Even as retail and online sales of beer, wine and spirits have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic, nonalcoholic beverage sales have also spiked, as some people rethink their relationship with alcohol. The market is catching on, sending out a rash of new nonalcoholic beers and Bourbon and ready-made mocktails. The most inspiring entry we’ve seen, however, is Zero, a book of nonalcoholic cocktails from the team at Alinea in Chicago.
The idea for the book came about while the group was putting together The Aviary Cocktail Book, a collection of recipes from Alinea’s cocktail bar, says Allen Hemberger, the group’s media director. Chef Grant Achatz had always insisted on having interesting tasting-menu options available for teetotaling guests, and the team saw an opportunity in taking nonalcoholic drinks as seriously as they did alcoholic ones. “The chefs got excited about the idea, asking, ‘What if we make a whole backbar so that someone can build themselves a nonalcoholic spirits collection and use them like Legos, the way we build cocktails at a bar?’” Hemberger recalls.
The more the team worked on the idea, the more intriguing it became. “You have to focus to see the similarities and differences,” Hemberger says. “In a Negroni, for instance, it’s not about the sting of the booze. It’s about the bitterness of the Campari, the fragrance of the orange and the juniper. Can we hit those notes without the alcohol?” Details like texture, temperature and visual aesthetics took on a new level of importance as they puzzled out how to create drinks with enough complexity that a diner would savor it as slowly as they would its alcoholic version.
The process wasn’t easy: “What’s in the book is only half of our experiments. Some of the stuff, we couldn’t quite get working,” Hemberger says. But by taking what they call “a culinary approach to beverage design,” they came up with many successes, 15 of which Hemberger details in Zero, along with a vast array of alcohol-free cocktails and winelike drinks.
Packaged in a sleek, oversized volume with artfully staged full-page photos for each drink, the book makes it clear that this is not your average drinks manual. Most recipes require plenty of forethought to gather ingredients and make the bases; many call for a sous-vide machine, though they also give instructions for creating a substitute for one, with zip-top bags and hot water.
That said, the recipes are not necessarily difficult. “I wanted them to be easy enough that my mom could make them,” Hemberger says. The mock Campari (called “Bitter Liqueur” here) requires only a few minutes of active time to combine the ingredients, and an hour to simmer. Cooled down and spiked with soda water, it’s just like sipping a Spritz—but without the alcoholic effect.
Zero by the Alinea Group, $55 at www.zero.recipes
is the former W&S Tasting Director turned freelance writer for the Vintner Project.
This story appears in the print issue of October 2020.
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