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Best Practices for Spirit-Free Mixology

The cocktail boom of the past two decades has created a surprising side effect: a true renaissance in the art of not drinking alcohol. Long derided as “mocktails,” alcohol-free cocktails (aka NA, zero-proof, or spirit-free cocktails) are increasingly stepping into their own, driven by changing consumer behaviors, a surge in alcohol-free alternatives, and good old creativity.

But what distinguishes a great NA cocktail from a run-of-the-mill soft drink? “There are plenty of nonalcoholic drinks—but why is tea or juice or soda alone not a nonalcoholic cocktail?” asks Derek Brown, a longtime bartender and bar owner in Washington, D.C., and author of Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails. “It’s because a cocktail is something specific, and there are sensory characteristics we assign to it that are really important.”

With this in mind, we asked Brown and Kayleigh D. Blome, a Seattle bartender and consultant who specializes in NA drinks, for suggestions on how to best approach NA cocktails.


Great alcohol-free cocktails rely on some of the same components found in spirited cocktails, such as fresh juices and syrups. But without the flavor boost from booze, these ingredients step more into centerstage, so using them creatively requires a little attention to detail.

Fruit Forward

Citrus is a staple at pretty much every craft cocktail bar, and NA cocktails give this supporting actor the opportunity to step into the limelight. And don’t stop at lemons and limes—apple juice can lend texture and body as well as acidity, and some grape juices can add a vinous quality. “The usual contingent is still incredibly useful,” says Derek Brown. “There’s the acidity [juice] adds to a cocktail, which makes it sharper and more zippy—that’s really key.”

Sweet Thing

The spirit-free Orgeat Lemonade is among the cocktails in Jerry Thomas’ foundational 1862 bar guide, and flavored syrups and fruit cordials have lost none of their influence over the years. As with every ingredient, quality counts. “Classic syrups add depth and complexity, especially if you’re making them from scratch,” Brown says. “It may require a little more legwork on these ingredients, but you have to use the best of the best in order for it to be a really great nonalcoholic cocktail.”

Secret Ingredient

Bartenders may add a few drops of saltwater solution to cocktails to create a hard-to-pinpoint something in the drink. For NA cocktails, Brown says, salt is no longer an option, but a necessity. “Salt adds a textural component, which is really awesome because we don’t think of that in small doses,” he says. “Salt also suppresses bitterness, which suppresses sweetness—so it creates this cascade effect where you can add more of certain ingredients, and get more flavor, so the drink seems more real.”

That’s the Spirit

Bourbon and gin form the backbone of many conventional cocktails, and today’s NA space increasingly has alcohol-free stand-ins that can fill the base-ingredient vacuum with booze out of the picture. Producers are increasingly venturing into new directions, too, creating NA products full of cocktail-ready aromas and flavors, and with a character all their own.

Spirit Analogs

“These give you a place to start when it comes to thinking about flavors,” says Blome. They say brands like Spiritless (maker of products like Kentucky 74, an alcohol-free bourbon) and Lyre’s (which makes a range of NA spirits) are great places to start exploring the category. “These can break down a spirit into its standard components of flavor, and add them all together to get something that’s similar.”

Bitter & Bold

Makers of NA spirits are taking cues from the producers of bitter aperitivos and amari, and applying similar approaches without the use of alcohol. “Bitterness can provide structural balance, and gives options that are really delightful,” Brown says, noting Giffard Aperitif Syrup as a good example. Blome, who lists Pathfinder Hemp Amaro as a favorite, agrees. “It can add so much complexity to a cocktail that otherwise might taste two-dimensional.”

Be Original

Seedlip was an early example of an NA spirit capable of stepping front and center in a cocktail, with an aromatic and flavor identity all its own. Today, this part of the NA category is in full bloom. In addition to brands like Memento, from Greece, Blome says Wilderton, from Oregon, is a leading contender. “These can have very particular signatures and flavors, and they’re not difficult to utilize in a lot of drinks that are completely different from one another.”

Familiar Friends

Most of us keep powerful flavor bombs in our kitchens already, in the forms of coffee and tea, as well as vinegar (and related products like shrubs). By applying a few basic techniques to these old favorites, they can serve as a flavorful base or an influential modifier in great NA cocktails.

Bean Counter

“Like alcohol, coffee also has psychoactive effects, and is wildly popular,” Brown says. “If you’re looking for something to make you more sociable, coffee’s gonna do it.” On top of the caffeine nudge, which is also found in some conventional cocktails (we’re looking at you, Espresso Martini), coffee offers a wide range of flavors to work with. “You can get amazing coffees that have berry notes, or rich chocolate notes, and you can play with that,” Brown says. “That’s an amazing foundation.”

Easy Does It

Vinegar’s a great way to add flavor,” says Blome. “There’s a vinegar out there from every type of wine, and sherry vinegar is my personal favorite—that’s my NA ‘bartender’s ketchup.’” Blome says just a barspoon of vinegar should be good for a cocktail’s balance, and Brown agrees. “Go easy on vinegar, but don’t shy away from it,” he says. “It’s a byproduct of alcohol, and as such it carries a lot of complex flavors.”

The Leaf Life

Tea rivals wine and spirits in its range of stylistic diversity. “These styles can affect your drink in the same way different spirits can,” Brown says. Tea can convey the bright aromatics of bergamot in Earl Grey, or earthiness in pu-erh, or smoke in Lapsang Souchong. “These can all add flavor and intensity and texture to your drink.” To boost these qualities, Brown recommends double-steeping—either using twice as much tea, or steep it twice as long.

Cocktail Essentials

Cocktails (with alcohol or without) are more than just collections of aromas and flavors. Texture and body, an intensity of flavor, and a “bite” or stopping factor can all distinguish cocktails from simple soft drinks. Here are several ways to help push a spirit-free mix into cocktail territory.

Body Builders

“Texture comes from the solids that are suspended in a liquid, and there are lots of ways to get a textural component into a cocktail,” Brown explains. Sugar and salt, even in small quantities, can help give a cocktail weight on the palate and a pleasant viscosity. And don’t forget familiar ingredients like egg whites and aquafaba, which bartenders use to lend a body-building foaminess to drinks.

Water Break

Dilution is essential for taming boozy drinks, but NA cocktails require a lighter touch. “Stirring [an alcohol-free cocktail] is sometimes better than shaking, because you have more control,” Brown says. And while spirited cocktails like Negronis may be stirred with ice and then poured over fresh ice for serving, for NA cocktails, one encounter with the cubes is enough—just build the drink in a serving glass, and give it a quick stir with ice.

Stop Signs

Soft drinks are gulpable, while cocktails are made to be sipped. Alcohol’s burn provides a slow-down factor, but there are NA ways to accomplish the same result. Sharp flavors like vinegar or the capsaicin in chilis or hot sauce (used judiciously) function as palate speed bumps, as does ginger’s spice. “Ginger is probably my favorite,” Brown says. “When I make an NA Old Fashioned, I’ll always use ginger syrup because it provides a gentle burn, flavor, and texture all at the same time.”

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