“IF YOU’RE THIRSTY, drink water.” I frequently was given this advice as a child, and when your body is in need of liquid to keep its cells and systems functioning, water is second to none.
But sometimes we drink for reasons other than thirst. Sometimes we want something sweet (hence soda or juice), or sometimes we’re at a wedding, and we need to toast the bride. So why do we drink alcoholic beverages? Because the alcohol causes our bodies to relax, sometimes with a corresponding burst of hedonic energy? Because we are nervous meeting new friends and need to release some inhibitions? Because we’re trying to bond with Vikings?
It follows to then ask why we drink cocktails. Straight shots of alcohol have their time and place, but not all people are up for the harsh sting of undiluted 80-proof spirits sliding down their throat. So we temper them with water, with soda, with lemon juice and falernum and fresh mint, to smooth out those rough edges and concoct a drink that will have the desired chemical effect on the body while also being pleasurable to sip over the course of a half-hour. By such a definition, a cocktail is therefore a culinarily pleasing medium through which we imbibe humanity’s most universal intoxicant.
This brings us to the conundrum of nonalcoholic spirits. Because, however you spin it, there is an inherent contradiction in these new products, the most ubiquitous of which is Seedlip, which retails for more than $30 per bottle, depending on where you shop. This is roughly the price of a nice gin or tequila, so it’s worth wondering what, exactly, you’re purchasing for your money. What’s the point, you ask, of a gin rickey without any gin?
Brands like Seedlip, Lyre’s, Curious Elixirs and others are essentially distilled water spiked with the flavors of flowers and herbs that you typically find in gin, absinthe or even bitters (which are themselves alcoholic). These new nonalcoholic spirits are meant to raise the profile of mocktails (cocktails with the booze left out).
A virgin Tom Collins made with only soda water is just lime, sugar and water, but the addition of a nonalcoholic spirit adds in the floral, herbaceous kick that makes the drink more grown-up-tasting than a watered-down limeade. Most of these nonalcoholic spirits are unsweetened or only very lightly sweetened, making them taste more like old-fashioned patent medicine than beverages.
Lyre’s comes in spirits-specific flavors such as American Malt (a bourbon substitute) and Italian Spritz, meant to invoke Aperol. Seedlip has flavor families like Grove, which contains citrus, ginger and lemon grass. There are no nonalcoholic vodkas (that would just be actual water), and most of these products seem to be aimed at gin or tequila drinkers who love the bracing bitterness of aromatics and whiskey drinkers who desire the woodiness and peatiness of whiskey without any actual “usquebaugh” (“water of life” in Gaelic, meaning “hooch”).
But for those who are devoted to the concept of mixology, of pairing tasting notes and nerding out about shrubs, the alcohol itself sometimes might be nonessential. After all, some gin fanatics are really after the complex taste of the herbs, and some mescal aficionados are in it for the whiff of smoked agave. And some people just don’t drink, but they like a good cocktail anyway. For your money, you are technically getting a bit more than just herbs soaked in somewhat vinegary water; companies like Seedlip make their product by distilling the herbs, flowers and seeds in grain alcohol and then distilling the alcohol out and removing it instead of concentrating it. (Seedlip is actually still a bit less than .5 percent alcoholic, negligible in terms of effect, and some brands don’t use alcohol in the process at all.)
To be frank, though, the price tag for these nonalcoholic spirits can be off-putting when what you are buying is, fundamentally, flavored water. The products can be polarizing — some people, understandably, view the whole concept as a marketing scam. It remains to be seen if the business model of bundling complementary aromatics as a premixed product without any actual booze will appeal to humanity in the long run, or if perhaps the trend will catch hold only among cultures that proscribe drinking. But part of the ritual of cocktail drinking is just that, the “drinking,” holding the jewel-like beverage by a precarious glass stem, toasting with one’s friends, nibbling on fruit garnish. For some, the intoxicating properties of actual cocktails are either not important or not desired, but everything else about the cocktail is. Therefore, in a way, the very existence of nonalcoholic spirits, whether you like them or not, reinforces the concept of cocktail culture as a meaningful culinary endeavor. Because, after all, with a mocktail it can’t be claimed that all the muddling and mixing and ingredient-sourcing is just a fancy excuse to get drunk.