Can Non-Alcoholic Whiskey Actually Be Any Good?
Which whiskey would a whiskey drinker drink if a whiskey drinker could drink whiskey? - Try saying that tongue twister after a few Old Fashions and let us know!
But today's article isn't about your typical whiskey choices. Today we are venturing into a world that makes some cocktail snobs get their feathers ruffled...
Can a NON-ALCOHOLIC whiskey actually be any good?
Full disclosure: I’m not a whiskey writer. Or a whiskey taster. I’m just a guy who likes to drink whiskey, and, on occasion, I stop to think about what I like about a particular bottle.
I don’t have the vocabulary to articulate the difference in smell between “brown sugar”
and “molasses.” And I can count on one hand missing most of its fingers the times I’ve used the phrase “it has a nose of…”
But part of enjoying whiskey is, upon occasion, a desire (or, if unchecked, a need) to take a break from it.
Might be Sober October. Might be training for an event. Might be beach season coming up. Might be because your daughter filmed you eating a hamburger off the floor after one too many.
Regardless, the hard part can be breaking the ritual of the evening cocktail. Personally, making a nice cup of tea never has the same feeling when wrapping up the day. I’ve done it, but something was missing.
And so it was that on a recent trip to the US, I had the chance to sample a number of offerings from the growing market for non-alcoholic spirits. The results were mixed (hey-yo!) but here, for your esteemed consideration, are some thoughts on a few out there.
Like whiskey itself, form your own opinions based on what you like.
(I, for one, think we’re lucky to not have to worry about the influence of celebrity endorsements...yet).
Some pre-reading about non-alcoholic whiskey tasting
Bottom line, none taste exactly like whiskey, though some are closer to the mark than others. The hardest part is replacing the taste of…well, of whiskey.
That delicious warming, toasty burn that makes the water of life what it is. And while most companies keep their N/A ingredients to themselves, it seems like all use some kind of pepper to add a burn, even if it is not the burn. This was the main taste that differentiated the four brands I tried.
I also tried them all neat, and then because it might be part of your ritual. And, because they all say they are meant to be mixed, I came up with a very simple cocktail as a control (which is not easy to do when you are also not using vermouth or other alcoholic mixers!).
You can create your own but mine used:
- 2 teaspoons of cherry juice,
- 2 teaspoons of maple syrup,
- a dash of Angostura bitters.
The best of the lot to enjoy neat. Tasted like red apples and among all of them, had the best balance of black pepper spice, which only slowly came up towards the end, rather than leaving me feeling like I’d been maced by a security guard at a concert.
Use it in cocktails so you can go through the motions of adding things to your C&D shaker, but you aren’t likely to actually taste it.
Initially tastes like green apples and with a medium pepper spice. But then the light sweetness fades and the only taste that remains is the pepper. This was the best one in a cocktail, since the bite cut through the mixers, though it benefitted from a touch more maple syrup to overcome the spiciness.
There was a very brief moment when I thought I tasted something other than burning, but that faded pretty quick. Might be good in a cocktail that calls for Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, but on its own, all I got was the heat and spice.
And that sh!t went on and on and on. If all whiskey tasted like this, you’d be telling the truth when you said you were “only going out for one drink.”
The good news is, this is the only one that had none of that pesky pepper flavor. The bad news is, this is what you get when prisoners try to make prison hooch by fermenting old fallen leaves with dirty creek water.
There might have been a fleeting glimpse of green apple in there somewhere, but no matter how I tried it—neat or in a cocktail—I felt like a bartender had used grass trimmings for a garnish. The vegetal taste cut through everything, and even the smell reminded me of ashes and cinders.
Or maybe that was my traumatized palette. Just…gross.
My personal opinion...
In the end, I just had to accept that there is no true substitute for the real thing.
At the same time, that didn’t have to stop me from taking a break from that real thing once in a while.
All things in moderation, and occasionally substituting an (expectation-managed) selection from the above list or other offerings can be a nice break, especially if your ritual starts to become more of a routine.
Give it a try, and see if you can find your own way to mix things up. Use the recipe below and let us know what you think!
Non-alcoholic whiskey sour
¼ cup (2 ounces) of non-alcoholic whiskey
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) maple syrup or honey
- Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
- Pour in the whiskey alternative, lemon juice and simple syrup.
- Close lid and shake well.
- Strain whiskey sour into glass with ice.
- Garnish with orange slice and cherry.