The idea of living sober and enjoying some semblance of cocktail culture seems otherworldly. Club soda, fruit juices, and skunky N/A beer serve to question the why of the moment instead of liberating the social anxiety of the moment. And let’s leave some old charades behind; a $12 fruit juice mocktail is a hard pill to swallow for most of us. The N/A spirit industry is still gestating. The price point is still bent optimistically toward desire. The branding leans toward mimicry with familiar bottle shapes and innocuous labels, so friends won’t spot your teetotalling selection from the standard bar offerings. I tend to think those who would order a cocktail made with N/A spirits wouldn’t think that way, but major brand marketing seems to feel otherwise. “Pretending to be” as a brand image instead of standing out as a new piece to the puzzle is a common vibe in the N/A segment.
It’s easy to mock boozeless concoctions. It’s easy to blame the need for this kind of product on our culture’s specific view of alcoholism. But 2020 brought a spike in dependency, and alcoholism doesn’t respect borders. Quarantine in the rural north didn’t provide many opportunities to find new liquids. A shipment from Lyre’s Non-Alcoholic Spirits gave me the chance to dive into this growing segment of the beverage scene.
I do not claim to be proficient in building cocktails, only in the consumption thereof. I usually go with the standards and a few traditional dive bar fountain splashes. You know, those timeless cocktails made with a tipped bottle, soda gun, and plastic cup: Buffalo stalwarts like whiskey and ginger or gin and juice. I found that N/A cocktails where the base spirit is the focus feel thin and watery. A Manhattan especially tasted like the ice at the bottom of a translucent Solo cup at 2:58 a.m. When the intended cocktail has a more complex flavor profile, N/A versions show stronger. I particularly enjoyed a Boulevardier that I wouldn’t be mad about had I ordered it. No, the N/A Negroni did not hit that nostalgic end-of-a-long-shift note, but it did represent itself well—like those drugstore “inspired by” cologne brands. The N/A elixirs truly started to shine with spritz cocktails, specifically Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso and Italian Orange.
It does seem as though the lack of alcohol needs to be held up with more acid, bubbles, or sweetness. That can be fairly limiting in the recreations of old drinks, but maybe that’s part of the problem. These beverages have great potential in building new boozeless offerings that can do more than just mimic old classics. As I sip and type drinking a Lyre’s American Malt and ginger with a green dragon tincture as bitters, I don’t mind waiting for the new kids to learn old tricks.