The VinePair Podcast: Can a Non-Alcoholic Cocktail Break It Big?
On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Zach Geballe and Tim McKirdy discuss a recent piece by Aaron Goldfarb regarding the future of non-alcoholic cocktails and what it might take for a non-alcoholic cocktail to become a modern classic. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
Tim McKirdy: In VinePair New York City headquarters, I’m Tim McKirdy.
Z: This is the VinePair Podcast Friday edition. Tim, it’s been a week. We’ve released The VinePair 50. Always an exciting week here in the company.
T: Yes, definitely. I just want to say on behalf of the VinePair editorial team here, a huge congratulations to all the talented individuals featured on this year’s list. It’s the second year we’re doing this. For anyone listening who hasn’t checked that out, it went live yesterday, on Thursday morning. Head over there and just familiarize yourself with some of the leading innovators and thinkers and operators in the drinks industry.
Z: Yes. It’s always great because I love opening these lists because I’m taking you behind the scenes here. I’m really not a part of this process. It’s always great because when I look at the list, I’m like, “I know who five of these people are, or maybe 10 on this list maybe.” It’s a great opportunity for me even to learn a lot about people who are doing all kinds of incredible work in and around the beverage alcohol industry. Yes, it’s definitely a must-read. We’ll link it here in the show notes too if you haven’t had a chance to navigate over there. Speaking, Tim, of stuff on the site, we ran, I think, a really fascinating article by VinePair contributor Aaron Goldfarb last week that raised, really, a question, I have to admit, I had never even considered, which is functionally, will there be a classic non-alcoholic cocktail? I think as Aaron laid down the piece, he’s not talking about your virgin Bloody Marys, and Daiquiris, and stuff like that, which are pretty ubiquitous, but a drink that is created from conception as a non-alcoholic drink, that becomes a bar staple. Tim, in some ways, you’re the cocktail expert among the two of us. Take me through your thoughts when you were looking at this piece and some of the first things that jumped out to you.
T: Yes. Like you, I think it’s a really interesting question and not something I considered before, either. I think the first reaction immediately is, this should actually happen. Maybe it’s surprising that this hasn’t happened sooner, given how popular non-alcoholic cocktails have become, and given the proliferation of spirit alternatives that seem to be specifically geared for actual categories like non-alcoholic gin, or the gin alternative, or the bourbon alternative. I do think it is surprising that this hasn’t happened. Whether I think it actually will happen, again, is probably something we will get into in today’s discussion, but I have some other thoughts there. Yes, it’s a very interesting question.
Z: I think it’s a fascinating question for multiple reasons, and some of which I’ll get into in the piece, and some of which I think you and I can elaborate on here. One of them I think is that, to this point, the NA Cocktail movement has largely, I would say, been driven by a — well, I think, I might draw my two things. One, there’s decidedly a group of people who want to be able to go to bars and have an experience that feels adult, feels mature, feels sophisticated, and doesn’t involve alcohol. How big that audience is, is a question that everyone is trying to pin down. It’s really difficult to answer without because that answer can depend on, are you looking at people who never drink alcohol, people who only rarely drink alcohol, or people who might, in a given setting, be open to drinking alcohol, but might be just as happy or even slightly happier with a really good interesting drink that just happens to be non-alcoholic. There’s that piece of it. Everyone is trying to figure out what this market looks like and how big it is, and what its dimensions are in a lot of ways. I think you also have and this is I think a piece that is a part of it that is really important to understand too a growing number of beverage industry professionals who are themselves sober but want to feel connected to the industry. While those people can and do operate very effectively in spaces that are centered around alcohol, they work as bartenders and servers and sommeliers and all that stuff, I don’t doubt that for a lot of them it would be as or more exciting to also feel like they had a lot of space to work in a category where they themselves are at the moment in non-alcoholic beverages. That I think is the other piece of it because I think that you need both pieces. You need really talented, creative, and driven people looking to make interesting non-alcoholic cocktails, and of course, you need an audience for those things. I’m wondering, Tim, A) does that sound right to you? and B) which of those two do you see as being further along?
