If you want to drink less or not at all, finding an alcohol-free alternative to your alcoholic drink of choice is a top priority. For beer lovers, there are easy options available from big-name brands and small-scale craft brewers. Alcohol-free wines are improving rapidly. And seemingly endless varieties of non-alcoholic botanicals can stand in for gin. But what about alcohol-free whisky?
Dark spirits are a challenging frontier in alcohol-free drinks, partly because of how we experience their alcohol content. With most spirits at around 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) or more, alcohol adds weight, body and sometimes a characteristic burn. Replicating these experiences without alcohol is a significant technical challenge to alcohol-free drink producers.
If you are a whisky lover looking for an alcohol-free alternative, there isn’t a straightforward substitution to be made. But this article will help you understand that because whisky is a family of drinks, you need to be specific about what you want. Finding an alcohol-free whisky means deconstructing your drinking habits and narrowing in on your openness to experimentation, your flavour preferences and your sense of occasion. Once you’ve done that, you can take better steps towards alcohol-free whiskies that will work for you in cocktails or for slow sipping.
Whisky is a family of drinks
Let’s start with whisky, though. What is it? Whisky or whiskey (depending on where it’s made) is simply a distilled alcoholic beverage made from grain.
Although details will vary enormously, the production of most whiskies follows a standard template. Grains will be malted and mashed to turn starches into sugars, yeast will be added to promote fermentation, and the resulting liquid will be distilled. Finally, this new make spirit will be matured in barrels, sometimes for many years. This both mellows the alcohol and imparts richness and character to the resulting drink.
There are over 140 whisky distilleries in Scotland, 40 or more whiskey producers in Ireland, and upwards of 800 makers of whisky and bourbon in the United States, let alone Japan, Australia, Canada and even Taiwan. Different grains, water, distillation methods, barrels, environments and production methods create a seemingly endless variety of whiskies.
Rather than think of whisky as a single drink, it’s more helpful to consider it a diverse family of drinks. So if you are hunting for alcohol-free whisky, you’ll need to work out precisely what you’re looking for.
“I’m looking for something like whisky” isn’t enough information to start making any decisions.
Deconstructing your whisky-drinking habits
Three things are critical to consider when deconstructing your whisky-drinking habits: your openness to experimentation, your flavour preferences and your sense of occasion.
Openness to experimentation
An adventurous palate is a good starting point for exploring alcohol-free drinks of any kind. So take a moment to reflect on whiskies that you’ve enjoyed or appreciated in the past. Did you have a firm favourite whisky you bought over and over again? Did you gravitate towards a particular style of whisky, such as Scotch, Irish whiskey, Bourbon or Japanese whisky? Or did you enjoy exploring different types of whiskies?
You might be stuck in a rut. Developing openness to experimentation and appreciation will be essential in finding an alcohol-free alternative.
Another significant element to consider in thinking about your whisky-drinking habits is flavour. Whisky derives its flavour from malting, distillation and storing in barrels, and a single whisky can have as many as 300 distinct chemical compounds that make up its flavour profile.
In Scotland alone, there is huge variety in what whisky tastes like. The iconic Islay whisky flavour profile is smoky, peaty and briny. Lowland Scotch whiskies might be maltier, with lighter, sweeter flavours and a subtle grassy aroma. Aged in sherry casks, Speyside whiskies might take on hazelnuts, almonds or dried fruit flavours. Every change of terrain and product produces whisky with distinctive characteristics.
Whiskies can be fruity too. Bourbons often carry flavours of vanilla and caramel from their charred oak barrels, while rye whiskeys can have spicy notes of clove, cinnamon and black pepper. Floral characteristics aren’t uncommon in Irish whiskey, where malted and unmalted barley lends honey notes.
Sense of occasion
Beyond developing your palate and focusing on the range of flavour characteristics you appreciate, there’s also the vital matter of how and when you drink whisky. When looking for an alcohol-free whisky, this will be critical. If you want to replace whisky in cocktails, you’ll choose a different alcohol-free whisky than if you are looking for a slow-slipping experience.
Noticing what’s going around your whisky drinking can guide your choices too. What needs is whisky meeting for you? How can you meet those needs in other ways? If all you need is a way to relax at the end of the day, it might not involve a drink at all.
Is alcohol-free whisky burn possible?
