What do classic films and the pandemic year have in common? Both illustrate the importance of having a well-stocked at-home bar, whether it’s to enjoy a post-work aperitivo or to treat surprise visitors. At first blush, the zero-proof movement might be seen as the end of the at-home bar. It actually isn’t; a non-alcoholic at-home bar moment isn’t a disruption of home cocktail culture, but rather, an evolution.
As I wrote in my book, Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking, the non-alcoholic drink’s pedigree goes back to the earliest days of cocktail culture, even if it hasn’t always boasted the best reputation. When Prohibition was enacted, ladies still had to entertain at home, and so the non-alcoholic drink was elevated into the realm of etiquette and proper hostessing.
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Where to Start Building Your Zero-Proof Cart
It starts, as all things that matter do, with a little effort and a touch of research. Once you crack the code, or find something that works for you, it gets easier going forward.
When building a zero-proof bar cart, many of the traditional concepts still apply. You want to think about flavors and build around the classics. The good news is that there is a growing and vibrant new product category that makes stocking up as easy as buying traditional booze.
The backbone of any bar centers around the classic liquor flavors. Think gin, rum, tequila, whiskey. There are multiple products that replicate the taste of traditional liquor notes but leave the alcohol behind. Ritual Zero Proof has several expressions, including a very charming newly-released dark rum, which are designed to be mixed in the same ways as traditional booze. Drink Monday, Lyre’s, Wilderton, Everleaf and Seedlip also produce several non-alcoholic spirits designed to replace your classic London Dry.
Adding in the Classic Bitter Flavor
Once you have a small library of base “spirits”, focus on products that deliver bitterness. Many classic drinks, such as the Aperol Spritz or the Negroni, are popular because of that just-so balance of sweet-to-bitter notes. Lyre’s Italian Orange, a non-alcoholic spirit, is a gorgeous zero-proof spin on the Italian amaro and will bring Aperol to mind. With full-blood orange flavors and a soft mouthfeel, Lyre’s Italian Orange pairs gracefully with sparkling waters and also brings a sophisticated depth to drinks.
Bitterness, any bar expert will tell you, is crucial to elevating drinks.
“I like to describe bitters as the spice cabinet of cocktails,” top bartender Erick Castro, proprietor of San Diego’s award-winning Raised By Wolves and Polite Provisions, says. “You don’t drive the cocktail with that ingredient but rather, bitters add depth and complexity.”
Be adventurous: Stock up on cocktail bitters in flavors such as celery, grapefruit, and chocolate. (Be sure to check labels because some bitters contain trace amounts of alcohol.)
“For somebody making non-alcoholic cocktails at home, I would highly recommend the bitters made by Fee Brothers,” Castro says. “Fee Brothers bitters are non-alcoholic and are glycerine-based. But they’re packed with flavor and add a lot of nuance.”
If you really want to treat yourself, splurge on San Pellegrino’s Sanbitter Rosso, a zesty non-alc soda as bitter as it is lipstick red. These tiny bottles are imported from Italy and are therefore expensive ($24 for a 10-pack, via Amazon) but are extremely worth it when you want to make drinks that remind you of sipping Garibaldis in Verona. (Amazon also stocks several other slightly less expensive, but still very Italian and very bitter, non-alcoholic aperitifs).
Being Prepared to Host No Matter What
Sometimes, the secret to being a great hostess is knowing when to let someone else do the work. Consider keeping a stash of non-alcoholic sodas, or elixirs, chilled and at the ready if you catch yourself with impromptu drinks requests or just want that “unwind after a long day” ritual.
The new generation of zero-proof ready-to-drinks are sophisticated and urbane, designed by people who love cocktails but not hangovers. In this new category, you can’t go wrong with Curious Elixirs (who have expressions reminiscent of French 75s and Negronis), Casamara Club (the sparkling amaro sodas you didn’t know you were craving), and For Bitter, For Worse (sodas crafted with smoky, citrus and bitter notes).
High-Quality Sweeteners and Mixers
When it comes to adding sweetness, always aim to use fresh juices that you make yourself. I swear by a subscription to Misfits Market, which delivers a box of farm-fresh produce each week. Experiment with different juice combinations like grapefruit plus yellow bell pepper or strawberry plus red beets. Combine a pitcher of fresh juices with ice and a base spirit and you’re halfway to a lively group punch or a summer sangria.
As with traditional cocktails, details matter all the way through the end.
Once you’ve put in effort into sourcing top-tier ingredients, don’t undermine your work by drowning out your delicate drinks with flavorless mixers. Invest in well-made mixers, such as Fever-Tree’s punchy and aromatic ginger sodas or London Essence’s delicate and pretty tonics. Even a bracingly brisk La Croix can bring zing to zero-proof highball.
Impress with Glassware
As any cocktail enthusiast knows, glassware is key. Have you ever lingered over a gorgeous glass in a bar? You want to bring that feeling home.
“Just like mixers, the glass you serve from often gets overlooked,” Fever-Tree CEO Charles Gibb says. “But glassware is just as important as everything that goes into the vessel. I always start with a Collins glass that is heavy in the hand, and personally opt for classic styles like flutes that instantly level up any bar cart.” Gibb recommends Schott Zwiesel, Williams-Sonoma and Riedel for lead-free dishwasher-safe crystal glassware.
Once you have the glassware, “simplicity remains the goal,” Gibbs says. “Add your favorite spirit and top with a hand-numbingly cold carbonated mixer like Fever-Tree and off to the races.”
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Life without alcohol doesn’t mean giving up the in-home bar, it just means a little imagination for something new. In today’s world, not drinking is becoming the new norm, which means companies are catching onto the trend, and now there are a ton of options out there to build you new, improved, hangover-free mocktail bar.