Don’t Call It a Mocktail: Spirits-Free Drinks Are a Category Unto Their Own
Julia Bainbridge's new book examines the joy of crafting booze-less libations
I thought I was against non-alcoholic drinks.
Why would I spend $16 on a drink without booze? That’s partially a cheapness issue with me, but it also comes from ignorance.
My prejudice against no-booze tipples was based on limited experience. Outside of coffee and tea, I rarely drink anything sans alcohol that requires much thought. If I could get something to fulfill my need for hydration, caffeine or sweetness, I didn’t believe any extra effort was necessary.
I wanted to see if I was missing something in the spirit-free realm and to check my own biases. So I spoke with Julia Bainbridge, a former Bon Appétit editor, James Beard Award nominee and author of the excellent new book Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, which gets bonus points for labeling drink recipes by commitment level and sorting them by occasion/time of day.
Her subtitle grabbed me — not drinking something with alcohol doesn’t have to be confined to a health kick or a “Sober October” activity. It could be about discovering new flavors and learning new kitchen techniques. Or, shockingly, just enjoying a damn good drink.
One big takeaway: We should probably start thinking about spirit-free drinks differently from cocktails. “I’m not a cocktail expert,” Bainbridge admits. “Meaning, I don’t know the world of classic (alcoholic) drink-making the way, say, Jim Meehan does. Even he told me, ‘I find non-alcoholic drinks to have a completely different DNA than cocktails, so much so that my cocktail knowledge doesn’t get me far in n/a drink development.”
Which can be a bonus. “If you think about it, alcohol takes up a lot of flavor real estate,” she says. “Without it, other ingredients can have more room to express themselves.”
Below, more of our conversation with Bainbridge:
InsideHook: What’s your 30-second pitch about why a whiskey fan or cocktail lover like me should embrace spirit-free cocktails?
Julia Bainbridge: I don’t have one! If you’re not into it, you’re not into it, and I’m happy for you to drink what you like. But, whether you believe in it or not, it’s very much happening, and those of us who don’t drink whiskey and have been wanting to level up from syrup and soda are delighted.
Do you find the drinks in this book present the same or more complexity than their alcoholic counterparts?
I’m not sure they can or should be compared in this way, really. If you want to mimic the particular kind of complexity that comes from alcohol being present, you’re setting yourself up for failure. These drinks don’t have alcohol in them, and ethanol behaves in a specific way, so they’re going to be different.
And that’s okay! It is absolutely possible to make complex, layered drinks without alcohol if you’re knowledgeable about ingredients and/or are willing to put in a little labor.
During your research, did you find a flavor profile or method of making drinks that you didn’t know before … one that you think you could now apply to alcoholic cocktails?
Any flavor or technique I featured could be applied to alcoholic cocktails, I’m pretty sure.
What I’ll say is that these drinks are really built in the kitchen. As more sophisticated products come onto the market, this may change, but for now, you might have to, say, remove the zest from eight oranges, eight lemons and four grapefruits and steep them in water with nutmeg and cloves for forty-five minutes to make one component of your drink. This is assuming you want something that’s more adult than a Shirley Temple.
I’m game to play around in the kitchen if it means ultimately enjoying a balanced beverage. And I would venture to say that few items in your fridge or pantry couldn’t somehow be used in a drink. There were so many ingredients I saw bartenders successfully working with during my travels: olive and pickle brines, tahini, miso, sesame oil, orange flower water. The possibilities are as limitless as they are in cooking.
What’s the most memorable drink you had during your research?
I do remember sitting in Gabriella Mlynarczyk’s living room in Los Angeles while she pressed watermelon juice with mint, rose water and pickled plum vinegar. The next day, I drove back east thinking about that sweet, tart, saline drink, and just the memory of it made my tongue water. It was one of the first drinks I tasted during my research trip that made me think,“We have a winner!” Gaby’s U-Me & Everyone We Know, which is featured in the book, is a version of that drink.
What’s your opinion of Seedlip — perhaps the premier maker of “non-alcoholic spirits” — and similar brands?
There’s a lot of variety out there, and different products aim to serve different purposes and satisfy different wants. What I’ll offer is that I’m personally a fan of anything that leans into bitterness: Ghia and Gnista are two of my favorite nonalcoholic beverage products. And I’m so glad Seedlip exists. I think the reason that anyone might not like Seedlip is that they have mismanaged their expectations of it or they don’t understand why it’s worth what it costs. We’re going to be in the consumer education phase for a while.
All of this said, I do wonder: When it comes to spirits, should we be trying to make nonalcoholic versions? These products have real value, because bartenders and home bartenders can lean on them to make more interesting nonalcoholic drinks, which is what I’m all about. But should we be making nonalcoholic gins? What I like about Seedlip is that each product is its own thing, given its own unique name: Garden 108 tastes like peas, rosemary and thyme; Spice 94 is made with allspice, cardamom, grapefruit and bitter barks; and Grove 42 combines blood orange with ginger and lemongrass.
Also, should we even call them spirits? They’re not spirits. The transformations that make these things what they are, are predicated on alcohol being produced. I understand why we use those terms — it communicates to the consumer how this product is meant to be used — but it’s worth thinking about.
What’s an ingredient that’s a spirits-free drinksmaker’s friend?
There isn’t just one, but tea is very important. It’s an entire world unto itself; there are as many varieties as there are wine, if not more. Some are nutty (buckwheat), some are smoky (Lapsang Souchong), some are earthy (Oolong). Rooibos is woodsy and vanilla-like. Not only is the choice of tea going to affect your drink, but you can also play around with steeping time: Go longer to extract bitterness, or lightly brew green or herbal teas if you want ethereal, pretty flavors.
Photos reprinted with permission from Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason by Julia Bainbridge, copyright©2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”Photography copyright: Alex Lau © 2020
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