Walking along that familiar path—the brick-paved route to your parents’ front door, the gravel walkway to a friend’s home—with, perhaps, a dish in hand or a gift tucked under your arm is thrilling. The holidays have arrived. You’re giddy to reconnect with loved ones. But for those who have switched up their drinking habits, imbibing less or not at all when it comes to alcohol, the long stretch of parties from November through December can be harrowing.
It doesn’t have to be, assures Derek Brown, the self-described Pied Piper of no- and low-alcohol cocktails. As a long-time DC barman who previously presided over Columbia Room and now spends his days working with spirit-free cocktails, Brown knows his way around beverages with and without booze. And he’s been taking note of the burgeoning alcohol-free movement.
“There’s definitely more interest in no- and low-alcohol cocktails. People are embracing mindful drinking—that goes doubly so for the holidays,” says Brown. “Obviously off the heels of the pandemic, people felt in some cases that they might be drinking too much.” It’s easy to get caught up in the traditional booze fest. Yet, Brown recognizes that the people he encounters are saying, “I do want to be part of these holiday parties. I do want to celebrate with my family and friends, but I want to have options.”
Of course, holiday drinks need not require booze for them to feel festive or seasonal. Brown, who penned Mindful Mixology, suggests looking to mulled wines and cider cocktails, which tend to be lower in alcohol especially when they’re melded with juices and spices. Batch it up for a crowd ahead of time and, in the process, make your home smell amazing.
Or, skip the spirits altogether.
For those who still want a boozy kick, Brown points to the boom in zero-alcohol products. Take the classic eggnog in which you’d swap non-alcoholic bourbon for the real stuff. Fellow drinks pro Iluggy Recinos likes Lyre’s for spirit substitutes or Lo-Fi vermouth; he uses the latter in place of bourbon for something with a much gentler buzz.
Recinos, the beverage director of Exxir Hospitality (Paradiso, Bar Eden, Casablanca) in Dallas, like Brown, finds people are frequently asking him about easygoing cocktails—a drink that “will give them a tiny jolt, but not get them hammered.” Many are curious about tipples that won’t get them drunk at all.
He also pulls out Lyre’s gin and Italian Spritz for a No-groni (a.k.a. booze-free Negroni). Monday has a zero-alcohol mezcal that he calls “semi-smoky and balanced,” which Recinos loves to use for an Oaxacan Old-Fashioned and to build drinks that still have bite without the booze.
“I think that’s real talent in how to navigate spirits and serve responsibly if your guest communicates, ‘Hey man, I actually don’t want to drink, but do want that feel,’” says Recinos. And that extends to hosting for the holidays, too.
Recinos, who hails from LA and came up in restaurants like Bestia, learned early on how to build and work within a culinary cocktail menu bursting with house-made tinctures and farm-fresh ingredients. Translating this approach to a home kitchen—even without a daily produce supply—is possible.
“Look at that canned cranberry goop…save half of it, add some sugar and water, blend it, you have a cranberry syrup,” Recinos riffs. Add some fancy sherry or just soda water or maybe a bit of champagne, and you’ve got yourself a holiday-flavored libation.
There’s also one cocktail cheat code Recinos often employs. “It’s a really cool puree that’s already mixed with sugar and ready to go that I always recommend—really rad flavors, I even use ’em at some of my bars—is the company Liquid Alchemist.” When you don’t want to make your own ingredients from scratch, Liquid Alchemist has flavors such as peach, orgeat, tamarindo, and passion fruit that you can use as the backbone of your beverage.
If your party hosting speed entails less cocktailing, whether they consist of booze or not, and more enjoying time with friends, then skip a recipe. By merely providing an interesting non-alcoholic drink right from the bottle—bubbly by Zilch, Ghia canned spritz, Casamara Club sodas—people who don’t imbibe might feel more included. (And it’s the easiest lift for you if you’re hosting.) “I think that that’s something that is being adopted by bars and restaurants and certainly should be adopted within the home,” says Brown, “this idea that when people come over, you want them to have choices.”
Lately, Brown himself has been reaching for Guiness 0.0, which he says has notes of tobacco leaf and bitter chocolate. “I was like, ‘This is great. I would love to sip this at a holiday party.’” For Thanksgiving, he recommends Noughty non-alcoholic wines, which come in sparkling chardonnay, rosé, and a dealcoholized rouge, that will pair well with food. Leitz is another great choice, Brown says of the German-produced, terroir-driven wines (the dry riesling would no doubt be a winner on the dinner table).
Be it a low-octane cocktail for an intimate group or a hearty batch of mulled non-alcoholic wine for a sizable gathering, the holidays are about sharing moments together.
“Frankly, a lot of the things that we ascribe to alcohol—the positive emotions that we ascribe to alcohol—really aren’t about alcohol, are they?” posits Brown, who’s not downplaying alcohol as an effective piece of social technology. “They’re about us 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, save 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 to use an alcohol-free version.)
• 3 ounces syrah blend or other full-bodied dry red wine (or Jörg Geiger Inspiration 4.7, dealcoholized wine)
• ½ ounce simple syrup, or to taste
• 1 dash fresh lemon juice
• Freshly grated nutmeg
Combine wine, simple syrup, and lemon juice in a double rocks glass, add ice, and stir. Top with freshly grated nutmeg.
This is a low-alcohol take on the Dry Gin Martini, in which you also use a zero-alcohol gin.
• ½ ounce London Dry gin (or Monday Gin)
• 2 ¼ ounces dry vermouth (or Lyre’s Aperitif Dry)
• 1 dash orange bitters (Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters preferred)
• 1 lemon peel
Combine all liquid ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice, and stir. Strain liquid into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel. Makes one drink, but can be scaled to make 4 or 5 at time for a small gathering.