The best nonalcoholic tequilas

From margaritas to palomas, your tequila-based cocktails can taste just as good without the buzz

Published May 3, 2022 1:00PM (EDT)

 (iStock / Getty Images)
(iStock / Getty Images)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Before bartenders and restaurants began to treat nonalcoholic drinks with the same respect as craft cocktails, the virgin margarita, often just some bottled mix thrown in a blender with ice, was sadly one of the more interesting beverage options for those abstaining from alcohol. But tequila (and its sister spirit, mezcal) can add way more than just a buzz to mixed drinks. The herbal, earthy, spicy, smoky flavor of agave-based spirits brings balance to sour citrus, sweet syrups, and savory tomato juice in margaritas, palomas, Bloody Marias, and other drinks.

As producers began to make zero-proof spirits to taste like and act as a substitute for liquor in mixed drinks, the selection of nonalcoholic gin, bourbon, and rum taste-alikes exploded, while the list of tequila and mezcal alternatives lagged (very) far behind. Luckily, producers of alcohol-free spirits have started to make up ground on tequila alternatives, at last. While there are still fewer nonalcoholic tequilas than, say, nonalcoholic whiskeys or gins, we tried a wide range of currently available options and found plenty worth drinking. Here are our recommendations:

Best all around

If you're looking for a one-size-fits-all (or at least most) bottle, these are your best bets. Any one of these will make an easy nonalcoholic substitute for tequila or mezcal in existing cocktail recipes and in your own booze-free experiments.

Free Spirits The Spirit Of Tequila

My go-to when I want to make the nonalcoholic version of a fancy craft tequila cocktail, Free Spirits The Spirit of Tequila is solid and reliable no matter the context. Agave is the main flavor, slightly acidic with a big dose of green bell pepper and the slightest touch of sweetness, with a substantial but not overwhelming burn. If you make a lot of tequila drinks, and want one bottle that will perform equally well in sweet, sour, and savory cocktails, this is the one to buy. Free Spirits also fortifies their spirits with B vitamins and amino acids for a boost of energy without caffeine.

Mockingbird Spirit Agave

Made from actual agave, Mockingbird Spirit Agave's flavors of Mexican vanilla and cinnamon shine over a perfect balance of caramel sweetness and gentle acidity, with a woodsy, young oak base humming underneath. With the slightest bit of chest-warming heat that glows rather than burns, Mockingbird is as nice to drink as it is to look at, in its pretty rose-gold-accented bottle. This is one of my favorites to use when creating new cocktails because it plays just as well with heavier flavors like red berries and black teas as it does tropical fruits and tart citrus. I do, however, recommend caution when mixing it in a savory drink.

Lyre's Agave Blanco and Agave Reserva

As with their other nonalcoholic spirits, Lyre's two recently released tequila alternatives have the most accurate replication of the original liquor's flavor.

Lyre's Agave Blanco has a clean nose of lemon juice and pine, a good agave aroma, and a big chile pepper burn. This is your replacement for a nice silver tequila, excellent in a classic margarita and mixed with red-fruit-based mixers, like AVEC Hibiscus & Pomegranate, which brings out an otherwise hidden creamy vanilla from the Agave Blanco. The pronounced capsaicin burn gives such a cheek-warming flush that you might be tempted to break out a salt shaker and some lime wedges to do shots of this.

Lyre's Agave Reserva is comparatively understated, with less fire and a more complex flavor profile. The nose opens with an aggressive blast of lemon peel oil, toasted oak, coriander, and green jalapeño, and is both slightly sweet and much more herbal on the palate. Like a nicely flavored, wood-barrel-aged reposada or agave tequila, Agave Reserva works well in lighter and simpler cocktails where it is allowed to really shine, like a Tommy's margarita, or half and half with Fever-Tree Sparkling Pink Grapefruit.

Top-shelf delicacies

Though not as versatile as the options above, these unique zero-proof spirits deserve a place on your shelf for their distinguished and singular flavors. Nothing else tastes quite like them, and their multilayered complexity makes for delectable, one-of-a-kind cocktails.