If finding an alternative was just about experimentation, flavour and occasion, alcohol-free whisky would be relatively easy. However, the biggest stumbling block for many whisky drinkers is replicating the sensation of alcoholic burn.
Whisky is a high-alcohol product. With ABVs upwards of 40%, it’s not unusual to find whiskies that are more alcohol than water. This imparts a significant characteristic to the drink: the alcohol can cause a sensation of burning in the mouth and throat. This effect might be softened in an aged whisky. You become accustomed to it over time as well. But for those seeking alcohol-free whisky, the warmth of which is often missing.
How does alcohol burn you, though? Alcohol causes a burning sensation in your mouth by stimulating a pain response in your vanilloid receptor-1 (VR1). This is the same receptor that’s triggered by the presence of capsaicin, the active ingredient of chillis and peppers. Rather than being hot in itself, alcohol creates this burning sensation by making your VR1 receptors more sensitive. So instead of being triggered at 42ºC (107ºF), ethanol lowers the threshold for these receptors to just before 34ºC (93ºF). Because that’s lower than your body temperature, it’s your own heat that you feel as burning, not alcohol itself.
Or, as Hank Green from Sci-Show eloquently puts it, “It’s not the booze that’s hot. It’s you.”
Replicating alcoholic burn in alcohol-free spirits is sometimes achieved by adding capsaicin into drinks. This can cause difficulties if you are sensitive or allergic to chilli, so read labels carefully.
But it might be worth considering whether the alcoholic burn of whisky is so desirable. It is, after all, a pain response. And why would you willingly cause yourself pain?
Alcohol-free whisky for cocktails
In any case, if you are looking for an alcohol-free whisky to incorporate into cocktails, the alcoholic burn will play a much less significant role than the flavour profile of the alcohol-free whisky.
If you are a fan of a spirit-forward cocktail, Gnista Barreled Oak is an intriguing alcohol-free whisky alternative. Offering flavours of ginger, pepper, dried fruit, chocolate, oak, and vanilla, it has been designed for solo drinking and brings complexity to every sip. Replace your favourite whisky in an Old Fashioned with 60ml of Barreled Oak, adding a dash of bitters, a teaspoon of brown cane sugar, and a twist of orange zest.
Alternatively, Lyre’s American Malt offers enormous possibilities. Closer in taste profile to a classic Bourbon, it has sweet vanilla, toasted nut and herbal notes that provide complexity, offset by a long mellow finish. Lyre’s have designed their drinks to be cocktail-friendly. Dry shaken with lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white or aqua faba, the American Malt will deliver a satisfying alcohol-free whisky sour with a frothy finish.
Alternatives for alcohol-free slow sipping
Embracing mindful drinking often means pushing beyond straightforward swaps and expanding your taste horizons. Deconstructing your whisky-drinking preferences gives you significant clues to the flavours you might discover and enjoy in other drinks.
Understanding your drinking habits also points to the importance of occasion. You might reflect that a heavy tumbler in your hand, a clinking cube of clear ice, relaxing music, a comfy chair and a good book are as much the experience of slow sipping as the whisky itself.
This is where you can afford to be more adventurous. High Point Amber Digestif is a great starting point for your exploration. Distilled with lapsang tea, ginger, clove, vanilla, cacao nibs, gentian root and oak, this delicious drink is rich and smoky with bright acidity and a smooth mouthfeel.
Or push even further with the beautiful Three Spirit Nightcap. Explicitly designed for slow sipping before a relaxing bedtime, this alchemical blend offers decadent flavours of wood, spice and mellow aromatics, black pepper on the nose, and a smooth maple, vanilla and hazelnut finish.
Finding your favourite alcohol-free whisky alternative
Dark spirits are the focus of a lot of innovation in mindful drinking, as people seek to replicate elements of the whisky-drinking experience and push beyond it to bold new alternatives. New drinks are constantly emerging, so if none of the options in this article appeal, don’t give up hope.
Most of all, don’t get stuck with substandard drinking habits just because you think you can’t find a like-for-like replacement for whisky. If you need a structured and supportive approach to drinking less or not at all, Club Soda’s courses can help you take positive steps.
All the drinks mentioned in this article are available for UK delivery from the Club Soda Tasting Room. You can visit the Tasting Room to discuss your alcohol-free whisky options with our team of mindful drinking experts. And to find stockists and other drinks outside the UK, check where to buy drinks online worldwide.