It’s been six months since I’ve had real whiskey.
Maybe my palate has changed– but the NA spirits being introduced today are shockingly good. None of them quite duplicate bourbon (okay, maybe my palate is just right) but if you’re looking for a substitute, there are some pretty decent options. I’ve recently tried three different “whiskies”, from three different “distillers”.
A quick warning about all NA spirits: they are not meant to be consumed neat. Not a one of them. I assure you, you will not like the results. They are all intended to be mixed either with other NA spirits, as a part of a cocktail, or with mixers.
Lyre American Malt: Made in the UK, this is my favorite of the NA whiskies I’ve tried. It comes in two different forms: a premix (with cola) and “straight”. Admittedly I had some issues getting the “straight” bottle here – their shipping for small quantities is not well padded, so it took three tries to actually get me a bottle that hadn’t shattered either from shipping or from the subzero temperatures we had in December. The flavor on this is a Tennessee whiskey: a little sweet, lots of caramel notes. With a diet Coke (my preferred mixer), it almost feels like I’m drinking the real thing. When made into a Manhattan, my favorite cocktail, it’s not bad – not quite the same as a real Manhattan, but the flavor is right. The issue with using these in cocktails is that you have to use quite a bit more: I’m no scientist, but having the alcohol in an actual cocktail controls the rate the ice melts, and shaking or stirring a cocktail with NA spirits can very easily get watered down. Mixed with ginger ale or a coke, though? Fantastic.
Undone Not Whisky: If you’ve ever wondered what liquid smoke would taste like in a drink, just try Undone. The Germans, while good at dealcoholized wine and creating some great NA beers, seem to slip a little bit in whiskies. The bottle says "This is not whiskey." The warning is not needed: you won't mistake it for your favorite bourbon or scotch. Flavor-wise, I think they were attempting a blended Scotch, but fell pretty short: mixed with a diet Coke, it tastes like.. Barbecue diet Coke? This is a thing that should not exist, and I say that as someone who likes barbecue anything and can also opine at length on why McDonald’s diet Coke is the superior form of diet Coke. Needless to say, I did not try this in a Manhattan because of the heavy, smoky flavor. This might be nice in something like an old fashioned, where the smokiness can be cut with orange peel. And yes, the bottle is mostly gone because I really kept trying to like it.
Ritual Zero Proof Whisky: Ritual is the NA spirit that gets a lot of press– they were one of the first, and they also make a tequila, a rum, and a gin. This one is smack in the middle, flavor-wise: not as sweet as the Lyre and nowhere near as smoky as the Undone. Since it’s a little more balanced, lends itself well to cocktails, but the flavor isn’t really memorable on its own.
Honestly, all of the NA spirits I’ve tried so far are less than ideal if you’re trying to make a drink that is traditionally spirit-forward: think of them as more of a flavoring instead of a feature. Don’t worry: I’ll come back with some ways to use NA spirits as a flavoring in a future column.
For now: if you miss whiskey, go for Lyre’s American Malt. Just try to pick it up at your local bottle shop – at least until they have small package shipping worked out.