8 Non-Alcoholic Drinks that Taste Like the Real Thing
You don't have to stick to soda if you're looking to cut back on alcohol. Try these non-alcoholic drink recipes that actually taste like booze.
The coronavirus is driving us to drink
If you’ve attended any Zoom happy hours or your cocktail hour is getting earlier in the day, you’re not alone. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are turning to alcohol to cope with the ongoing isolation and stress. A September study published in JAMA Network Open found that in all adults, alcohol consumption was up 14 percent from one year ago, and drinking was up 17 percent for women. Women also seem to be doing more heavy drinking, according to the study’s findings.
While alcohol may seem a tempting escape, the buzz is only temporary and you can pay a hefty price. “In the short term, alcohol can impair judgment, memory, and motor function. It can wreak havoc on your mind and body,” says Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, a practicing family physician in Durham, North Carolina. “[Alcohol] impacts your weight, liver function, mood, and metabolism. It is especially risky for folks with other underlying medical conditions.”
The good news is that some no-alcohol or low-alcohol beverages can be just as tasty and offer you some feel-good moments. (Learn more about safe levels of alcohol.)
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Getty Images
Alcohol, stress, and your brain
Pandemic or no pandemic, stress and alcohol can dance in a toxic two-way relationship. “Alcohol produces positive reinforcement,” says Julia Chester, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. You feel good so you do it again, but that can lead you to the dark side when you drink to relax. “Your brain adapts to the alcohol. If we don’t have alternatives for the effects of stress, we use alcohol as the tool and it’s not a good tool.” That’s because it actually mimics the effects of stress, activating the stress axis. Then you want another drink to lower the stress again.
A better tool is to go with no-alcohol drinks that remind you of sipping the real thing. “You can mimic what’s happening in your brain by creating a drink that basically shares all the attributes of the drink that you like with the absence of alcohol,” says Chester. “This will remind your brain and you of feeling good drinking this particular drink but without the alcohol.”
Here are a few expert-recommended no-alcohol and low-alcohol drinks that taste like booze and will help curb your drinking.
Add bitters to a fizzy mix
Interestingly, bitters started off in the 19th century as a medicine (of sorts). But they have since evolved into a popular, alcoholic cocktail ingredient. Adding bitters like Angostura to tonic water, bubbly water, or another fizzy drink can be a low-alcohol way to destress.
“We are enticed through our senses to the color of the beverage, the flavor of the beverage and the scent,” explains Sharon Zarabi, RD, bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Bitters is basically a tonic of spices and herbs and some botanicals which give it a pungent flavor. You do have a 35 percent alcohol level, but adding just a little bit of that to any virgin drink won’t give you the toxic effects of alcohol.” You can also use the spice rack in your kitchen and drop in some cinnamon, cardamom, mint, or basil.
Carbonated water and lime
This may be the simplest way to trick your brain into thinking you’re actually drinking alcohol (say, champagne or beer). It looks convincing, and the bubbles “provide more stimulation in the oral sensory realm,” says Chester. Or add a splash of pomegranate or cranberry juice, says Amanda Beaver, RDN, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Lime is sour and produces many of the same effects on the tongue as salt. “Some drinks have more salt than others, for example, margaritas,” says Chester. “If you’re doing lime, you can mimic a lot of those flavors of a margarita with salt. That’s also part of the reason why people use tonic, too, as opposed to just bubbly water. It will give it more depth in flavor.”
Another option is to dilute wine to half concentration with bubbly water, Chester suggests. It’s basically a wine spritzer.
While alcohol can dehydrate, this beverage will rehydrate. “Some studies suggest that even mild dehydration can negatively affect both your mood and even cognitive/brain function,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Champagne Nutrition, in Seattle.
To make a batch that you can keep in the fridge, Hultin recommends combining a cup of ice cubes and a cup of chopped cantaloupe in a pitcher, then add the rest of the ice and the water. The benefits of cantaloupe include plenty of fiber, vitamins A and C, minerals like potassium, and not a lot of calories, she says.
