcoholic cocktails

When I was a tender adolescent, perhaps 11 years old, I spent the night with my friend Jane. Jane’s older brother Mark also had friends over. We thought one boy was particularly cute, so we decided to mix him a drink. We poured Coke into a glass, then added some Worcestershire sauce, some Tabasco, a drop of pickle juice, a splash each of ketchup and mustard. We stirred it – it still looked like Coke with some foam on top, you had to be sharp to notice it – and took it to the sweet boy who was lounging on the sofa.

“Here, we made you a drink.”

The poor, gullible teenager took a big sip – and immediately splashed it back over the art books on the coffee table.

In the decades since, I remember this incident – What were we thinking? – but never more often than recently, as more and more new non-alcoholic drinks come onto the market.

I mean, non-alcoholic peanut butter “stout,” anyone? With strong notes of vinegar, molasses and peanut butter?

I haven’t had an alcoholic beverage in 36 years – although I’ve had my share before.

During the first ten years of my sobriety, the idea of ​​“replacing” an alcoholic drink with a dealcoholized or non-alcoholic simulacrum seemed risky, as if such an approach to the addictive substance would trigger a relapse. So when others were sipping wine, mixed drinks, or beer, I was holding a glass of carbonated water. Or on special occasions, Martinelli’s carbonated apple juice. Occasionally a bartender would serve me a cranberry soda. But I never liked sweet drinks.

In my drinking days, I liked good yeast beers, wine that was dry and fresh or full-bodied (when I remembered to taste it), and the smoky, peaty flavor of Scotch (when I remembered to sip it). To be honest, I missed the complexity and depth of flavor of such drinks.

I also missed the ceremonial, celebratory aspects of drinking—measuring, stirring, and garnishing—mixed drinks. The juicy sound of the martini shaker. Uncorking the wine.

And the glassware! As a child, I was fascinated by the glass and crystal in my parents’ liquor cabinet: the prismatic glitter of flat champagne coupes and more austere martini glasses, the bulbous brandy glasses and heavy-bottomed glasses for old-fashioned glasses, all rarely used. When my mother came home from work, she usually poured herself a thick cup into a tall green plastic cup.

I drank my first non-alcoholic beer – in a pilsner glass! – when I was 10 years sober and was doubly surprised: First, that it tasted like beer (at least according to my 10-year-old beer memory). And then – this was the strangest thing – I didn’t want another one right away.

Still, I might order a nonalcoholic beer when others were drinking a cocktail—that is, when the restaurant bothered to stock it. Some servers and bartenders apologized for not having one, others scoffed at the question: “What’s the point?” They said.

Occasionally I was talked into a “mocktail,” which too often consisted of just fruit juice and carbonated water.

But the times have changed. There’s a whole new world of interesting liquids for sober drinkers. And for entrepreneurs, there’s a whole new market for alcohol-shy consumers as well as those the industry likes to call “sober curious.”

(Jiayue Li / For the Time)

What took so long? After all, it is no longer news that in many countries around the world young people are drinking less. As European Supermarket Magazine reported this year: “Studies from multiple research institutions show that Generation Z consumers drink 20% less alcohol than Millennials – and that Millennials already drink less than Generation X and Baby Boomers.”

Not only has there been a huge influx of new non-A beers, mocktails (now a retro term) have become more sophisticated. To create complex non-alcoholic flavors, mixologists have drawn on, among other things, the deep, powerful flavors of botanicals such as gentian, cinchona (quinine), elderberry and other fruit and flower essences as well as yuzu, juniper berries, various herbs and spices and spice blends, vinegars, verjuice (unripened grape juice), flavored oils and tea specialties.

The often intense and/or surprisingly complex new concoctions offer at least some of alcohol’s secondary pleasures – the ceremonial and the aesthetic; the feeling of specialness; the opportunity to drink from fine glasses.

Of course, all of these new non-alcoholic drinks aren’t cheap. They are expensive for alcohol. It’s well known that alcohol prices have always been inflated – and manufacturers of non-A drinks are following suit. For many customers, however, the pricing – coupled with elegant packaging – at least shows that the industry is now taking them seriously as consumers.

