They say it takes at least three weeks to form a habit. So for those of you participating in Drynuary this year, congratulations: You’ve scientifically almost made it to the point where not drinking alcohol feels normal. But after a few weeks of abstaining, I’d guess, you’re pretty fucking sick of the soda water — even the fancy or flavored kind.
Fortunately, today you and your bartenders have a lot more options. Like, a lot more options. Here are the best ways I know how to make not drinking still be fun — and even taste good, if not better.
This is the gourmand’s guide to Drynuary.
Eliminate the Word ‘Virgin’ From Your Bar Vocabulary
I’m not out to shame anyone for holding onto their cherry, but when it comes to ordering a non-alcoholic beverage in a bar, going virgin will only leave you unsatisfied. Cocktails are built using certain alcohols for a very specific reason: They taste good that way.
For example, a virgin margarita is… limeade. Limeade is delicious, but it tastes absolutely nothing like a margarita.
Hoping to recreate a flavor found in alcohol is not only going to bum you out, it’s going to piss off your bartender. Why? Because we know our shit when it comes to mixing sober drinks! We have a lot of really quality non-alcoholic elements at our fingertips (that I’ll get into shortly), which we can and do put to good use to make you something that actually tastes good. Let us do our jobs instead of trying to find a way to make you forget there’s no booze in your drink.
The only possible exception to the No Virgins rule is the mojito. Made correctly, a virgin mojito is fucking delicious.
Bitters are one of the fastest, surest ways to make a drink pop. In today’s market, there are hundreds of flavors, and many of them are completely alcohol-free.
Angostura, Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange bitters compose the holy trinity of cocktail flavorings. Each has been used in classic cocktails for decades; Angostura and Peychaud’s have been on the market since the mid-1800s. Each of these tinctures, however, is highly alcoholic: Angostura is over 90 proof.
Bitters are used in dashes and highly unlikely to alter the ABV of a mocktail. But if you’re going to be a purist about staying booze-free, I’d avoid them. (Side note: I went on a handful of dates with a guy who’s been sober for over two years; he always ordered a soda water with bitters. By the third date, I had to tell him. I wouldn’t say it caused a full-on existential crisis, but it was a very quiet dinner.)
That’s where non-alcoholic bitters come in. The best on the market are by Fee Brothers. Glycerin-based and available in a multitude of flavors, Fee Brothers bitters are behind nearly every cocktail bar.
My personal favorites are peach and whiskey barrel, the latter I consider my go-to mocktail additive. Earthy and cinnamony, the whiskey-barrel bitters add a little mystery, a little je ne sais quoi, to even simple lemonade.
Not all bars are going to have an herb garden on hand, but many bartenders regularly pull kitchen ingredients into drinks. You can do this at home, too, by muddling things like mint, rosemary, sage, basil and thyme into a glass and adding some sugar and soda.
You can also make an herb-infused syrup to add to soda water, tea, lemonade or another booze-free base.
If you want to get really fancy, you can freeze syrups into ice cubes to add chill and flavor to your favorite non-alcoholic beverage.
Let the Professionals Handle It
There are superior non-alcoholic products out there. My favorites are Seedlip and Curious Elixirs. By combining herbalism with distilling knowledge, Seedlip and Curious Elixirs have brought sophisticated, complex flavors to purely non-alcoholic products.
Curious Elixirs currently has three cocktail-esque options. The first calls to mind stirred, spirit-forward drinks like a Negroni or old-fashioned. The other two are citrus-based but highly distinct combinations, bright and spicy and herbaceous. I like them because they can simply be poured over ice or added to sparkling water. Founder and CEO Ben Branson isn’t trying to mimic the flavors of alcohol; his aim is to produce a quality product that makes a great drink that happens to be N/A.
Because when it comes down to it, going out for drinks isn’t about getting drunk, although that’s an inevitable byproduct for many.
It’s about coming together and sharing something — be it dinner, gossip, a story, a shot, a cocktail or something non-alcoholic.
I don’t see myself taking 31 days off the sauce any time soon, but if you’re going dry this month, or next month, or next week, or maybe even just this weekend, don’t let it keep you from going out for drinks.
There’s a whole lot more out there than soda water.