The first non-work-related conversation I had with our SVP of Editorial, Julie Alvin, was about bourbon, so when it came to trying a new kind of spirit, I couldn't think of a better taste-tester in crime. Together we scoured the internet for every iteration of the latest craze in the spirit world — non-alcoholic spirits. Created for non-drinkers and drinkers alike, non-alcoholic spirits run the gamut from imitation gin to mushroom-infused tinctures, all with a sole purpose in mind — create a perfect cocktail without the booze.
As an alcohol enthusiast, I've heard about non-alcoholic spirits for years, but it wasn't until the pandemic hit that I noticed their sudden surge into the mainstream. Of course, this meant I had to try every bottle I could get my hands on to answer the most important question — can non-alcoholic spirits (and a few non-alcoholic beers) stand up to the taste buds of a bourbon-loving alcohol writer?
Perhaps for our own comfort, we started out with non-alcoholic spirits that mimicked alcohol. Our hands-down favorite was Lyre's Italian Orange. A non-alcoholic take on Campari, Julie and I both loved its negroni potential and its mouthfeel. "A lot of imitation alcohol is missing the viscosity, this actually moves like liquor," Julie proclaimed; I yelped, "Wow! I would actually sip this!"
Next up, we tried imitation gin and, well, dear reader, I was shocked. I stopped drinking gin after I got The Worst Hangover Of My Life when I was 21, so when I took a sip of the Free Spirits gin, I felt elated. It actually tasted like honest-to-god gin and I loved knowing it wouldn't give me a hangover as I gulped down my glass. In terms of actually tasting like alcohol, the Free Spirits gin took the cake. We also tried the imitation gin from Ritual Zero Proof, which didn't taste like gin necessarily, but did taste like cucumber jalapeño water, so I plopped that baby on to my bar cart for when I'm in a spicy mood. Ritual Zero Proof also deserves a special shout out for its excellent branding — I actually read every word on the bottle I was so intrigued.
When it came to tasting imitation tequila, I wasn't super hopeful, since it's such a specific taste — and I wasn't wrong. Both the Free Spirits and Ritual Zero Proof didn't taste like tequila and fell into the trap of adding spice instead of bite. I would maybe add these to a cocktail if I wanted to add a little zing, but they failed in mimicking actual tequila.
Finally, we tried the non-alcoholic whiskeys. As two whiskey lovers, we weren't expecting much, and to be honest, we weren't all that impressed. The Free Spirits whiskey tasted like maple syrup and the Ritual Zero Proof whiskey tasted like smokey apple juice. They both lacked the mouthfeel of a good bourbon and had basically no bite. The Free Spirits whiskey also had a spiciness, similar to the Ritual gin and both imitation tequilas. While they might have been okay mixed with soda, these missed the mark when it came to actual whiskey taste.
Non-Alcoholic Botanical Spirits
I'm not going to lie, I was skeptical about the botanical spirits, mostly because I'm not really a tincture kind of gal. So I was presently surprised when Julie and I both liked Ghia. It doesn't stand on its own (it's far too bitter), but it makes for an amazing spritz when mixed with seltzer or sparkling juice. "What non-alcoholic spirits are missing most is the bitterness," Julie said to me over Zoom, "Ghia doesn't taste like scented water like a lot of botanical spirits, it actually tastes like a cocktail."
Of course, we had to include the OG of the NA spirit world, Seedlip. I've had Seedlip quite a few times in my life and I've never been disappointed. I was particularly partial to the Spice 94 and Julie preferred Garden 108, but the consensus was the same — Seedlip is delicious, has good viscosity, and adds a great flavor to any cocktail. It doesn't have the bite of a spirit that I crave and I wouldn't drink it on its own, but it's absolutely delightful mixed with seltzer and is a staple on any NA bar cart.
Next up was Curious Elixirs, and specifically Curious No. 1. It was definitely the best one to have on its own both due to taste and viscosity. Julie, in particular, loved this one, "It has the right level of bitterness (unlike some NA spirits, which are bitter for the sake of being bitter, with no nuance), it's lightly sweetened by pomegranate, and it includes herbal notes that make it complex." She also mused that it was by far the best one to sip slowly over ice, a ritual we both deeply love as bourbon aficionados.
Kin Euphorics was the botanical spirit that split us. I personally found them both too bitter, though the High Rhode was definitely my favorite of the two. Mixed with seltzer it gave me Fernet spritz vibes — but I don't like Fernet, so it was not for me. Julie on the other hand placed High Rhode in her top favorites. We also decided the Dream Light wasn't for us because the texture felt off.
We were both intrigued by the zero-proof Restorative Spirits, Rasāsvāda, mostly because the packaging was so luxe. Honestly, I felt incredibly powerful as I held the box and felt like maybe I should be wearing Dior. The taste, however, was not luxe. It tasted like a mushroom tincture that was probably good for my insides, but felt dirty on my tastebuds. We tried all three flavors and collectively agreed: not for us.
We ended our spirits journey with the hemp-infused Aplós. The bottle is beautiful, but the spirit was not our favorite. It's a milky white liquid that felt far from anything I would put in a drink, and though it had a lovely citurs flavor at first, the after-taste was so bitter neither of us could take a second sip.
We ended our night with the other non-alcoholic drink taking the world by storm, zero proof beer. I am, unfortunately, very allergic to hops so I couldn't partake in the actual drinking of this beer, so I brought in my wife to do the drinking on my behalf. She isn't drinking alcohol for medical reasons right now and was almost in tears as she took a drink of a Budweiser Zero. She said it made her feel like she could actually imbibe again and then promptly ordered a six-pack. Julie's favorite was the Karbach Brewing Free and Easy NA IPA, which she said mimicked the alcoholic version almost perfectly — down to the haziness and color. While I can't agree or disagree when it comes to taste, as I cleaned up my wife's leftover cans, it most certainly felt like I was cleaning up a college party in the absolute best possible way.
In the end, Julie and I agreed that though we thoroughly enjoyed some of the spirits and beers, very few of them could replace the real deal. I could absolutely see myself replacing Campari with Lyre's and pouring myself a non-alcoholic Free Spirits gin and tonic, but none of the NA spirits held a candle to my favorite bourbon or a solid margarita. While I don't see myself giving up full proof alcohol for these NA alternatives, they remain an excellent option for those who are sober or for those moments you want just one more drink at the end of the night without risking a hangover.