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The growing array of non-alcoholic products can turn Dry January into a spirited celebration 

click to enlarge RON BECHTOL
  • Ron Bechtol
As the Dry January phenomenon picks up steam, we’ve thankfully moved well beyond the virtuous Virgin Mary and the simpering Shirley Temple — neither of which most of us want to be overheard ordering during any month of the year.

To be sure, whether driven by folks swearing off alcohol for a month or embracing sobriety as a lifestyle, booze-free “spirits” are proliferating in the marketplace, and alcohol-absent cocktails are cropping up on the fanciest of bar menus.

But with the pandemic having driven a lot of drinking underground — by which I mean to your home bar — some of us feel a need for self-imposed abstinence to seem more like an exploration, not a punishment. As refreshing as a Topo and lime may be, it’s not something one necessarily looks forward to after a hard day of Zoom meetings.

Setting the stage, it’s important that a liquorless libation actually look like a serious drink. This means getting out the same glassware you’d use if you were going full-bore, using good ice and paying attention to garnishes. A lemon twist goes a long way in keeping things semi-real.

That applies to opting for one of the many more exotic soft drinks giving Coke and Mountain Dew a run for their money. A quick scan of the shelves at Central Market revealed dozens of flavors and companies I had never paid attention to.

I was familiar with ginger beer, which is rarely alcoholic. But birch beer? Turns out that Boylan Bottling’s Creamy Red Birch Beer resembles its rooty cousin but has an appealing color and profile all its own. Pretty up the Boylan brew or Maine Root’s Sarsaparilla or Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade with an orange wheel here and a lime wedge there and you’re in business. The same citrus upgrade can also benefit a canned tea such as the delicate but attractive Fitch Sparkling Tea with rosehip, hibiscus and elderflower.

Hella Cocktail Company’s Aromatic Bitters & Soda offered a more simply flavored option. Available at Whole Foods from a company that also offers a line of inventive cocktail bitters, this easy drink is spiked with aromatic bitters and boasts a prominent clove note. I found it refreshing but one-dimensional. So, I added a splash of jalapeño-infused simple syrup I happened to have hanging around, which pepped things up but destroyed the beverage’s zero-sugar appeal. Losing weight under this regimen isn’t guaranteed, in other words.

Which brings us to actual mixed cocktails. One category is made from “alternative” gins, tequilas, whiskeys and more. I bought three of those to sample. The other style avoids emulating any traditional distillation. I only purchased one of those.

Seedlip describes its products as “the world’s first, distilled, non-alcoholic spirits.” Of the three varieties now available, I picked the Garden 108 and turned to a new cocktail book based entirely on non-alcoholic drinks for a recipe. Seedlip, writes Good Drinks author Julia Bainbridge, “really blew this space open.”

Tasted on its own, Garden has a summer meadow-after-a-shower kind of profile with a whiff of green pea. Very subtle, in other words. I held out little hope for Bainbridge’s Jardin Verde cocktail, which mixes one and a half ounces of Seedlip Garden, four ounces of Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic and a thin, lengthwise slice of cucumber coiled around the inside of the glass. But to my amazement, all of Seedlip’s mown-meadow characteristics came through, just livelier and more lifted. I could drink this.

I could also easily drink another of Bainbridge’s recipes, which calls for you to buy verjus, the unfermented juice of unripe grapes, green or red. I found Fusion Verjus Blanc online. Also good for salad dressings and glazes, the bright, tart juice gives life to a delicate and refreshing, equal-parts cocktail of verjus, tonic and club soda.

Since gin is a personal poison of choice, I had to try a zeroed-out version. Monday is a widely available non-alcoholic version, and it at least smells tolerably like the real thing. I tried it first in a gin and tonic. My recipe: two ounces of Monday, a half ounce or more of simple syrup, the juice of a quarter of a lime, all shaken together with ice and strained into a Collins glass with three or so ounces of tonic. It was almost ginny enough.

I couldn’t bring myself to buy a de-fanged brown spirit, but I did try Ritual Zero Proof’s “tequila alternative.” Its ingredient list includes mesquite smoke and a variety of peppery components.

Put to the test in a Paloma with grapefruit soda, those peppery parts got an enhancement, along with notes of green bell pepper. Paired with orange juice in the Sunrise & Shine cocktail from Good Drinks, the green pepper and smoke linger in an aftertaste. You might not want to shoot this alt-agave, but with talented supporting players, it holds its own.

But those aren’t the only options for those opting out this month.

Better Rhodes, a new online store aggregating a multitude of options, recently launched in response to the growing interest in non-alcoholic beers, wines and spirits. After exploring the site, I realized its founder and I agree on at least one thing: a simple boozy drink such as a Martini is not convincing made with faux gin and a vermouth substitute such as Lyre’s Apéretif Dry. Only the aroma tantalizes — the taste and mouthfeel miss by a mile.

Maybe by Sober October I’ll have figured it out.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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