If I weren’t philosophically opposed to numbers and statistics, I’d cite X study from Y research firm to prove how Z demographic is now drinking less. But instead I’ll just say that there seems to be a real and growing demand for non-alcoholic cocktails and their null-ABV components.
One of the more interesting examples to come across my desk has been Ritual, which styles itself as a zero-proof “alternative” to gin, whiskey, and tequila. As opposed to similar products that start boozy but have the alcohol removed, Ritual’s products never see the inside of a still.
Essentially, they’re flavored water—but flavored with a slew of interesting botanical ingredients, plus some xantham gum to round out the mouthfeel. Each has 10 calories per 1.5 ounce serving, the result of a small amount of cane sugar. A handful of preservatives ensure a six-month shelf life.
Ritual is pitching itself to non-teetotalers as well, as an ingredient that can be used in place of a spirit to make a low-ABV cocktail; for instance, building a Margarita with Cointreau or triple sec but swapping real tequila for Ritual “tequila.”
So, I gave each of their alternatives a shot. It’s worth noting that they’re intended for mixing first and foremost—every label bears the phrase “Best used in cocktails”—but I decided to sip each neat first to give them a fuller evaluation.
Ritual Gin Alternative
The Gin Alternative had a nose dominated by white and green pepper that I’d describe as uncanny: the sort of spice you’d expect from gin, but clearly not juniper. It was softer, greener, and more vegetal, with detectable cucumber, basil, and cacti. Come to think of it, much like a salad I’d actually look forward to eating.
The mouthfeel too, was uncanny: viscous, but not the viscosity of alcohol. On the palate It was vegetal and surprisingly spicy—not in a juniper spice way, but in a cooking spices way, which I’d chalk up to its use of green peppercorn.
First, I had to see how it fared with tonic water. In this sans-gin Gin & Tonic it just couldn’t hold up to the sweetness of tonic on its own, making for an unappealingly saccharine drink. Despite this, I could still detect its pleasant flavors of English cucumber and green peppercorn.
It proved much better in an equal parts Negroni made with Campari and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Its botanicals, chiefly English cucumber, green peppercorn, and prickly ash, mingled nicely with the bitter liqueur and vermouth rather than being overwhelmed by them. And it added new flavors—in other words, it did what a real gin is supposed to. The green lemongrass and sweet basil used in the alternative added an earthy herbaceousness that took it out of traditional Negroni territory but into uncharted waters I was eager to explore.
In the end, I thought of it not so much as a Negroni but a bitter, vegetal, and spicy alternative to the Americano that I’d happily consume before a meal as an aperitif.
Ritual Whiskey Alternative
It seems natural that Ritual’s botanical-driven approach would lend itself most readily to gin, and that imitating whiskey would be a greater challenge. The whiskey alternative, which contains American oak, caramel, Madagascar vanilla, and “toasted spices,” among other ingredients, seems to be making a play for bourbon.
Its nose was spicy, but not in a good way. It reminded me of candy in a hot plastic bag, or a dish of potpourri at my grandmother’s house. When sipped, it proved floral and spicy but also soapy, with a strange medicinal character. While not overly sweet, it had an odd sweetness, that when coupled with the spice from mesquite smoke, had me thinking of cinnamon hard candy.
No, I did not enjoy sipping this neat. But when used to make an Old-Fashioned with a single demerara sugar cube and two dashes each of Creole and Aromatic Bitters from The Bitter Truth, the Whiskey Alternative fared dramatically better. Enjoyable flavors that were detectable but disparate when sipped neat—vanilla bean, caramel, mesquite smoke—now felt married together in a way that made much more sense. The medicinal and potpourri-like flavors I found so off-putting before were tamped down, and I suspect that it was greatly aided by dilution. The strongest part of the experience was its genuinely interesting finish, which mixed smoky mesquite and spices with caramel and vanilla to create a lasting impression.
The spice that played it out was much different than the spice you’d expect from a bourbon—it felt much closer to the heat from a good plate of BBQ wings. So, while you’d never mistake it for a genuine bourbon Old-Fashioned in a taste-test, the experience was interesting enough for it to qualify as a worthy cocktail-alt.
Ritual Tequila Alternative
The Tequila Alternative, which includes blue agave flower among its botanicals, smelled the closest to the real thing. On the palate it was notably different. Thanks to ingredients like green bell pepper, cracked sea salt, black peppercorn, and mesquite smoke, it took on a spicy vegetal flavor that verged on savory. In fact, it reminded me much more of sangrita—the mix of tomato, lime juice, pepper, and spices that is traditionally served as a tequila shot-chaser in Mexico. Of the three alternatives, it was easily the best when sipped neat.
I used it to make a low-ABV Margarita by mixing it with Cointreau and lime juice in the traditional 2:1:1 ratio. It was obviously not a Margarita, most notably lacking the mouthfeel that comes from tequila and the greater oomph of agave flavor. But it was a legitimately good drink, and perhaps more complex that many Margaritas thanks to the vegetal green pepper and the spice of mesquite smoke and black peppercorn. The ending brought a smoky, appreciative heat that made it closer in experience to mezcal. I was worried that the Ritual Tequila Alternative would be washed out by the sweetness of Cointreau or tartness of lime juice, but it stood up to both, delivering a refreshing yet nuanced cocktail worthy of being savored.
Perhaps it’s natural of anyone who enjoys spirits to be a bit skeptical of its alternatives, but Ritual exceeded my expectations. Not all of its expressions were equally successful; I ultimately felt that the Tequila Alternative fared best, with the Gin Alternative in second place and the Whiskey Alternative taking third. Though of the cocktails I made with Ritual, the “Negroni” is the drink I’m most likely to return to or make for friends.
While none of the alternatives will ever be mistaken for the genuine article, their botanical profiles added some worthwhile flavors that you won’t find in the true-blue spirits, either. I’m planning to make the most of the Tequila Alternative’s spicy, vegetal, and savory quality by testing it out next as a standalone sangrita, or maybe even as a Michelada component.