T: Completely agree with what you’re saying there. I think all of those different factors come into play. I’m tempted to say the latter and that this movement that we’ve seen of more and more industry professionals deciding that maybe they’re taking a break from drinking or they’re choosing not to drink for whatever reason they might want to. That break could be a couple of years or it might just be a month or whatever or it might be hopefully for the rest of their life if that’s the decision that people wish to take and the path that they want to go down. I do think that anecdotally that seems to have been a movement that’s gaining steam in recent years. I was at Tales of the Cocktail festival last year in New Orleans. For anyone listening who’s not familiar with that, it’s the biggest at least here in the U.S. annual gathering of bartenders and basically cocktail professionals and spirits brands in the country. That’s been gaining steam for a long time now. Within that festival, there were morning runs devoted to people run by a group of sober bartenders. Discussions and seminars about sobriety and non-alcoholic brands there. Spirit soul alternatives had a presence there too. I think that speaks to the fact that more and more these conversations are being had. This is happening within the industry. It’s probably easier now than it’s ever been to be a bartender but not actually decide to imbibe yourself at least imbibe alcohol. I think because of that and then another thing I would add is that this isn’t a new trend, but in recent years, we have seen a lot of bars go down the route of preparing proprietary ingredients. Whether it’s like syrups and obviously syrups and things have been there for a long time in Tiki culture in that style of drinks, but using proprietary ingredients and maybe coming up with five or 10 for each new menu that launches. That approach to making those things, I think, also influences non-alcoholic cocktails. I think that all comes together to your point. I think all of the factors you mentioned, but in my mind, they speak to maybe the ones that have been really pushing this along.
Z: To come back though to one of the real questions that Aaron’s piece raises, which is not, just to be clear, not just are non-alcoholic cocktails on the rise or here to stay or whatever way you might peg it in a different world. He’s really curious like is there going to be any cocktail that is, again, created as any cocktail not any version of an existing cocktail that becomes somewhat ubiquitous that you could find on cocktail lists from coast to coast or however you want to think about what ubiquity means for a classic cocktail. I think that there are two possible limitations or obstacles that NA cocktail would have to clear, at least two I guess I should say. The first of them is a little bit what you were hinting at which is that for a lot of bars that I’ve seen that are really leaning into NA cocktails that are really trying to offer interesting unique and creative options to people who are not drinking at any given moment. They do so and I think not incorrectly via a lot of in-house work. There are a lot of syrups, there’s a lot of tinctures, there’s a lot of infusions of various things. There’s fresh juices, et cetera. Those things are all really good. They’re also really hard to replicate around the country. A lot of what makes classic cocktails or trendy cocktails take off is that almost every bar stocks the ingredients already. That’s what makes it really easy for someone to pick up a Naked and Famous and put it on their list because they already have the ingredients or a Paper Plane or even an Espresso Martini. If you are really delicious and a cocktail includes three ingredients that are laborious to make and you make in-house and are not something that someone could just stalk off the shelf or whatever, it’s going to be harder for them to pick up that drink. It just is the reality of things. It’s the reason why, as you mentioned, the Tiki category, it’s the reason why like really and truly doing that a bar has to invest a lot into it. I mean not just money-wise, but time-wise and labor-wise. That’s why there’s a lot of delicious Tiki cocktails that I won’t order in a lot of good bars because they’re not designed to do that. They’re designed to make other kinds of great cocktails. I do think that that’s one big obstacle. The other one, and where I almost want to spend more time, but I want to just throw it out here for you to respond to first is that I think the NA spirits category is having a little bit of a challenge that I’m going to compare and maybe this will get some angry emails. I apologize. Podcast@vinepair.com, though, if you want to yell at me. I think it’s struggling. Not struggling. I think it’s facing some of the same challenges that some of the early meat alternative products faced, which is that when you are trying to be a substitution or an alternative for an established category, be it spirits, be it meat, one natural inclination is to say, “Well, here are all of the things that you like drinking or like eating and you can have our product in the place of the spirit or meat that you would normally have there. Here’s a veggie burger, here’s tofu bacon, here’s vegetarian sausage, et cetera. Here’s alcohol-free gin, here’s alcohol-free bourbon, et cetera.” The problem with that to me is that you’re both making an argument against a category that is really well-understood and beloved by lots of people and where up until relatively recently, it was pretty hard to really, truly say that the difference was indistinguishable. Now, I think where some of the alternative meats have gotten recently, at least in my opinion, in certain applications, it is pretty hard to tell the difference. That’s an achievement. We’re not here to talk about that particularly, but I think it’s worth noting. I don’t think that any of the NA spirits that I’ve had are really and truly mistakable for their alcoholic version, even though some of them I think are very well made and can function in the right setting correctly. What I think it will take for some of this stuff to take off more truly is for these companies or for these, whatever we call them, I’m not even going to call them spirits, but for these drinks for lack of a better word, is to find their own spot that is more about what flavors are in there and what they are than about how they compare to something else. Does that make sense?
