Mocktails be damned. If you’re a grown-up drinker, you deserve better than a blend of warm fruit juice and a sad cocktail umbrella. Making alcohol-free cocktails is an emerging craft, but there are some essential tips you can follow to create a satisfying and sophisticated drinking experience.
Cocktails were originally a combination of spirits, bitters, sugar and water. And most contemporary cocktail recipes elaborate on these basics. This OG formula creates complexity in the glass by balancing the flavours of spirits and bitters, moderating alcohol strength through dilution, and offering texture through the alcoholic content of the spirit and the addition of sugar.
Taking alcohol and sometimes sugar out of the equation means thinking differently about how alcohol-free cocktails are constructed. This article shares tips for creating great-tasting alcohol-free cocktails as a professional bartender or an at-home cocktail enthusiast.
LP O’Brien’s alcohol-free cocktail guidelines
LP O’Brien was the first winner of Netflix’s hit cocktail series Drink Masters, and she’s a significant force for change in the drinks industry as someone who takes alcohol-free cocktails seriously. And she’s an upcoming guest on our podcast, Beyond Booze too.
As LP demonstrated on the show and in her day-to-day work, alcohol-free cocktails can have all the drama and excitement of their alcoholic counterparts. And drinks can be crucial in supporting people’s health and wellbeing. But she thinks we need to think about alcohol-free cocktails differently.
“How do I create a beverage that still has all of the elements and aspects of a drink that has alcohol in it?” LP asks. “We’re talking texture, how the cocktail sits on the palate, the complexity of the flavour.” But she rose to the challenge.
“I’ve spent some time thinking about how to teach the bartenders that I have the pleasure of working with the best ways to be successful and create a serve. For me, those elements are dilution as an ingredient and understanding what part water plays in the balance of the drink. Aesthetics, the way that it looks. And then lastly, texture.
“So using that as a guideline for myself, I’ve found some really cool success. We all know when we taste something if it’s good and if it’s made well. It’s just how do we get to that end result?”
So, here are three tips to start: Dilution. Aesthetics. Texture.
Dilution is different alcohol-free
Dilution is essential in alcoholic cocktails and can significantly impact the drink’s taste, aroma, and overall balance. As well as mellowing the intensity of alcoholic ingredients, adding ice also controls the temperature of a cocktail, delivering a perfectly chilled drink. Temperature changes your perception of flavours and aromas, so the careful addition of ice into a cocktail is crucial to its success.
But dilution works differently in alcohol-free cocktails since the spirit ingredients won’t contain alcohol that needs mellowing out.
“I think a lot of people miss out on that and underestimate how much dilution can completely throw in on a cocktail for sure,” explains Noah Villeneuve, head of creative at Club Soda’s Tasting Room. “Do we shake it? Do we stir it? Or do we throw it? If we’re looking at technique, I think this is the most important aspect of it.”
LP is keen to stress that dilution itself is an ingredient. “It can be added with ice, as is, or with things like tea. Dilution (ice) chills your drinks of course but it can also enhance flavour and create balance in your serve.”
So, tip one: Think about dilution as an ingredient in itself. Think carefully about when you add ice. Noah suggests shaking in a tin full of cubes to provide more rapid chilling without over-dilution. But a lot also depends on texture.
Adding texture to alcohol-free cocktails
Alcohol itself lends viscosity to drinks, which is why people used to complain that alcohol-free wines tasted thin and watery. But as with alcoholic cocktails, in the context of alcohol-free cocktails, simple syrup and other sugar-based mixtures like cordials can add structure to a drink.
But you have options beyond sugar, especially if you want to reduce this alongside alcohol.
“I love using vinegars,” says Noah. “Shrub, balsamic, and apple cider add body and acidity. Aqua faba is a great way to add creamy texture if you’re making a sour.” And it’s a vegan option too. Cream and even oils are options too.
“In one of our sours for Sentia, we’re currently using aqua faba and pomegranate molasses. It’s super thick, but you don’t need to use much. It’s full-on! And in our espresso martini, I use Galactic Stout from Big Drop because it has lactose. It’s got creaminess without putting cream in there.”
Presenting alcohol-free cocktails
“We’re not making a cocktail that’s beautiful and just putting it in a white paper cup,” insists LP.
