What to Drink When Booze Is Not on the Menu

I’m an adult who enjoys an adult beverage every now and again. But there have been times in my life – such as during my two pregnancies, healthy eating “resets,” a couple of times during Lent, etc. – where drinking alcohol has been off limits.

With movements like #DryJanuary – where people eschew booze as a reset after the holiday season – gaining popularity, I’m not alone. More people are looking for non-alcoholic versions of their favorite alcoholic drinks. Marketplace recently reported that “in Britain, where the idea of abstaining from alcohol for a month originated, some 4 million people participated this year, an increase of 33 percent over last year.” That’s a lot of people looking for alternatives.

Without a doubt, I used these non-drinking times in my life to explore all the interesting natural sodas, sparkling and still waters and herbal teas available today. But sometimes I didn’t want a sweet soda, I didn’t want sugary juice…I just wanted a nice, cold beer with my veggie burger or a glass of wine with spaghetti. So I started checking out some of the non-alcoholic options on the market.

What I found: some options were better executed than others, some drinks actually taste better as the “virgin” version and some nonalcoholic drinks are just not tasty at all. It was an interesting experiment in a market that I think will only continue to expand as interest in healthy living continues to grow. (Watch this space!)

I’ve listed a few of my favorites – and favorite substitutions – below. Even though I don’t have any restrictions on drinking now, I still keep a few of these options on hand for weeknights or for guest who’d like a non-booze option.

Beer

When I first tuned into non-alcoholic beers in 2015, I found a good variety at my local Total Wine. Compared to my local liquors stores which my have carried one or two non-alcoholic beer options, Total Wine carried around seven or eight, including the typical ones that you’d see in most liquor stores and more exotic foreign brews. As you can see from the photos above, their offerings have expanded. Non-alcoholic brews used to only take up a couple shelves a few years ago, but now they’ve got a respectable amount of real estate between the beers, wines and craft sodas/mixers. I tried a few and was pleasantly surprised! By far, my favorites were:

  • O’Doul’s Amber: An American lager-style brew that has a nice, malty beer taste. Bonus that it’s easy to find at most run-of-the-mill liquor stores. Great for cookouts, burgers, with crabs and steamed shrimp in the summer. I never missed the alcohol and, in fact, I still buy O’Doul’s all the time. A great weeknight beer alternative.
  • Bitburger Drive: A German-style pale lager that, to me, is reminiscent of Heineken. Crisp and astringent, this is a great palate-cleansing beer to pair with rich foods like reuben sandwiches, (veggie) bratwurst with mustard and kraut and cake. (I’ll have to write a separate post down the road about my obsession with cake and beer. Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)

Wine/Champagne

Wine, on the other hand, was a lot harder nut to crack. The alcohol-free wines that were available generally seemed to miss the mark. One exception was Fre Chardonnay. When extremely cold, it was a passible substitute for Chardonnay. It’s widely available at grocery stores and clocks in at only 60-calories per glass.

Generally, when I had a craving for wine, juices were the most delicious stand in. And not just cloyingly sweet, kid-style juices either. My favorites:

  • Subbing Welch’s Sparkling Red Grape for Sparkling Wine – Confession: This Welch’s is kind of what I wish champagne would taste like most of the time. Pleasantly sweet, effervescent and intensely grape-y. If you like a drier champagne, you could do a mix of two parts Welch’s and one part sparkling water.
  • Cherry-Pomegranate Juice Instead of Red Wine: My local Safeway carries a line of organic, unsweetened 100% juices. In particular, a mix of their black cherry and pomegranate juices were a delightful substitution for red wine. If you like a more juicy, jammy style of red wine (like Zinfandel or Malbec), do two parts cherry juice to one part pomegranate. If you like a drier wine, flip the ratio in favor of more pomegranate and less cherry. Served in a wine glass, they are just as special and adult-feeling as a nice mature glass of wine.

Cocktails

For me, cocktails were the easiest to skip altogether. Since I don’t make them at home, substitutions only came up when I was out at a restaurant. Between my two pregnancies (in 2015 and 2017), I noticed a change in the way restaurant servers and bartenders responded to my requests for non-alcoholic mocktails. The first time around, I was met with responses like “Umm, let me ask the bartender if he’s able to accommodate that request. Maybe we can make you a Shirley Temple?” But the second time, I got many more “Sure. Let me bring you our mocktail menu” responses. A sign of changing times! A couple of restaurant near me that did a great job with this:

  • All Set in Silver Spring – They have a wicked house-made ginger beer. That along with a squeeze of lime juice quickly shaken over ice made a delicious, nuanced cocktail worth coming back for.
  • Summer House Santa Monica in Rockville – They’ve got a “Zero-Proof Cocktail Menu” with all the interest and variety you’d get from a regular cocktail menu. They don’t come cheap (at $7 a pop), but it’s so nice to have the option of a balanced, special drink, especially if you’re out with friends for happy hour and want a drink that looks and feels like what your friends are drinking.
  • Franklin’s in Hyattsville – I have to give a shout out to Franklin’s, a neighborhood institution in Hyattsville, but not for a cocktail, per se. They’re a microbrewery among other things (restaurant and general store, too). But it’s their amazing house-brewed root beer that I looked forward to – definitely worth a trip. It’s made with cane sugar and lots of herbs and spice comes through. Try it…maybe along with an order of their roasted mussels. So good!


Among the things I’ve gained in trying non-alcoholic drinks is a better understanding of what elements alcohol lends to certain drinks. Take the alcohol out of beer and you’re left (in some cases) with good flavor, good carbonation and a drink that maintains a lot of the characteristics you expect. Alcohol-free wine, on the other hand, is not as balanced as the real deal and often times comes off vinegary or too much like juice (in which case, I’d rather drink the juice). I also discovered that I much prefer a mocktail version of certain cocktails. For example, I’d rather a virgin Moscow Mule because the astringent flavor of vodka doesn’t improve the overall taste of the drink.

So if you’re thinking about not drinking for whatever reason, now is as great a time to do it. You have more options than ever before to find something delicious, mature, complex and alcohol free to sip on.

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