T: Right. You’re essentially saying here, is it better to have a gin alternative or is it better to have an ingredient like, I’m just going to say seedlip, because they’ve been around for a hell of a long time and those are less specific in, in their use case scenario. Right? Because they have names that don’t really exactly tell you exactly what’s going on there. Your question here is, which one is ultimately better for non-alcoholic drinks in general or which one helps us get to this place where we may or may not have a modern classic non-alcoholic cocktail? Is that what you’re saying?
Z: Yes. I think to elaborate really quickly, because I realized I highlighted over something that’s important to say, I think that one of the things that helps drive the success of cocktails in their spread is, of course, the quality of the drink, of course, it’s the appeal of the drink visually, et cetera, but some of it is also, especially if you’re including an ingredient that is specific, you’re going to get some additional momentum from those producers. If you’re including Amaro Nonino in your Paper Plane, well, the people at Amaro Nonino, of course, they’re going to get behind it. They’re going to promote that cocktail. They’re going to activate their bartenders that they know, et cetera. I think that a one path forward for a true classic and a cocktail is going to be, of course, to engage with some of the products that are already on the market and I think to do so in a way that really accentuates what makes them good and not so much about– Because I think a lot of what you see right now is here’s your way to make the drink you already know with alcohol and substitute out the spirit for something else and it’s the same drink. It’s just not. They can be really good, but I think the more you steer into this is something different as opposed to, here is as close to a like for like substitution as we can manage, I think it will be better for the category and it will increase the chances that that cocktail gets traction because it won’t be seen as purely an alternative. It might well be something that people find delicious and enjoyable to drink regardless of how they feel about drinking alcohol, that’s really the goal.
T: Definitely. I think way back at the beginning of the other two points you were making there before those house-made preparations, and I bring this up because it’s like if there is going to be a modern classic non-alcoholic cocktail, it needs to taste pretty much the same every time, right?
T: If it includes a syrup or all these different things, chances are one bar is going to make it different to the other unless we crack this formula and come up with something that tastes so good that it’s like, this is perfect, it doesn’t need fixing, right?
T: Which I’m maybe a little bit more skeptical about. Also just, by the way, these ingredients are generally perishable, so they won’t last for a long time. Chances are you might have some wastage there, which means more bars are probably going to be less willing to have them on hand unless they see that they sell a lot of these drinks. I think that was something to add there. On the spirit alternatives front, I’m in two minds. Again, I think for this thing to happen or for there to be a creation of a truly incredible non-alcoholic cocktail, to your point, I don’t think it’s ever something that emulates a cocktail that we know. For example, I did try January this year, well, most of January, I decided to finish a little early. I figured it was like February, I’ll take my 28 days this month instead.
Z: Got you.
T: I was like, “Okay, well, how can I make a non-alcoholic Martini? Does it exist? Can it be done?” I know there’s people out there that have tried this, too many people. Then I did actually go down this rabbit hole of the nitty gritty of I’m like, if I’m using a majority part of non-alcoholic gin, I don’t really have anything I can sub in for vermouth. Actually, if I use a quarter ounce, by the time I’ve stirred the cocktail and diluted it, it probably still classifies it under the legal definition of non-alcoholic, even though it has a trace in there. It just wasn’t the same. It didn’t hit in any of the same ways. There’s a whole difference, there’s a number of different reasons for that, but one of the main ones is it doesn’t have booze in it, right?
T: It’s a very underwhelming experience. I agree with you, this needs to be something that’s completely new, and that also makes it worthy of the modern classic name terminology, but when it comes to the spirit alternatives themselves, I found personally that I gravitate more toward the ones that are like, this is your gin alternative. This is the rum. Because, first of all, it helps you assess the quality. Like how true the flavor profile of this ingredient that I know is this, but then, too, I think just as like for me personally anyway, you need that first stepping stone. Or you need some guidance like you need to start somewhere. If you say, okay, I’m going to start with this Aperol alternative or Campari alternative, that’s a great building block to jump off or that’s a great place to start, basically.
