I’m really into spirits. I have an embarrassingly large amount of bottles at home, totaling over seventy unique spirits and liquors. When guests come over, there’s an expectation around what cocktail Jesse will be shaking or stirring next.
Sometimes, while I prepare elaborate drinks for the other guests, the best I can do for a friend abstaining is a glorified shirley temple. During quarantine I ended up in the habit of having a pour of bourbon, a beer, or a cocktail most evenings as a change of pace, to separate myself from a busy day. After weeks of this, I become more aware of its effect on my sleep and focus.
I’m not particularly drawn to the effects of the alcohol itself, since I drink at most two drinks on a typical night. What I’ve always loved is the broad range of flavors and possibilities in spirits, craft beers, and wine. I’ve been curious about other alternatives which might give me the same complexity for myself or others that want to go alcohol-free for a night (or more).
Like a slingshot, quarantine launched the non-alcoholic beverage scene from a small experimental group to an emerging category growing too popular to ignore. Seeing this growing space, Douglas Watters quit his day job in 2020 to launch Spirited Away, NYC’s first non-alcoholic bottle shop. The shop had its start on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, but has now moved to a fresh new location in Nolita, at 177 Mott St.
Ahead of their grand opening, Douglas welcomed me for a visit to taste some of his favorite bottles and get an overview of the growing category. One by one, we tasted a total of eight offerings from seven different brands. While I’m no food and drink expert, I’ll share about my experience as a spirits lover and a bit of an NA skeptic.
Surely Sauvignon Blanc - Dealcoholized White Wine
The first bottle Douglas opened for us was a Sauvignon Blanc from Surely. At the first taste, any worry of the drink being glorified grape juice is dispelled. It’s wine and there’s no question of it. And that’s no surprise because Surely’s product begins with real California wine that is dealcoholized through a tool called a spinning cone column. The wine is separated by density; it’s aroma and flavor, body, and alcohol. The wine is processed through this machine until nearly all the alcohol is removed.
Surely’s ingredient list also includes pear juice, guava puree, and cane sugar, which are likely added to balance the flavor after alcohol is removed.
While it definitely tastes like wine, I can’t say it tastes like good wine. I once dated a girl who would open up a bottle of red wine for a glass, set it on top of her refrigerator, not revisit the open bottle for two to three weeks, and then drink it without thinking twice. I’m sure she would enjoy this wine.
It’s dry and undeniably sour. Again, it tastes like wine, but doesn’t have the body or balance you take for granted in even a bottom shelf Sauvignon Blanc. There’s a mild lemony tart aftertaste that feels really functional for encouraging small sips, like you might do with an alcoholic wine.
Douglas says he believes we’re just at the start for alcohol-removed products like Surely. It’s definitely commendable what they’ve done, but I suspect the best is yet to come for these products.
Jukes Cordialities #6 - Red Wine Proxy
Jukes is the namesake of celebrated wine taster and writer, Matthew Jukes. Jukes cordialities are small concentrate bottles designed to be combined with water at the point of serving. Each 1 oz bottle is enough for two glasses of the final product. While the choice to name products by number is a bit confusing, it helps lower expectation of a 1:1 replacement for their alcoholic counterpart.
While Douglas didn’t recommend it, I requested to try the concentrate raw. Honestly it was much better than I expected. It tasted a bit like a pomegranate juice based shot I might buy at a health food store to boost immunity or reduce inflammation or whatever.
With some club soda added, the drink wasn’t exactly wine, but was complex enough to be delicious on its own. It walks a fine line of “special juice” and grown-up beverage. Jukes #6 is primarily blackberries and black currant with a base of apple cider vinegar. It has a peppery spice component that helps it go beyond simply being a juice mix.
Douglas pointed out that red wines are one of the more difficult drinks to imitate, alongside whiskey. By choosing to build a drink from the ground up inspired by wine, rather than a direct imitation or an alcohol-removed solution, Jukes delivers something really enjoyable without the baggage of direct comparison.
Ritual Zero Proof Gin - Spirit Alternative
For the first of our spirit alternatives, Douglas brought out Ritual’s Zero Proof Gin. Ritual specializes in spirit alternatives and offers respectable alternatives for each of the most popular base spirits: gin, whiskey, tequila, and rum.
We started with a gin and tonic. Tonic is sweet and loaded with flavor, so it’s difficult to taste the gin directly, but its presence definitely elevated the drink. Qualities like a pine aftertaste and a lingering “burn” showed Ritual’s gin to be a worthy addition. The mild burn stuck around longer than expected and curiously reminded me of the sensation after eating a bite of fresh jalapeno.
