With the Dry-uary season upon us, here are some favourites for those taking a break from cocktails, or looking for some fresh 2024 drink-spiration.
When renowned a popular U.S. drinks writer began curating a list of non-alcoholic spirits on his Alcademics blog (pioneering brand Seedlip was the first entry), it felt like a novelty niche on the cocktail scene. Today the list is approaching 200 brands, and with so many non-alcoholic alternatives on the market, including many Canadian brands, it can be hard to know what to try.
But first, to tackle the elephant in the room: why can non-alcoholic products cost the same as traditional, boozy ones? High-quality products often use the same distillation process as traditional spirits, which are then de-alcoholized (those with allergies, note: de-alcoholized spirits can legally still contain less than 0.5 per cent alcohol: about the same as a ripe banana, and less than soy sauce). That means a more involved, often more expensive, production process. Others are developed in a complex process of combining flavours, textures and botanicals to re-create the taste and mouthfeel of alcohol.
Amongst these favourites, we’ve leaned into low-sugar, low-additive Canadian brands, because although there are fewer international barriers to shipping these products than with alcohol, why not support local?
Alcohol-free Spirits and Bitters
These products work best in cocktail recipes where they can complement other ingredients and flavours: most non-alc spirits are not meant to be consumed straight, and few re-create that familiar nip of alcohol kissing your palate (though some, like California-based Monday, do a great job mimicking it with sharp botanicals like ginger).
If you love seaweed-kissed Sheringham Seaside Gin from Vancouver Island, put the company’s sister Lumette non-alcoholic spirits on your bar: Bright Light and London Dry are great for gin-ish cocktails, and LumRum does the trick for tropical drinks, or cola and ginger ale highballs.
In Ontario, Sobrii makes not only excellent, juniper-forward 0-Gin, but also 0-Tequila. Both are sugar-free, and mix beautifully into classic drinks, and bespoke Sobrii cocktails.
Personally, I find that non-alc spirits with bitter flavours have more satisfying flavours, texture and finish. Perhaps that’s why the alcohol-free version of Italian Lucano Amaro Zero and Martini’s Floreale and Vibrante (think non-alc Lillet and Aperol, found at many grocery stores) are so satisfying on the rocks with a twist.
Among the best is made-in-Ontario Novara, an award-winning red bitter. Spritz it with soda (perhaps mixed with non-alc bubbly, or lower-alcohol Prosecco or Mosacato, for a “damp” option) and garnish it with an orange, or use it in place of Campari (perhaps in combination with non-alc gin alternatives) to proof-down Negron-ish cocktails.
Recognizing that most cocktail bitters are built on a base of alcohol, Novara maker Bark & Bitter also offers three thoughtful bottlings of excellent non-alc bitters like Bywater (New Orleans or Peychaud’s style), Aromatic (an Angostura analogue) and Orange. Make a soda water bitter spritz, or use them to amp up flavours and mouthfeel in non-alc cocktails. All the Bitter from California is another alcohol-free range.
The most ubiquitous Canadian brand might just be Quebec-made Clever Mocktails, as its Margarita, Mule, G&T and Mojito cans found on many grocery store shelves. (HP and Romeo’s are other Quebec brands with non-alc drinks.)
West Coast non-imbibers are spoiled for B.C.-born booze-free cocktails. Edna’s range of Mojito, Collins, Mule and Paloma drinks get their pleasing tang from apple cider vinegar, plus other all-natural ingredients and palate-pleasing carbonation. Cute slim cans of Aelo (formerly known as Opus) hold bubbly alcohol- and sugar-free Gin & Tonic, Lime Margarita, Peach Bellini and Aperitivo Spritz cocktails, with carefully balanced flavour crafted by master mixologist Christos Kataitzis. Fans of petite, stubby-bottled Duchess cocktails can now pop the cap on Duchess Dry, bright non-alcoholic versions of its fizzy Lemon Drop and Cosmopolitan.
In Ontario, H2 Craft Spirits makes the excellent, sugar-free Spiritliss Hibiscus Non-Alcoholic Gin & Tonic in slim cans (also available at the LCBO) and Collective Arts extends its brewing and distilling expertise into zero-proof cans of Mellow Mojito, Perpetual Paloma and Midday Mule (along with tasty, complex-flavoured sparkling waters and non-alc beers).
If your Dry-uary season is inspired by celebrity influencers, consider these starry products. Katy Perry is the co-creator of De Soi, non-alcoholic aperitifs that are non-GMO, gluten-free and with no artificial flavours or colours, developed with Morgan McLachlan, a master distiller and botanical expert. Bella Hadid-endorsed Kin Euphorics reportedly give you a buzz without the booze, thanks to functional natural adaptogens (mushrooms and other plants), nootropics (gaba, melatonin and others) and botanicals (turmeric, saffron, ginger, gentian): find them at Sobr Market and other Canadian online retailers.
Zero, a non-alc tasting bar and bottle shop, bills itself as Toronto’s first sober bar and also offers zero-proof mixology classes and events. In Ottawa, Knyota has a Bank Street shop offering guided tastings of the products also found in its online store. Bartending-supply shops like Vancouver’s Modern Bartender and Toronto’s Cocktail Emporium also carry a wide range of non-alc products in-store an online. Fans of subscription boxes can sign up for Free Bar’s monthly selection of non-alc treats.
With Toronto and Winnipeg stores plus an online shop, Sobr Market is a great cross-country resource. Victoria-based Softer Drink online shop sells not only non-alc wine, beer, spirits and cocktails but also fine teas. Bevees in Port Coquitlam bills itself and B.C.’s first physical non-alc bottle shop, with a mixologist on-site daily to provide expertise. In Vancouver, an excellent non-alc selection at The Drive Canteen on Commercial will soon by joined by the coming-soon Mocktails store.
London, Ontario-based Designated Drinks focuses on Canadian products, and you can online-shop your heart out at Canadian vendors like Upside Drinks, Sansorium, Dry Variety, Clear Sips, Soft Crush and others that carry well-curated international selections.
—by Charlene Rooke