Come cocktail hour, a well-stocked home bar is a must—even if you don’t drink. Having the right ingredients on hand is the secret to making alcohol-free cocktails that are so delightfully celebratory, you won’t even miss the booze.
Whatever your reason for not imbibing, Julia Bainbridge doesn’t want you to settle for boring beverages. She’s the author of Good Drinks, an elegant collection of alcohol-free cocktail recipes ranging from palomas and Pimm’s to ciders and spritzes. No one knows how to make excellent drinks sans alcohol better than she does, so we asked her how to stock a booze-free bar cart. Read on, then stock up on these essentials for crafting the best non-alcoholic cocktails at home.
“Today, you can find small-batch premium tonics that are less saccharine than the almost sticky saccharine big-name brands. (I won’t name names!) Sometimes you’ll want a lengthener without the sweetness and bitterness that comes with tonic, so make sure to have cold seltzer waiting for you in the fridge.”
“Don’t buy simple syrup! You’ll spend too much on something that’s easily made by gently warming sugar and water and stirring the granules so that they dissolve. Boom! You have syrup. Think about which sweetener—different sugars, maple syrup, honeys—pair with the other ingredients you’re using. Sweeteners are primarily used to, well, sweeten drinks, but they can also add body and carry other flavors, such as when you’re making a compound syrup with herbs or spices.”
“Herbs are essential to drink-making. Lemon thyme, for example, is lightly sour and plays well with beets, fennel or ginger. Tarragon has a louder volume, so to speak, and can enliven a grapefruit and soda. Then there are dried spices. Cayenne pepper gives you heat, pink peppercorns have bite, cloves are warming. Really think about making these drinks from a culinary perspective.”
“Fresh ginger brings bite and is a great ingredient to infuse into a simple syrup, if it makes sense with the other flavors in your drink. We could do a deep dive on all the things you could do with various fruit and vegetable juices, but really, the most essential ingredient to have on hand is fresh lemons and limes.”
“Salt your cocktails! It brightens them and makes each ingredient taste more like itself. Different salts have different flavor profiles too; it’s fun to go deep, playing with salts, if you want to get geeky.”
“The tannins in some teas will dry out your palate and draw you back in, a sensation that can be so pleasurable about a great cocktail. Plus, there’s such a range within the world of tea: Woody pu-erh will give you something different from light, floral chamomile.”
“Consider sherry, rice, or apple cider vinegar, which you might have previously limited to the realm of salad dressings. Just a splash can season a cocktail and give it some edge.”
“This is my secret weapon. Verjus is the juice of grapes that aren’t yet ripe enough for wine production—there are reds and whites—and it’s got this soft acidity to it. I love it with a little tonic water and soda water, as a spritz.”
“Bitters—as in the aromatic tinctures, not the potable bitters such as Campari and Aperol—add another layer to cocktails. I look at bitters like seasoning, even if just for my seltzer, and there are so many to pull from these days. In my pantry right now, I’ve got everything from orange to black pepper to palo santo bitters. Note, though, that most bitters on the market are made with alcohol. Ultimately, because you’re using only a couple dashes in a drink, the amount of alcohol you’re ingesting is statistically insignificant. But for those for whom this might be a problem, there are at least two commercial brands of bitters I know of that are completely devoid of alcohol: Dram, based in Salida, Colorado, and El Guapo, based in New Orleans, Louisiana.”
“Orange flower and rose waters are common in Middle Eastern cooking, and they deserve a spot in your cocktail pantry, too. A little goes a long way, though—you’re mainly using these hydrosols for their aromas.”
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