Harmony Smoked Apéritif

Not only my favorite mezcal alternative but possibly my favorite nonalcoholic spirit right now period, on first whiff Harmony Smoked Apéritif evokes a bonfire under the stars on a desert night. It tastes slightly savory, with mesquite wood in addition to oak to more accurately convey mezcal's smokiness; slight heat from ginger and cayenne add a complex, multilayered warmth. With a full mouthfeel without the addition of sweet glycerin, Harmony Smoked Apéritif adds a unique umami roundness to anything it's mixed with, without clashing with fruit flavors. Put this in a paloma or a Bloody Maria, or add an ounce or two to a michelada made with Athletic Brewing Company's Cerveza Atletica nonalcoholic beer.

Optimist Botanicals Smokey

While not technically an imitation of either tequila or mezcal, Optimist Botanicals Smokey is made for drinking as you would a smooth tequila. While the actual agave cactus is not present in the mix, Smokey is not lacking in similar elements, due to a huge and multilayered blend of green herbs and zesty florals. Oregano and sage are dominant from first sniff to the long, medicinal finish, while jasmine and spicy geranium tickle the nose at the front. Toasty heat from ginger and just a kiss of fruity habanero are followed by soothing, lightly cooling clove. A great addition to citrus cocktails, Smokey is also wonderful mixed with red berries and stone fruits, and it brings a seasonally appropriate herbal balance when substituted for tequila and mezcal in cozy autumn cocktails like this Smoky Pear & Ginger Margarita.

The honorable mentions

Even though their utility might be more limited than the Best All Around, these nonalcoholic tequila and mezcal options still work well when appropriately paired with the right flavors and mixers.

Ritual Zero Proof Tequila Alternative

Ritual Zero Proof Tequila Alternative has about a dozen notes that might be found across three or four different tequilas all combined in one bottle. Big oak, a touch of hot asphalt, tropical fruits, a huge dose of chiles, tons of green bell pepper, and even a strangely sweet green pea finish make for a kitchen-sink combination of flavors on its own. Though not for drinking by itself, the round mouthfeel and herbal medicinal notes make for a surprisingly tasty, if very spicy, margarita that may be nonalcoholic, but with a bold edge that is anything but "virgin."

CleanCo Clean T

On the opposite end of the heat spectrum is CleanCo's Clean T, which is all agave and oak on the nose, but zero burn on the palate. The mouthfeel is on the weaker side; this is more of an essence of tequila you can smell rather than taste. Added to a mixer with a bite, like AVEC Jalapeño & Blood Orange, however, the agave aroma on top of the chile heat drinks like a real tequila cocktail.

Escape Mocktails Non-Alcoholic Mezcal

While I would not recommend Escape's Tequila expression, which tastes like a spicy vanilla oak caramel, with none of the vegetal agave flavors that make tequila taste like tequila, Escape Mocktails Non-Alcoholic Mezcal has a big oaky nose, sweet and toasty heat on the palate, and a smoky, herbal finish. The glycerin base gives it a slightly syrupy mouthfeel, which adds both flavor and body to frozen margaritas, and rounds out the flavor of low-sugar mixers like AVEC. While it is definitely sweeter and more viscous than a real tequila, those with a sweet tooth might prefer Escape Mezcal to the others on this list; I kept finding myself going back for another sip of it straight from my tasting glass.

Fluère Smoked Agave

Heavy on the acidity, with a pronounced vegetal flavor, Fluère Smoked Agave not only tastes of its namesake, but nopal cactus, as well. Smoked Agave would add a nice green element to a Bloody Maria and would function well as a nonalcoholic side for sangrita. Though the tequila burn is missing, and the spirit may not be bold enough not to disappear in a margarita, Smoked Agave has a lovely salinity that complements grapefruit beautifully. Try it in place of Patrón in this Shio Kosho Margarita from Masahiro Urushido.

Whether you're looking for an option to spice up your Virgin Mary, whipping up a pitcher of margaritas for Taco Tuesday, or relishing a slowly sipped glass to warm up your winter, there's a zero-proof tequila or mezcal alternative out there for you!

By Suzan Eraslan

MORE FROM Suzan Eraslan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Agave Drinks Food Food52 Mocktails Tequila