In the spirit of starting off the new year with a clear mind, we’ve decided to give some non-alcoholic cocktails a try. In times like these, it’s easy to see why hard seltzer is booming. And while drinking can help us unwind, it can also become problematic. For those looking for better alternatives, we’ve scoured the internet and our local markets, in hopes of discovering something worth drinking instead.
Just a few years ago, in my own life, non-alcoholic beverages were limited to the Shirley Temples I ordered as a kid, and “near beers” that I drank while on deployment in the military. Yes, we willingly consumed O’Doul's in our off time. For us, and many others, it was about imitating both the feeling and experience of drinking.
Many of the brands we’re about to discuss have kept this top of mind, crafting both better-for-you versions of classic cocktails and totally unique experiences that are sure to surprise and delight. That feeling, whether it’s being comfortable in the familiar, or excited by experimentation, is what these entrepreneurs hope to deliver consumers; something more than just a beverage. Let’s dive right in.
Several years before the non-alc movement really started to gain traction, Curious Elixirs was already piquing consumers’ curiosity with complex flavors, adaptogens and an element of mystery. The idea was to make drinks that measured up to the craft cocktails one could enjoy at a bar, at a time when the only non-alcoholic options behind the counter were soda and water. People cut back on booze for various reasons, Curious Elixirs aims to be “what you drink when you’re not drinking.”
Each flavor is denoted by a number; the brand currently has Curious No. 1 through No. 5 in its lineup. Dark bottles keep the liquid hidden inside, and the labels give up no details on the front. Turning it around you’ll find a short description of what to expect, with a call out of one or two functional ingredients. The box comes with a card explaining more of the flavors and function within each drink. I chose to peruse it after and allow my taste buds to do the reading.
My box came with No. 1, 2, 3 and 5. Of course, we’ll go in order. No. 1, citrusy, juicy, sweet and effervescent, with a lingering bitterness. I go back for a second pour; damn that’s good. I get excited to try the rest. No. 2, a punch of ginger offers a slight sting, while some sweetness from pineapple juice and a splash of tart lime round it out. No. 3, the cucumber is obvious, and the lemon complements it nicely. Bitterness creeps in, but it remains secondary. No. 5, deep red rich liquid fills my glass. I impatiently take a drink, and I’m met with a powerful and pungent experience. Smoky, at first, but then cherries and dark chocolate. I literally say, “woah” and my head spins a bit. What was that? I try it again. Curious, quite curious.
Let’s talk about Terpenes, the aromatic oils that give cannabis, hops and other plants flavor notes like pineapple, citrus and pine. Beckett’s is infusing its non-alcoholic spirits and ready-to-drink cocktails with non-psychoactive terpenes, emulating the flavors of its cannabis-infused sister brand, Tinley’s. That’s right, you can walk into a dispensary and purchase micro-dosed versions of Beckett’s entire lineup. That review is not included.
Walking into the La Jolla Ralph's was like walking into a model store: everything perfectly in its place, a slew of massive brand displays caught me off guard. As a product nerd, I wanted to walk each aisle but I didn’t have the time. I hurried over to the alcohol section to search for Beckett’s, a sea of options overwhelmed me. A stockist directed me to a branded display case sitting by the end cap. I snagged a box of Stone Daisy, the brand’s Lime Margarita, and was on my way out the door.
The label design has that old-timey look that’s reminiscent of bygone years, but still feels modern and relevant. The messaging is concise and easy to follow. On the side there’s a small banner that explains the product and skims over the concept of terpenes. If I wasn’t already familiar, I might be a bit confused, but this product is certainly an opportunity to increase top-level awareness about terpenes.
An easy drinking margarita, not what one would expect from a canned cocktail. While a bit sweet, as most margaritas are, the tartness from the lime balances it out quite nicely. Unlike many CBD-infused beverages, the terpenes alone didn’t impose even the slightest taste of hemp. I happily sipped along, straight from the can, until alas there was no more. Much like I would indulge in a second or third margarita, I found myself thirsting for another. For those interested in experimenting with cannabis-inspired products, this is a good start.
Nootropic and adaptogen-infused adult beverage brand Kin Euphorics is truly embracing a feeling with their line of “All Bliss, No Booze” spirits and cocktails. The clever approach leverages the natural mood-boosting properties of plants and supplements including rhodiola, 5HTP and L-theanine. The brand aims to revolutionize the social drinking experience, helping people feel more joyful without consuming alcohol. I sampled the brand’s ready-to-drink cocktail, Kin Spritz.