Presentation is critical to creating a luxe experience around an alcohol-free cocktail, and it’s an area where mindful cocktail makers can go to town. Sustainability is a top priority in the Tasting Room, so we reduce food waste by using dried fruits like banana chips and other less-perishable ingredients. But almost anything can be used as a garnish if you’re imaginative.
There’s so much more to the sensory experience of a cocktail than the liquid in the glass, so think about glassware too – and even soundtracks. Noah curates a Spotify playlist with each new menu to accompany the cocktails.
Professional bartenders can incorporate these three principles of dilution, texture and aesthetics into their existing knowledge about making drinks. But what if you’re a home cocktail maker or a complete novice? Let’s add two more essential tips: Flavour and Quality.
Imagine new alcohol-free cocktail flavours
One key reason mocktails disappoint is that they lean heavily into sweet and acidic fruit flavours at the exclusion of all else. But just as a rounded meal balances sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami flavours, an enjoyable alcohol-free cocktail should hit more than one part of the flavour spectrum.
Noah suggests starting with an alcohol-free spirit you enjoy, trying it neat and as a simple serve with soda, tonic or ginger. Notice which flavours are prominent for you, and build from there.
“Because there are no rules in alcohol-free cocktails,” he says, “you can do what you want. Take High Point Amber, for example. Its smokiness reminds some people of a mezcal. So just because it’s not tequila adjacent, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it in a margarita. So don’t worry about what it’s called or how people are categorising it. Use your own initiative to create a drink from it.
“Break the non-existence rules.”
If you’re looking for flavour inspiration, Rob Buckhaven’s book The Alcorithm (Amazon UK, US, Canada and Australia) is an indispensable guide. Primarily focusing on alcohol, it offers detailed tasting notes for different styles of drinks, allowing you to track flavours and find surprising similarities and combinations. This expanding language of flavour preferences can be beneficial when designing alcohol-free cocktails.
Use good quality ingredients
Many people start their alcohol-free cocktail journey by taking a recipe and simply swapping out ingredients. But this isn’t always a successful approach.
“Some things don’t work and don’t translate,” admits Noah, “but I truly believe that if you’re working with quality ingredients, you’ll get a good result.”
In the realm of alcohol-free spirits, good quality doesn’t necessarily have to mean expensive. But it means finding alcohol-free spirits that deliver exciting flavours you can build a cocktail around.
“You need some willingness to experiment, too,” Noah cautions. “You need some patience to try numerous recipes.” It might be that switching a full-strength for an alcohol-free ingredient doesn’t deliver what you’re looking for, but play with proportions.
In short, check the recipe before you chuck the bottle.
Things Can Only Get Bitter
Noah’s creation, Things Can Only Get Bitter, has all the markings of a classic White Negroni. You can find it on the Tasting Room menu. It’s a great example of the principles of alcohol-free cocktail-making in action.
“There are no homemade ingredients in this,” he says. “It’s purely just a selection of products that go well together. Everleaf Forest is the base here, which has Madagascan vanilla, gentian and vetiver, which are classic bitter aperitif ingredients. Gum acacia adds sweetness but also body which is really important in this drink. There is Botivo, which is based on apple cider vinegar with honey, rosemary, thyme and wormwood. That offers acidity and backbone. And then there’s New London Light Aegean Sky, which is the lightest, most polite ingredient in this cocktail, which really acts as the vermouth in this cocktail. And alcohol-free bitters from All The Bitter, but they’re glycerin-based, so there’s a real focus on texture.”
- Two dashes of All The Bitter Orange
- 25ml New London Light Aegean Sky
- 25ml Botivo
- 35ml Everleaf Forest
- Build the components in a tumbler
- Stir with ice to chill, either a giant single ice cube or a few smaller cubes
- Garnish with a dried banana chip, but any fruit will do (other than a lime)
“And listen to D:REAM while you make it,” Noah adds.
Ready for alcohol-free cocktail adventures?
So, there you have it. Five essential tips for great alcohol-free cocktails from two experts of their craft, LP O’Brien and Noah Villeneuve. When you’re creating an alcohol-free cocktail, pay close attention to dilution, texture, aesthetics, flavour and quality.
If you’re inspired to discover more, you can enjoy an ever-changing menu of alcohol-free cocktails at the Club Soda Tasting Room in London. Products mentioned in this article are also available to buy online for UK delivery and other stockists are available worldwide.