Fine-dining restaurants have also begun to take consumers seriously in North America, with many of the world’s top-rated restaurants offering wine-free and low-alcohol pairings in addition to wine on their multi-course tasting menus.

I had my first non-alcoholic pairing (45 euros compared to the 70 euro wine pairing) with a tasting menu held at Le Petit Léon in the Dordogne, France. Our server said the restaurant curated its non-A selection by talking about the specific flavors and sensations in the wine pairings and how they could achieve similar notes in each non-alcoholic offering. The ingredients ranged from rooibos tea to fig leaf oil, chai spices and yuzu. Among my favorite combination was a delicious trout dish: it was a mild, clear yellow drink with a buttery and hauntingly familiar taste – chamomile, as it turned out, “steeped to the point of bitterness”, then diluted to a touch, with a little honey for sweetness, and – surprise – melted butter stirred in, cooled and then removed once hardened.

I’ve been trying to recreate this wonderful drink ever since, and failing to do so makes me realize how much research and development needs to go into the best creative new drinks – and that must be partly what we’re paying for: Hours of careful chemistry. Hopefully some of the best non-alcoholic preparations, like Big Pharma’s products, will be available in generic, low-cost versions at some point in the future.

Now I have to admit that some of the new drinks are so delicious that even alcohol drinkers enjoy them.

I love the bitter Aperol and Campari flavors: Martini and Rossi’s Vibrante and Lyre’s Italian Spritz, among others. We mix them with lemonade. Another favorite is Top Hat’s quinine-intensive, sugar-free elderflower tonic syrup, mixed with lemonade and a pinch of bitters. But NA drinkers beware. Not every expensive new zero-proof drink is easy to tolerate.

My friend Hilary, who has been sober for a long time, has a cart full of non-alcoholic spirits and invited me to try some.

A sip of Wilfred’s Bitter Orange and Rosemary was sweet, pleasant and pleasantly intense. Some Spritzy from Trader Joe’s was a not-too-sweet, sophisticated lemonade.

“It would be one of my favorites,” Hilary confessed, “but it’s not special enough, it doesn’t work in the same way as this one,” she said, pouring me some Ghia chili-lime spritz that had a convincing gentian bitterness and spice Sharpness, artistic packaging and a much higher price.

Proof, I thought, that cool packaging and high prices are intoxicating.

I had never tried anything like Gnista Barreled Oak, a whiskey-brown “spirit” that was warm and buttery, sweet and salty, like toffee dissolved in water. Strange. But at some point you might get used to it.

“It’s all very interesting,” I said. “But nothing remotely reminds me of alcohol.”

“We’ll get right to it,” Hilary said, pouring me a generous finger of SOM Thai Basil “sugarcane vinegar liqueur.” Sweet again. And intense: the vinegar burned my sinuses, but I didn’t find it pleasant.

Next, Hilary opened a can of Sovi dealcoholized rosé wine, which tasted like a crisp, dry rosé wine—at least to someone who hadn’t tasted real rosé in 36 years. Yummy! (And the price was like real rosé, too, at $30 for a four-pack of 250-milliliter cans.)

Rumish Dark Spiced Spirit. Seedlip Spice 94. Drama Herbal Bitters. Three Spirit Nightcap. piling up river banks. I felt like a newbie at the bar being introduced to clearly acquired tastes.

“And here’s my favorite after-dinner drink,” Hilary said. “My husband calls it my barbecue sauce.” She poured me a sip of dark brown liquid from a dark brown bottle of Curious Elixirs No. 5, an “old-fashioned smoked chocolate cherry.”

I took a good sip. Ohh O! It was really intense!

Hilary burst out laughing. “The look on your face!”

With elderberry, ginger, chicory and cayenne pepper, as well as the “legendary aphrodisiac Shatavari,” this thick, sour, sweet, Chilean-spicy, molasses-like vinegar potion took me right back to my 11-year-old self and my mixology experiment – only now I was the one who drank. I was too polite to spit it out. Reader, I swallowed it.

Hunevens latest novel is “Search” (Penguin Press).

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