Alcohol farm

How to make low-alcohol or non-alcoholic drinks for your holiday party

Walking along that familiar path – the brick-paved road to your parents’ front door, the gravel driveway to a friend’s house – with, perhaps, a dish in hand or a gift under the arm is exciting. The holidays have arrived. You are dizzy to reconnect with your loved ones. But for those who have changed their drinking habits, consuming less or no alcohol at all, the long festive period from November to December can be trying.

It doesn’t have to be, assure Derek Brown, the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of alcohol-free and low-alcohol cocktails. As a longtime DC bartender who previously presided over the Columbia Room and now spends his days working with mocktails, Brown is no stranger to alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. And he took note of the burgeoning alcohol-free movement.

“There is definitely more interest in alcohol-free and low-alcohol cocktails. People are embracing mindful consumption, and that goes doubly for the holidays,” says Brown. “Obviously in the aftermath of the pandemic, people felt in some cases that maybe they were drinking too much.” It’s easy to get carried away with the traditional booze festival. Still, Brown acknowledges that the people he meets say, “I want to be part of this holiday party. I want to celebrate with my family and friends, but I want to have options.

Of course, holiday drinks don’t need alcohol to be festive or seasonal. Brown, who wrote Conscious mixology, suggests turning to mulled wines and cider cocktails, which tend to be lower in alcohol, especially when mixed with juices and spices. Prepare it for a crowd ahead of time, and in doing so, make your home smell amazing.

Or, skip the spirits altogether.

For those who still want a boozy kick, Brown points to the boom in alcohol-free products. Take the classic eggnog you’d swap in non-alcoholic bourbon for the real stuff. Iluggy Recinos drink pro likes of the lyre for spirits substitutes or LoFi Vermouth; he uses the latter in place of bourbon for something with a much smoother buzz.

Recinos, the beverage manager of Exxir Hospitality (Paradiso, Bar Eden, Casablanca) in Dallas, like Brown, finds that people often ask him about easygoing cocktails – a drink that “will give them a little jolt, but will not make them hammer”. Many are curious about drinks that won’t get them drunk at all.

He also releases Lyra’s gin and Italian Spritz for a No-groni (aka non-alcoholic Negroni). Monday has a non-alcoholic mezcal he calls “semi-smoky and balanced,” which Recinos likes to use for old-school Oaxaca and to create drinks that still have bite without the alcohol.

“I think it’s a real talent in how to navigate minds and serve responsibly if your guest communicates, ‘Hey man, actually, I don’t want to drink, but I want this feel”” says Recinos. And this also extends to accommodation for the holidays.

Recinos, who hails from Los Angeles and has come to restaurants like Bestia, learned early on how to build and work within a culinary cocktail menu brimming with house tinctures and farm-fresh ingredients. It is possible to translate this approach into a home kitchen, even without a daily supply of products.

“Look at this canned cranberry porridge…canned half, add sugar and water, mix it up, you have cranberry syrup,” Recinos riffs. Add some fine sherry or just soda water or maybe a splash of champagne, and you have a holiday-flavored libation.

There is also a cheat code for cocktails that Recinos often uses. “This is a really cool mash that’s already mixed with sugar and ready to go that I always recommend – really great flavors, I even use them in some of my bars – it’s the Liquid Alchemist company.” When you don’t want to create your own ingredients from scratch, Liquid Alchemist has flavors such as peach, orgeat, tamarind and passion fruit that you can use as the backbone of your drink.

If the speed of your party involves fewer cocktails, whether they consist of alcohol or not, and more time spent with friends, skip a recipe. By simply providing an interesting non-alcoholic drink right from the bottle – sparkling by Nothing, Ghia canned spritz, Casamara Club sodas – non-drinkers might feel more included. (And it’s the easiest lift for you if you’re hosting.) “I think it’s something that’s being embraced by bars and restaurants and definitely should be adopted at home,” Brown says, “This idea that when people come, you want them to have a choice.

Lately, Brown himself has opted for Guiness 0.0, which he says has notes of tobacco leaf and bitter chocolate. “I was like, ‘This is awesome. I’d love to sip this at a holiday party.'” For Thanksgiving, he recommends Nasty alcohol-free wines, which come in sparkling chardonnay, rosé and dealcoholized reds, which will pair well with food. Leitz is another great choice, Brown says of German-produced, terroir-driven wines (the dry Riesling would definitely be a winner on the dinner table).

Whether it’s a low-octane cocktail for an intimate group or a hearty batch of non-alcoholic mulled wine for a large gathering, holidays are all about sharing moments together.

“Frankly, a lot of the things we attribute to alcohol – the positive emotions we attribute to alcohol – aren’t really about alcohol, are they?” postulates Brown, who does not minimize the importance of alcohol as an effective social technology. “They talk to us about being together and connecting with people and having interesting drinks and having interesting food.”

Red wine sangaree

Unlike a sangria, the sangaree has no fruit except a dash of lemon juice, and also includes sugar and nutmeg. It can be made with just about any wine, sweet or dry. (This one is with red wine with the option of using a non-alcoholic version.)

• 3 ounces blend of syrah or other full-bodied dry red wine (or Jörg Geiger Inspiration 4.7dealcoholized wine)
• ½ ounce simple syrup, or to taste
• 1 dash of fresh lemon juice
• Freshly grated nutmeg

Combine wine, simple syrup and lemon juice in a highball glass, add ice and stir. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Tiny Ginsy

This is a low alcohol version of the Dry Gin Martini, in which you also use an alcohol-free gin.

• ½ ounce of London Dry gin (or Monday Gin)
• 2 ¼ ounces dry vermouth (or Lyre’s Aperitif Dry)
• 1 dash of orange bitters (preferably Fee Brothers West Indian orange bitters)
• 1 lemon zest

Combine all liquid ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice and stir. Strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon zest. Makes one drink, but can be scaled to make 4 or 5 at a time for a small gathering.