How to Nail the Non-Alcoholic Happy Hour At Home

No booze? No problem.

Non-alcoholic ingredients at The Nicolett's bar

Alexandra Joplin

As the pandemic ebbs and flows, non-alcoholic and low-ABV beverages have become increasingly popular. While many Americans who perhaps over-imbibed during the past two years are now reevaluating their relationship with alcohol by either cutting back or removing it entirely from their lives, mindful consumption has been top of mind in other countries for years.  “The pandemic put a lot of things under a microscope. I have friends with desk jobs that couldn’t go to work, so they’d end up having a beer by noon on the computer. Though that seemed freeing for a little bit, it also kind of got old,” says Finn Walter, 2022 James Beard Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas, and owner of Lubbock, Texas-based restaurant, The Nicolett.  

Having lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for two years, Walter and his wife, Arden Ward, had seen how innovative non-alcoholic drinks could be. Though there weren’t any NA programs when they lived there, it was their introduction to low-ABV cocktails and "shims," specifically from a restaurant that is no longer in operation, called State Capital Kitchen. Among other notable establishments featuring NA and low-ABV beverage programs that inspired Walter is New York City’s Death & Company, Austin’s Midnight Cowboy, and London-based Tayer + Elementary, just to name a few. 

Here, Walter shares his top three tips on how to craft the best zero-proof cocktail. 

Think Like a Chef

Although Walter isn’t a classically trained mixologist, he compares the art of drink-making to his background as a pastry chef. “Drawing from my pastry making and cooking doesn’t give me a leg up  [when it comes to making drinks], but it does give me a different perspective,” he explains. For example, Walter makes crispy and chewy candies served as the last bite using various spirits to create a distinct candied version of the spirit. “We call these cocktail candies," he says. "We use recipes and pastry techniques that I've traditionally used in creating desserts to inform and elevate our approach to drink-making. Whether it's more refined versions of syrups, infusions, or introducing unique dessert and pastry flavor profiles to drinks.” 

“Maybe you look at a specific type of drink, like an Old Fashioned, but you don’t want to use whiskey. So instead, you decide you want to do one with an oak-aged sotol. It’s like baking with tweaking ingredients until you get it where you want it.” Walter also likens baking to mixology because both craftily use salt, sugar, acid, or fat in the final touches. For example, adding a few drops of salt and water solution into a cocktail may reveal bright citrus notes or the rich tea flavors you want to highlight. 

It’s All About the Base

The key to creating a delicious zero-proof cocktail that rivals its boozy version is in the base non-alcoholic spirit used. For example, The Nicolett’s cocktail, In Fashion, calls for Spiritless 74 bourbon, bitters, and orange extract. “The entire NA menu is meant to feel inclusive, celebratory, and just as thoughtful as ordering a cocktail that includes alcohol,” Walter says. In addition to the In Fashion, The Nicolett offers the Not a Margarita and Garden Gimlet; both made with Seedlip, which complements their signature Desert Margarita (made with Desert Door Sotol) and Wild Gimlet (made with Wild June Gin). 

Other drinks include the 74 Sour (a riff on a Whiskey Sour), Not A Mule (a Moscow Mule alternative with Seedlip and yuzu citrus), and the Pathfinder Pony, which uses a small pour of Pathfinder, served with a Mexican Coke on the side. Most of the products The Nicolett carries are sugar-free and are full of herbs and tinctures, such as Ghia and Pathfinder. Both brands are considered NA digestifs and aperitifs derived from various herbs and natural ingredients. 

The Nicolett also carries all three expressions created by Seedlip, including the fragrant Spice 94, herbal Garden 108, and citrusy Grove 42.  

Source Fresh Ingredients 

Once you figure out the type of NA cocktail you’d like to make, choosing fresh components is vital. Without the powerful taste of alcohol to mask any sub-par ingredients, opting for high-quality raw sugar, citrus, and fruit is absolutely critical.  A great way to find fresh, locally-sourced ingredients is at your nearest farmer’s market. Find direct recipes from Death & Company and others, then cater the cocktails to your taste, Walter mentions.

These three tips will help you ditch the “5 o'clock somewhere” mentality and opt for a delicious mocktail in no time – with no booze required. So, whether you’re simply looking for something refreshing to sip while hanging with the family or deciding to go dry for the season, creating a sophisticated, spirit-less sipper is merely a store run away.

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