Non-alcoholic drinks finally taste great — here are 12 of our favorites

No "mocktails" here

By Rebecca Firkser
January 30, 2021 11:36PM (UTC)
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(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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For too long, the options in the non-alcoholic section of restaurant menus or liquor stores were cloying "mocktails" and syrupy fruit sodas, or maybe a dusty bottle of barely-hoppy 0% ABV beer. Not the case these days. As sobriety, "dry" months, or even just saying "I'm not drinking tonight" become more socially acceptable than ever before, the beverages had to catch up.

"Serendipitously, I removed alcohol from my life right around the time that alcohol-free mixed drinks were starting to be taken more seriously," says Julia Bainbridge, author of the book "Good Drinks," noting that over the past few years, bartenders have looked beyond the mocktail ("ick!"), and that people — whether they were sober or not — were interested in the results. "I knew I wouldn't be writing the first book on non-alcoholic drinks, but I also knew my work could capitalize on this newfound acceptance and energy." "Good Drinks" is a collection of non-alcoholic recipes that aren't just cocktails minus the liquor, but rather a celebration of, ahem, good drinks.

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There's a distinct vibe that the new crop of non-alcoholic beverages occupy: They're just . . .cool. "Historically, these drinks haven't been thought of as sexy, because, well, they weren't!" says Bainbridge, who paid close attention to the design of her book to convey the message that these recipes weren't going to taste like the glorified Shirley Temples of the past. "Alcohol-free drinks have a bad reputation for being unbalanced and too sweet because this is how they tasted for a long time, but now, bartenders and makers are approaching them more thoughtfully. They've grown up, and they should be dressed to match, so to speak."

Though bartenders and home sippers do plenty of mixing up their own drinks with on-hand ingredients, there's a growing number of non-alcoholic drink brands (wine, beer, and spirits), many of which receive comparable attention to similarly small-batch, artisan-made alcoholic spirits. Why now? Bainbridge has a theory: "Young people are looking for ways to find balance amid today's global uncertainty, and they're trying to manage high rates of anxiety and other mental health issues, which we're finally talking about, thank goodness. Drinking doesn't help either of these endeavors." The other not-so-secret factor about those bottles of booze? "Alcohol is expensive!"

Bainbridge isn't interested in demonizing alcohol, though. "Plenty of people can manage its consumption, and don't experience negative consequences from it, and that's great," she notes. "But this doesn't mean that for those who can't consume it or choose not to, there shouldn't be equally delicious options. The quality of American spirits, beers, and wines has improved over the past couple decades, and drinking standards will continue to be raised across the board — including, finally, in the non-alcoholic realm."

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Curious to try some of the best new non-alcoholic spirits (and wines and beers, too)? Here are 12 of our favorites to pick up, plus recommendations from dedicated sippers.

AMASS, Riverine Non-Alcohol Spirit

The herbal, bright spirit is juniper-forward (so it's fairly reminiscent of a floral gin, for those looking for a direct comp to an existing spirit), with notes of sumac, sorrel, lemon, apple, thyme, mint, and parsley.

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Athletic Brewing Co.

Technically containing less than 0.5% ABV, these are non-alcoholic beers for those who want a break from sweet-slanting spirits. Bainbridge recommends their hoppy Run Wild IPA, and they also make a lighter-bodied golden ale.

Casamara Club Sodas

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Called "amaro" sodas, yet totally non-alcoholic, the four types of Casamara Club soda (each made with a unique blend of spices, botanicals, and fruit extracts) can be sipped straight or mixed with citrus juice, bitters, or even vinegar for a more complex drink.

"I'm always looking for a more herbal or kind of buttery, nut-forward selection. I've found myself gravitating toward Casamara Club — they're bright and different, somehow more savory than sweet. They really are a lot of fun." —Madison Barker, former beverage director, Robert Bar

Ghia

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A bitter aperitif-syle drink made from herbs, fruit, and roots, this can be sipped straight or used in a mixed drink. Though it can sit on a bar cart until you open it, it should then be stored in the fridge and used within a few weeks.

