Are Zoom happy hours still the way to “go out,” five months after Covid-19 locked much of the country indoors? Most nondrinkers probably wouldn’t be able to say. It gets tiresome watching friends slowly sip on whiskey after their Collins glasses of sparkling water have gone empty. Eventually, nondrinkers bow out.
But what if there were a nonalcoholic beverage worth lingering over? The kind of drink that deserves to be held in the mouth and rolled across the palate, the kind that ultimately leaves an impression? Something challenging. Something bitter.
A new crop of nonalcoholic beverage products are aiming to do just that. Their producers want to make the drinker think — even if the drinker doesn’t drink.
“It can’t just have one or two notes to it,” said John Wiseman, the owner of Curious Elixirs, a line of alcohol-free mixed drinks. “It has to have at least three, so you can try to pick them apart.”
Mr. Wiseman started tinkering with a boozeless Negroni recipe in his Hudson Valley kitchen and, in 2017, he founded Curious Elixirs. The reason was simple: “I was drinking too damn much,” he said, but he was unsatisfied with the syrupy sodas he found in New York bars and restaurants. “I wanted something that made me slow down and appreciate it, not something I would chug.” The pause that a bitter beverage forces you to take? “That’s what makes it adult.”
For nondrinkers who like to dine out, the word “adult” is key. It’s why Ben Branson created Seedlip, a line of alcohol-free spirits that he makes in England by distilling each individual ingredient in copper pots before blending them. “I was at dinner with my fiancée, who ordered a beautiful glass of Bordeaux, and when I asked for something nonalcoholic, the waiter came back with a pink, fruity, sweet mocktail,” he said of his inspiration to start the company in 2015, two years before it arrived in the United States. “I felt like an idiot. It didn’t fit the food, didn’t fit the ambience, and I wondered how, when we can cater to everybody’s varying allergies, you cannot get a decent, grown-up, nonalcoholic option?” In August 2019, the British liquor beverage conglomerate Diageo acquired a majority stake in the company.
Seedlip uses decidedly adult botanicals such as peas and lemongrass, but Curious Elixirs and the newer brands For Bitter For Worse, Ghia and Gnista are leaning further into that most acquired of tastes: bitterness. Aecorn, a line of nonalcoholic aperitifs from the makers of Seedlip, has been available in Britain since 2019, and is set to be sold in America in 2021. The first of their three flavors, which include Aromatic and Dry, to come to the United States is Bitter, made with grapes, grapefruit, bay leaf, orange, oak and quassia, also known as bitterwood.
In the United States, wider acceptance to bracing, complex flavors has been well-documented — dark chocolate, cruciferous vegetables, craft cocktails, hoppy I.P.A.s and Italian amaros, to name a few. The bitterest plant, which can be found on the ingredient labels of most of these new drinks, is gentian. Its root contains at least two bitter compounds: gentiopicroside and amarogentin, a digestive. Gnista, a line of nonalcoholic spirits produced in Sweden, instead uses wormwood, which is more commonly associated with absinthe and vermouth. (Erika Ollen, a Gnista founder, hopes to bring it to the United States in the fall.)
“There’s a whole spectrum of bitterness, from horseradish through the gentian,” said Jennifer McLagan, the author of “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes.” Without bitterness, wherever you derive it from, Ms. McLagan said, your cooking and your drinks will lack dimension.
Most nonalcoholic products are guilty of that, according to Alison St. Pierre, a former bartender at King in New York City. Before the restaurant temporarily halted service because of the pandemic, she decided to build her own nonalcoholic drinks from scratch. One of her favorites was a bitter soda that she made by caramelizing citrus fruits in the oven with coriander, rosemary, black pepper and cinnamon.
It was one of Melanie Masarin’s favorites, too. A young entrepreneur who significantly reduced her alcohol intake after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2018, Ms. Masarin was a regular at King. Eventually, she tapped Ms. St. Pierre to consult on the making of Ghia, a nonalcoholic aperitif that became available in June.
“It hits all the spots,” Ms. St. Pierre said. “You get this floral, citrus note on the nose, then it hits on the front of the tongue, and there’s a softness that caresses back through the mid-palate. Finally, there’s that bitter finish and a little bit of tannic presence.” The bitterness comes from gentian root, orange peel and rosemary. Other ingredients in the mix: Riesling grapes, yuzu, lemon balm, figs, elderflower, acacia and ginger.
Shelley Elkovich, a founder of For Bitter For Worse, which launched in January, put the emphasis right in the name. “I enjoy robust drinks, and I wanted to signal that in order to find my people,” she said, explaining that the bitterness comes from dandelion root as well as gentian. “You can see it either as an invitation or a warning.” She and her husband, Jeff Heglie, currently make three bottled nonalcoholic cocktails in Portland, Ore.: the tart, sparkling Eva’s Spritz, made with both rhubarb root and juice; the Saskatoon, which Elkovich thinks of as a red wine alternative, made with the Saskatoon berry, black pepper and Douglas fir tips; and the Smoky No. 56, which started as a dare. Could she make a nonalcoholic drink that conjured associations of whiskey? After 55 tries, yes.
Ms. Elkovich shared a note from one of her customers, a woman who just achieved four months of sobriety after a yearslong struggle with alcohol. “We’ve just seen our friends for the first time, and I’ve been feeling a little down as I join others who are drinking,” the woman wrote by email. “Your drinks give me hope and inspiration again. Why can I not have a neat little bar in my house, where I whip up fancy little cocktails and have neat glasses and the works? I most definitely can!”
Nondrinkers — for life, for the month, for the night, for this round — might rejoin the virtual happy hour, after all. And, eventually, a real one.