A bright yellow package appeared on my doorstep, inside, a message, “The future of revelry is in our hands.” Below it, a barcode labeled “first we scan, then we sip” intrigued me enough to pull out my phone. It drove to their product page. While I loved the idea, it was a bit of a missed opportunity. As a first time user, I was expecting more information about the experience ahead.
The mini can that Kin Spritz comes in is actually quite fun. It makes the beverage feel less like a soda or a seltzer, and more like a specialty drink. The warm oranges and pale purple color scheme evokes a relaxing and calm feeling right from the start. My curiosity gets the best of me and I finally crack open a can, wondering, what will it taste like, and will I feel anything?
At first sip there’s some mild carbonation, a citrusy taste and a bashful hint of bitterness. Inspecting the can once more I noticed a note that says “For best effects, sip socially.” I passed one to my roommate and we sipped away. It’s quite crushable, not overpowering, not trying too hard to be a cocktail. It’s mixed with Kin’s High Rhode “spirit” but there’s no detectable burn. It’s certainly a beverage that most people could consume and enjoy. I find it to be mellow; I assume that’s the goal. I go about my evening with no noticeable buzz, but I do feel content.
Proposition, in the context of alcohol, is notoriously associated with prohibition times. Proposition Cocktail Co.'s carefully selected name holds a similarly significant meaning; its zero-proof beverages are infused with hemp extract (aka CBD). Hemp and cannabis decriminalization and legalization have been at the forefront of legislation in recent years, as we move toward a more equitable justice system. As a result, the food and beverage industry has become equipped with a new functional ingredient to draw interest around. Proposition has leveraged both the art of crafting cocktails, and the early adoption of CBD, to offer a truly unique imbibing experience for consumers.
I hold the flask-shaped glass bottle snuggly in my hand and memories of times long forgotten come rushing back to me. Some from the peak of my carefree youth, some I imagine are scenes from Lawless and Peaky Blinders. There’s something about a flask that just makes a drink feel taboo. While I’m sitting at home right now with only my cat around to see me, imagine the attention I might get if I drank this while walking down the street, in the park, or at a concert? It’s actually quite genius. It’s a conversation starter, as well as a novelty.
One thing often missed from the non-alcoholic drinking experience is the boozy bite. Proposition has done a clever job recreating this effect using ginger. The brand’s Turmeric Ginger Mule has a unique spiciness, and while it doesn’t make me squint and purse my lips, it does feel reminiscent of a cocktail. It’s refreshing, there’s some layers of flavor, a slight bite, and a tinge of earthiness from the hemp. Poured over ice, it’s even more excellent.
A longstanding player in the mixology space, Hella Cocktail Co. has an impressive lineup of bitters, cocktail syrups, mixers and more recently, ready-to-drink bitters and soda. What started as experimentation in a small New York apartment has grown into a platform for the home bartender’s dreams. As seasoned crafters of cocktail ingredients, it’s not surprising that Hella would fit nicely into the non-alcoholic space. Taking a cue from sparkling water, the brand’s Bitters & Soda line has recently extended to include more straight-forward flavors like Lemon Lime, Grapefruit, and Ginger Turmeric.
I picked up Hella from Collins & Coupe, my local bartending supply shop. The small store has a curated selection, and I recognized some of Hella’s products displayed immediately upon entering the door. Since I placed my order online the night before, the shopkeeper had it neatly packaged in a hand-stamped paper gift bag, ready to go. But this being my first time in the shop, I opted to look around at the intriguing collection of items and chat briefly with the staff about non-alcoholic cocktails before heading home.
Clean, cool, and carefully crafted. Much like what I expect to find inside the can, Hella’s branding is well executed. The easy to read label with a splash of color feels elevated, and yet this may have been the most affordable beverage I sampled. Turning the can around, one can discover the long list of herbs and spices on the ingredient panel, as well a recipe for a mixed drink. Smart.
I started with a Spritz Aromatic, it features Hella’s traditional aromatic bitters blend. Immediately the spices come through: allspice, cinnamon, clove, among others. The bitterness slowly builds, but it’s balanced by the sweetness of real sugar. It drinks like a craft soda, but one that suits the palette of a cocktail connoisseur. I’m into it! Next up, Lemon Lime. The citrus taste is clean and the bitterness is less punchy this time. It’s also sans sugar, so it could be enjoyed more frequently like a seltzer. I wouldn’t call it a cocktail, but someone who enjoys a nice cocktail would likely enjoy this, keeping in mind they’re designed for mixing, too.