Next we tasted the zero proof gin on its own. It was a shock to me. The drink touches your tongue and it’s surprisingly flat. The smell and taste conditioned me to anticipate the heat sensation of high proof alcohol and there was none to speak of. The flavor is interesting and complex enough, but doesn’t offer much appeal for a sipping drink. Pine is the dominant flavor over the traditional citrus, floral, and juniper notes of gins. If you think too much about ammonia-based house cleaners while drinking this, it might ruin your experience.
Lyre's Amaretto - Alternative Spirit
Lyre is named after the Australian lyrebird, famous for being able to mimic countless sounds in the natural world. Appropriately, the brand Lyre’s is leading the way in building a product line far more broad than the base spirit staples of gin, tequila, rum, and whiskey.
First we tasted Lyre’s Amaretto neat. It has a pleasant almond taste and is predominantly sweet but not syrupy or overwhelming. Next we added some lemon juice, imitating an amaretto sour cocktail. It wowed me here. For the first time, I was enjoying a non alcoholic cocktail that felt complex and punchy enough to taste great served neat, without the help of soda or tonic.
I don’t recommend this as a solo sipper, but I think it would be a flexible addition to lots of drinks. In fact, it’s distinct enough that I could see it having benefits in even an alcoholic cocktail in the hands of a savvy bartender.
Lyre's Aperitif Rosso - Alternative Spirit
I’m a vermouth fan and often drink it on its own if Manhattans and Negronis haven’t depleted my supply.
Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso has a rich and juicy flavor that’s sweet but not overwhelming. The aftertaste is the real surprise though. Aperitif Rosso has an intriguing finish that delivers a slightly bitter taste similar to a grapefruit pith or a cocktail with a few extra dashes of bitters. For cocktail and vermouth nerds, this is most comparable to Punt e Mes, a popular vermouth in the craft cocktail world.
While Aperitif Rosso might be a bit rich by itself, I’m sure this bottle has all the firepower to stand up in any mocktail.
Ghia Le Spritz - Aperitif
Ghia was probably my most anticipated tasting in this group. After countless Instagram ads and design studio case studies, I was ready to try Ghia’s trendsetting NA product. Douglas cracked open a can of Le Spritz, a cocktail of Ghia’s flagship beverage balanced with club soda.
The first sip floored me. I anticipated a candy-like sweetness typical of products chasing a mainstream audience. Ghia is anything but. It has a pithy, ginger flavor with rooty herbal notes. It’s complex, but still still light and effervescent. Not only is it grown-up tasting, I actually think most kids would hate it. I became an immediate fan, but I’m surprised it’s become so popular with its unusual palate.
Proteau Ludlow Red - Aperitif
Proteau was created by John deBary, a bar and cocktail pro and Food52’s first Resident Drink Expert. Ludlow Red has a rich and dark consistency similar to red wine. While the name, bottle, and appearance make you think of red wine, it’s not really a suitable substitute.
The base for this beverage is fig vinegar, which certainly comes through, despite a cast of pleasant support flavors like blackberry, chrysanthemum, black pepper and dandelion. I found the flavor to be interesting, but not something I could see myself sipping straight. Again, my mental taxonomy filed this under “health food shot.” Douglas enjoys Ludlow Red on its own, but I needed to add some club soda to find the sweet spot. At a 1:1 ratio with soda, Ludlow Red really worked for me, tasting more like a sweet and herbal shrub.
Rasāsvāda Ruby Artemisia - Functional Spirit
Finally, we came to Rasāsvāda, the most premium of our options.
Rasāsvāda pours a dark and murky red. The taste of wormwood (artemisia) is distinct and present, but well balanced by deep red fruit and a bouquet of floral and herbal flavors. It’s not particularly sweet and has the slightly bitter aftertaste I associate with green tea.
Of all the products we tasted, Rasāsvāda also contains the most exotic ingredient list, including artichoke leaf, schisandra berry, chrysanthemum, cinchona bark, maqui berry, damiana leaf, and oriental raisin. Each ingredient boasts health benefits and ancient medicinal properties, framing Rasāsvāda as not only an alcohol alternative, but a health choice.
I entered this tasting with a healthy dose of skepticism about nonalcoholic spirits. With Douglas’s help, I left as an NA believer, bearing a new understanding of a product landscape that’s blossoming, but diverse nonetheless.
It’s obvious there’s a great deal of possibility ahead for the category. While brands like Surely and Athletic Brewing take alcoholic products and remove the alcohol, others like Jukes or Ritual imitate familiar alcoholic staples by building new drinks from the ground up. Finally, there are those Ghia and Rasāsvāda expanding the category by creating original concoctions taking inspiration from the world of spirits, but making a mark of their own.
While this product category received a jolt of life from our quarantine era, the quality and innovation of NA’s emerging brands will continue to move it into all the places we expect to see gins, beers, and bottled wines. Standing in Spirited Away, it’s easy to imagine a world where nonalcoholic spirits and alcoholic spirits sit side by side on the savviest drinker’s bar cart.