Z: Well, and I think you give it a point here that’s worth noting is even if there are good alternatives out there for certain based spirits like gin, rum, whiskey, whatever, part of the limitation in bartender’s arsenal right now is that there are not alternatives for all these other flavored liqueurs and things like that we use as the building blocks for cocktails. Whether it’s vermouth, as you mentioned, amaro, amari, Campari, Aperol, all the various things that people use to create cocktails. You have a necessarily limited pallet if you’re looking at already assembled flavor components for an NA cocktail. That’s why you see, as we’ve been talking about, you see a lot of in-house made flavor modifiers, syrups, et cetera, you see a lot of fruit juices, which are fine. Again, the category of there’s a lot of great cocktails, and a lot of people like drinking cocktails and they don’t necessarily want it to be three different fruit juices. Setting aside sweetness just in general, that may not be the flavor profile that everyone is looking for and has unfortunately been where a lot of NA drinks in the past have ended up. They’ve basically been fruit juice mixtures with soda water, basically. Having been the person who made and served a lot of those in my time. I will say that I think getting interesting bitter flavors into NA cocktails, getting sourness that’s not citrus sourness, and all these things are big challenges, but again, is where this whole conversation about you need both an audience, a large audience on the purchasing end and also a cohort of engaged bartenders to really play with things as these ingredients come online because they are coming. More and more of these things are being tried, put into the market, obviously, some of them are good, some of them are not, it’s a grab bag, to be fair, spirits in general to some extent. We’re at this early stage of the growth of this category, potentially. Maybe what I mean is, to modify my comments from before, it’s not that I think that a gin replacement is bad, or a rum replacement is bad. As you said, Tim, there’s a real value to everyone to have some idea of how to categorize this, any spirit, and giving them a proxy for the normal or classic alcohol based spirit is a way to give people ideas of how to use it. It’s more that we have to expand beyond just base spirits to give people the, like I said, palette to work with to create interesting drinks because that’s really, I think, where the NA cocktail movement right now can’t compete. They just don’t have the flavor of resources that a bartender who is making a spirited cocktail can.
T: Yes, definitely. I agree with all the points that you’re making there, too. While you were speaking about that, as well, or through the course of this conversation, it did remind me of a conversation that you and Adam had had about this before and perhaps Joanna was there, too, or it might have been just before Joanna joined the podcast, about the non-alcoholic spirits category, right?
T: Adam had at that point, basically, I think he shared a quote from a bartender off the record who was saying, “Look, this is the most expensive flavored water you’re ever going to have in your life.” I actually, on the VinePair site, every year in January, I review the non-alcoholic spirits alternatives for us. It’s been interesting for me to watch the category grow. I would say that a few years ago that comment did ring true, but more and more, the newer and more exciting products that I’ve come across, they’re doing two things to really make up for the loss of alcohol and I think it’s super smart. A lot of them will include something like ginger or something with a little bit of heat so that when you taste them neat, it provides that burn on the palate that you might be used to from alcohol and I’m like, it’s also a delicious flavor, if you’re using something like ginger, even a very small quantity. The other thing that we’re seeing too that I think has been really helpful, and again, will help us get to this point where this drink can maybe happen is producers addressing the fact that alcohol brings body and texture to spirits. That’s the piece of the jigsaw that gives these things value beyond the flavored water because if it’s just a flavored water, like that then does start to seem like a bit of a scam, even if a lot of money and time goes into producing these spirits or non-alcoholic spirits. That texture and that weight component, I’m seeing a lot of brands do a really good job of addressing that. Again, with those ingredients, with that starting to happen, when you taste a drink made with that, it does feel more like a cocktail rather than a fruit punch, or a complex punch, but yes, basically something like that.
T: Is that what you’ve tasted yourself or ever encountered or had that problem yourself too?
Z: Yes, I think in the whole of the NA category with a particular emphasis on spirits and wine, which are just higher in alcohol normally than beer, the lack of the viscosity that alcohol provides is more readily apparent in a lot of these products and can only really be — you can achieve higher viscosity in your drink through a variety of means. Unfortunately for me with a lot of the wine I’ve tasted, it’s come through the addition of fruit juice, grape juice, or other sweetening agents, because, of course, sugar is also more viscous, and so it adds texture, but then, of course, it also adds sweetness. I’m not a chemist, or whatever, so I don’t have a great answer for how some of these spirits brands are making their NA spirits more textural. I agree that texture is a huge part of what draws us to everything we consume, not just drinks, food too. A lot of us don’t think a lot about it, it’s a constant refrain of mine in one way or another that we react very visceral and instinctively to texture, even if we don’t think about it very much. It’s absolutely the case that figuring that out and being able to offer a richer texture to your NA spirit is going to be crucial. It’s also something that at the individual cocktail level, there are strategies for addressing. I was actually really intrigued by one of the examples that’s included in the piece that includes some aquafaba as a way to add texture. Now, personally, as has been discussed on the podcast, I’m not a fan of aquafaba, I always feel like I am drinking hummus, which I love, but not what I want to drink. There’s an option for a way to add some texture. There are other obviously texture, egg whites, things like that, that can bring texture to a drink that might lack it or just might be a little bit deficient in it that are fit within the NA category at a minimum. I do think that, yes, it’s a constant evolutionary process of experimentation on the producer side of trying to get these things right. To come back to the point of this whole podcast, in a way, I would not be surprised if in five or 10 years we are talking about NA cocktail or two that’s clearly an NA cocktail of origin and has achieved some degree of national prominence. It’s murky to me how we get there other than, as I’ve said a couple times, increased quality of and variety of NA building blocks for bartenders that are packaged, that are easy to purchase, that store on a shelf or in a low buoy or something like that, that don’t require an immense amount of labor on the bar’s behalf. That the community of bartenders who are interested in playing with NA cocktails, either more bartenders than currently are interested in it because they themselves want to be living an alcohol-free lifestyle or a limited alcohol lifestyle or just it becomes clear that there’s a big audience for this on the consumer side and it becomes incumbent upon bartenders for it at large to be well versed in this category in the same way that you would not hire a bartender who’s like, I don’t know how to make a cocktail out of rum. That would be a bad bartender and we may be entering an era where you cannot be considered a great bartender if you can’t make good NA cocktails. That’s just the long and short of it.