I may be a bit biased as I was raised an Oregonian, but I pretty easily fall in love with products that come from the Pacific Northwest. The rainy corner of the U.S. is a playground for artisanship, and the husband and wife-founded cocktail brand, For Bitter For Worse, is no exception to the rule. The duo’s approach is to craft cocktails using spirit-making equipment and techniques. They extract flavors from herbs and botanicals using alcohol and water, remove the alcohol with a copper still, then add juices, spices, and syrups to fashion unique concoctions.
There’s a certain feeling you get when you receive a gift from a friend, the excitement knowing they selected or made something just for you, that’s what opening the sample box from For Bitter For Worse was like. A handwritten note from the founder kicked off the experience, it even had my name on it. The beautifully branded box featured window cut outs, allowing you to see the flavors before opening. Behind each bottle was a note about the flavor profile, what inspired it, and what you could expect, along with a suggestion on how to serve it. Overall, it was well thought-out. You can watch the unboxing on my Instagram reel.
I started with the lightest of the trio, Eva Spritz. Recommended over ice, I prepared a short tumbler glass, popped open the bottle and poured a few ounces. A nice layer of foamy bubbles formed at the top and the liquid was a gorgeous pink amber color. Delicious. Refreshing, bitter but not overwhelming, sweet but not too sweet, and the gentle carbonation offered a pleasant mouthfeel. Then, Saskatoon, with its foraged-from-the-forest appeal. Rich berries lead, with bitter and piney notes to follow. It’s indulgent and unique. Lastly, Smoky No. 56. Smoky indeed, but also sweet from the maple syrup. If a campfire made a cocktail, this would likely be it. While I found all three to be enjoyable, I reached back for the Eva Spritz.
Positioned as a sparkling amaro soft drink, Casamara Club’s “leisure sodas” are a far cry from a mocktail, and intentionally so. Amaro is not your typical old fashioned or cosmopolitan; it’s a rich blend of bitter, sweet and herbal flavors intended to be enjoyed on the rocks. Casamara has taken inspiration from the Italian digestif, while creating something entirely new. It pairs real botanicals with a heavy dose of carbonation and skips the alcohol, offering a refreshing beverage with a flavor profile unlike others on the market.
While it certainly looks closer to a beer than a cocktail, once you consider its craft soda approach, the dark glass bottle makes more sense. I actually love the branding, it’s what immediately drew me to the product in the first place. The simple scenic label designs feel inviting, while also a bit nostalgic in a way, like looking at old photographs from a road trip long past. It’s pleasant, and interesting, and how one might illustrate the feeling of leisure. My only hesitation was the lack of description or flavor call out. I turned each bottle around to scan the ingredients, but ultimately opted to try the first that caught my eye, Alta.
I popped off the bottle top and heard that familiar hissing sound. Taking a swig, the carbonation hit first, then a subtle fresh taste with a touch of bitterness. It’s not too sweet, not strong, very mild and enjoyable. Capo, on the other hand, had no bitterness. Instead, notes of citrus and spice stimulated my senses. Easy drinking. Sera, while still delivering a light experience, was probably the most unique. Notes of grapefruit led, with a touch of brininess, possibly from the sea salt and spices. Casamara’s flavor profiles certainly feel true to an amaro club soda, more so inspired by alcohol versus trying to imitate it.
NOPE is challenging the notion that you need booze to have fun. The brand’s lineup is “formulated for festivity,” aiming to elevate the booze-free cocktail experience with flavors like Mango Margarita with Jalapeno and Strawberry Basil Smash. Adamantly named “alt-tails,” the carbonated beverages have a simple goal in mind, say NOPE to the icky feeling of hangovers and drunken mistakes, without giving up on the party.
The packaging features illustrated characters and bright colors that certainly pop, evoking the type of fun and bubbly personality that’s the life of the party. Turning the can around, you’ll find some clever taglines that are cheeky and relatable: Wanna drunk text your ex? NOPE. Wanna make a drunken social media mistake? NOPE. A song starts to play in my head and I feel like dancing. I’m remembering all those moments I enjoyed, just before I didn’t, thinking if only I had one less drink (or maybe a few). NOPE seems like it might be the perfect alternative for the cocktail I wanted, but didn’t need.
Mango Margarita with Jalapeño was the best of the bunch. It’s sweet and tart with a hint of spice and mild effervescence. In a well crafted margarita, tequila is often undetectable, so it wasn’t missed. If you like your cocktails on the sweeter side, NOPE is delivering a boozeless alternative that would be a nice choice for a Sunday brunch-in or happy hour over Zoom.
Feeling sober-curious yet? Which booze-free brands are you loving or can’t wait to try? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you. Shoot us an email at email@example.com