"I created Ghia because I really wanted to make the occasion of enjoying a drink more about the social connection than the intoxication. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with word of mouth spreading and people sending Ghia to their friends in spite of the pandemic. Most importantly, we get countless personal messages from customers who tell us they finally feel included with Ghia in their hands. Inclusivity is at the core of what we are trying to do, so these messages mean the world to us. Socializing and alcohol have been unfairly coupled for way too long, and with Ghia they don't have to be." — Mélanie Masarin, Ghia founder and CEO

"It's bitter and herbaceous like an Italian amaro. I drink it straight and slightly chilled after dinner, just like you would a digestif. It's also great with a splash of soda." — Laura Scholz, writer and editor

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"Ghia's postmodern-style bottle is filled with a crimson-hued and biting combination of botanicals that are at once tangy, aromatic, earthy, and a bit invigorating. It doesn't feel like it's pretending to be a version of another spirit. It is simply a good drink." — Angela Hansberger, writer

Gnista Spirits

Made in two flavors — one dry and smoky, the other aromatic and floral — Gnista intends to scratch the itch of fuller-bodied spirits you might drink on a cold evening, neat or on the rocks.

"Gnista packs a punch with spice and a bit of heat and very much resembles a fine spirit. It sips like an amaro simply over ice but pairs well in a cocktail with tonic and/or citrus juices." — Angela Hansberger, writer

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Kin

These alcohol-free spirits (one herbal and smoky, one tart and floral) and canned spritzes brewed with adaptogens, nootropics, and botanicals aim to occupy the growing space of a "new category of adult beverage." Because these contain supplements, it's recommended that you start with a single serving. This may not be the best non-alcoholic beverage for sober folks, but for those simply looking for an alcohol alternative, it's worth a try.

Non

With some still and some sparkling options, Non Non notes what each of their bottles most closely resemble, like dry whites, apertivi, chilled reds, pét-nats, and French farmhouse ciders.

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Pentire

Made from distilled plants native to the North Cornwall coastline in England, Pentire's flagship beverage, Adrift, has notes of sage, citrus, and sea salt. They recently made a special-edition bottle with notes of rosemary, seaweed, and grapefruit (which is currently sold out, but perhaps not forever).

Seedlip

One of the older non-alcoholic options on the market (it's been around since 2015), Seedlip and their three flavor options (citrusy and bright; warm-spiced and aromatic; herbal and fresh) have managed to capture and hold onto the attention of the market.

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"Seedlip kept me feeling fancy even while I was pregnant — it's the best non-alcoholic spirit I've found! Also, the pretty bottle makes it a win-win for bar carts everywhere." — Meaghan C. Tiernan, writer

"I am a big fan of Seedlip's Spice 94 flavor. It occasionally gets a 'meh' response from people for the clove-forward taste, but I enjoy it since it lacks the ethanol afterburn from alcohol. With a bit of tonic, grapefruit juice, and a sprinkle of sea salt on top, it's fantastic." — Alicia Banaszewski, writer

Thomson & Scott Noughty Sparkling Chardonnay

Made by an organic vintner who avoids adding additional sugar to the production process, this is one of the less-saccharine (literally and on the palate) non-alcoholic wines out there. The brand is only producing Chardonnay right now, but who knows what the future holds.

"Alcohol-free wine hasn't historically been very good, and that's changing!" — Julia Bainbridge

Unified Ferments

Working within two culinary traditions with a long history, tea and fermentation, this brand is different from the bottles of "booch" you grab at the grocery store.

"I used to just think of kombucha as its own category of beverage. Something I bought at the yoga studio and made sure to have in the fridge for the morning after a night of drinking. It wasn't until my friend Young began making kombucha with his friend Graham and opened their own fermentory, Unified Ferments, that I really saw kombucha as something that can replace wine and cocktails on the dinner table. They use 750-milliliter glass bottles like wine, the labels are gorgeous, and the flavors are complex and carefully coaxed out of high-quality tea through their small-batch fermentation process in Brooklyn. They experiment with a whole host of tea-based fermentation beverages. It's even perfect on nights when you are drinking alcohol: It's a great pause in between bottles of wine, or as the last drink of the night, when you're done with the booze, but not done with your friends. And I'm convinced it helps with any potential hangover." — Julia Rose, prop stylist and yoga teacher

Woodnose Sacré

A fermented coffee- and maple-syrup-based drink, when shaken up, Sacré looks like a cross between a dark beer and nitro coffee, though it doesn't drink like either: Lightly sweet and low in caffeine, it's a lovely alternative to boozy offerings at brunch.

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