T: Yes, I think that’s a fascinating thing to consider. Also your point about, yes, it’s very likely that we would be able to point to one or two drinks five or 10 years down the line from now, but how we get there is the question. I think that to your point that being something you need to have in your arsenal as a bartender, like the ability to come up with good NA cocktails, I can definitely see that happening soon. I also wonder whether — and we’ve discussed the various merits and otherwise of things like 50 best bars, but I also wonder, or another example, tales of the cocktail, right? I also wonder whether in the very near future it’s an absolute must. If you don’t have at least two or three strong non-alcoholic cocktails on your menu, then you’re not going to be considered for one of these awards because that’s the modern state of affairs, right?
T: I think another thing — sorry.
Z: No, go ahead, Tim.
T: I was going to say on that point of how we get there, I think it also takes people doing the work. As they say. I think one of those individuals is Derek Brown, who Aaron interviewed for the piece, and I’ve also had him on my podcast “Cocktail College” speaking about non-alcoholic cocktails specifically. In his book, Derek Brown sets out basically this criteria for everything that a non-alcoholic cocktail should have or should meet as a drink. I think now that we have those guidelines out there, that’s Derek’s take. Maybe other people have different takes, but Derek is a very talented bartender and intelligent individual. His word is generally pretty good on these things. Here’s another thing to consider, right. Maybe Derek and other people are doing the work now, but maybe it’s the next generation of bartenders who might come up from Gen Z. We talk about Gen Z perhaps drinking less. Maybe it just takes that next generation coming into the industry to drive this pursuit to the next level.
Z: No, I think it’s going to be a little bit of everything. It will take some trailblazers. It will take some people coming into the industry who are really motivated or who, just as we were talking about, see being well-versed in NA Cocktails as being part and parcel of the job in the same way that being familiar with classic cocktails, modern classics, et cetera, is just a requisite part of being a bartender. I think the last piece, and I think as you mentioned is true, is that the people like VinePair, like some of these conferences, like some of these awarding bodies, et cetera, that don’t just passively recognize what’s going on in the industry, but help highlight and drive trends in certain ways. If more and more of that attention is trained on the non-alcoholic cocktail space and highlighting the work that’s being done there, then it will continue to grow. Because I think what is true is that we are rapidly leaving behind the previous era or eras of NA cocktails that were largely sweet, largely uninspired, or were just alcohol-free, like literally alcohol removed from the recipe versions of cocktails. I don’t think we’re going back. Where we’re going after this is a little unclear to me, as I said, but I do think that there will be — it will be an almost unrecognizable landscape in the NA cocktail space in five or 10 years from the one that existed 10 years prior to this.
T: I think anyhow, one final point, just something to add. Been wanting to mention this. I’ve been saving this one for the end here.
T: I think definitely we’re going to see a progression of non-alcoholic drinks for the better and it’s probably going to be exponential, which is great. My question is, is it actually possible to create a non-alcoholic cocktail that feels like a cocktail, not just a non-alcoholic drink, that is so goddamn tasty that if I put it on my menu at my bar and then maybe my bartender friend from one a couple of blocks down the road comes in and tries it and he’s like, or they’re like, “Oh, my God, that tastes so good. I need the recipe. We want to put it on our menu.” Can a non-alcoholic cocktail actually ever be that good? That will provide us with the answer for whether we will have the “modern classic.” I’m skeptical at the moment, is all I’m going to say
Z: Well, that is something to ponder on as we enter this weekend and be curious to hear what you guys listening out there think. Podcast@vinepair.com, shoot us an email, or find us on social media. Let us know if you’ve got any thoughts on NA cocktails, NA spirits category or anything else, we’d love to hear from you. Tim, I will hear from you on Monday.
T: Sounds fantastic. Have a nice weekend, Zach.
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