For this beverage you can use your favorite fruit—grapefruit, a slice of orange, watermelon, strawberries—for an undertone of flavor, says Zarabi. Combine your fruit of choice with water and let it marinate in a pitcher. You can also use your creativity to make variations on the theme: Add a little cucumber to make it more refreshing or lime juice to make it pungent and tangy.
If you’re looking for something a little more creamy, add coconut milk and cinnamon, suggests Zarabi. “The satiety signals in our brain are affected by the scent and the sight and colors of food,” she says. “When these beverages have an aroma, your taste buds are actually satisfied.”
The herbs in store-bought tea bags can be alchemized into peppy drinks. Ginger and chamomile are two possibilities. Both have health properties, with ginger soothing the stomach and chamomile for relaxation. “You could actually ice these or you can add a nut milk like coconut milk or almond milk, nutmeg or cinnamon or pumpkin spice,” says Zarabi. “If you want to make it even thicker, use puréed banana,” Zarabi says. Coconut and almond milk have both vitamin D and calcium. “All of these aromatic spices and herbs can be added to these virgin beverages that are easily made at home,” she adds.
This translates to “apple rose water with cinnamon and ice and light sugar,” says Zarabi. The Persian drink subtly mimics the sweet taste of many alcoholic libations. You can buy rose water or boil dry rose or hibiscus petals in water. “Any time you boil a plant it’s going to break down its flavor,” Zarabi says. Add some shaved apples and some crushed ice and put it in the blender. This gives the drink a frothy texture. Think daiquiris.
Apples are a great source of fiber as well as vitamin C and also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Cucumber, mint, and jalapeño medley
“This is almost like a spicy margarita for a side to Mexican dishes,” says Zarabi, who recommends combining cucumbers, a little bit of mint, and adding some muddled (chopped up) jalapeño. Settle the ingredients in some carbonated seltzer or club soda and add a little bit of sugar and lemon juice for an added kick, she suggests.
Beware if you have a sensitive stomach as the jalapeño can backfire. “If you have acid reflux or you can’t tolerate spicy foods, you can just leave it as a mint-cucumber blend,” says Zarabi. And take care not to add too much sugar, especially if you’re watching your weight or have diabetes, cautions Dr. Mieses Malchuk.
Pomegranate ginger mocktail
One of Hultin’s favorite creations, this cocktail depends on pomegranate: The fruit has a rich dreamy color and, is laden with antioxidants, and may contribute to better sports performance, brain health, and lower inflammation, she says. A little agave gives the concoction sweetness and the ginger soothes. Mix it up in sparkling water. Not only is it a no-alcohol drink, but it’s also vegan.
Hultin’s recipe makes six drinks. Combine one cup of pomegranate juice with three cups of plain sparkling water, a teaspoon of agave syrup (tinker to taste), and one teaspoon of freshly ground ginger root. Place all the ingredients with ice in a shaker and shake hard for 30 seconds. Garnish with half a seeded pomegranate and serve it up in a martini glass.
If you don’t feel like playing bartender, check out the best mocktails you can buy or these alcohol-free beers.
You don’t have to stick to soda if you choose not to drink alcohol. And you also don’t have to sacrifice your taste buds. These no-alcohol (and low-alcohol) drinks are a fun alternative if you’re looking to cut back on alcohol, are a designated driver, or if you don’t really drink alcohol much.
Next, try these other mocktail recipes.
- JAMA Network Open: "Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US"
- Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, family physician, Durham, North Carolina
- Julia Chester, PhD, professor of psychological sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
- Amanda Beaver, MS, RDN, LD, wellness dietitian, Houston Methodist Hospital
- Smithsonian Magazine: "A Brief History of Bitters"
- Sharon Zarabi, RD, bariatric program director, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
- Nutrition Reviews: "Do small differences in hydration status affect mood and mental performance?"
- Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner, Champagne Nutrition