In Praise of Simplicity: 2 Ingredient Non-Alcoholic Highballs to Get You Through the Holidays
You don't need five different ingredients to make a satisfying booze-free cocktail-- just the right mixer with the right nonalcoholic spirit.
One of the most stunning impacts of the pandemic to me is how quickly projecting the future became, at least for me and several people I know, an impossibility. Plans to change careers were scrapped as entire industries all but tanked. City dwelling transplants who vowed never to return to the small towns or suburbs of their parents were suddenly packing up to move upstate or out of state, somewhere with a patch of grass to call their own. Half of my friends who want kids scrapped plans to start families, while the other half scrapped family planning altogether: I even know someone about to have their second pandemic baby!
The pandemic upset my future plans in a lot of ways that are too heavy to write about in a newsletter about party drinks, and are, for that matter, entire unrelated, but one of my long term plans was to collect luxury pajama sets and stylish slippers, outfit a fully stocked non-alcoholic bar cart, and re-furnish my living room so I could entertain friends at home while reclining elegantly like a Millennial Diana Vreeland.
I had requested the silk pajamas and velvet slippers in this week’s photo as birthday and holiday gifts to that end, and was excited to hunt down more clearance priced Olivia Von Halle sets on the Outnet and stalking Eberjey sales throughout 2020 in pursuit of my silly little personal goal.
And then we all went into lockdown. Having friends over was right out. Luxuriating in loungewear was very, very in. Only I had no desire to wear the Pucci-ish PJs if there was no one around to see them. The first couple of weeks, I dressed up and posted pictures to Instagram, but I pretty quickly settled into a uniform of t-shirt dresses and black or grey heather leggings, and didn’t bother to take my hair out of a ponytail for the better part of a year, never mind flat-ironing and tying a chiffon scarf around it. Now that we’ve reached a point where people are going out again, the idea of having people over, and wearing, of all things, loungewear to do it, seems like something that will have to wait at least a year or two until it sounds glamorous again (and I can recover enough financially to buy more luxe pajamas).
The one thing that I have accomplished (and then some) is outfitting a fully stocked dry bar. Well, sort of. It’s less an elegant glass and brass two-tiered cart with four or five bottles of spirit and a few boxes of miniature Fever-Tree bottles, and more dozens of expressions that have taken over the kitchen counter, refrigerator, and even a couple of bookshelves, to spillover into a series of cardboard boxes that has taken over the floor of my living room.
This is my tendency to unnecessarily complicate things at work. When writing about a particular category of zero-proof spirit, I’m likely to way over request products to review, but how can I be comprehensive about wine alternatives or non-alcoholic tequila if I’ve only tasted 3 or 4 rather than 12? And readers who have been following from the beginning know that I love a complicated cocktail with 2 or 3 different spirits, more than one mixing technique, and at least one or two of the ingredients I have to make myself. But the day after Halloween, the entire world started advertising for Christmas shopping, and I was hit by a wave of preemptive exhaustion that made me need an easy to make drink.
It’s been two years since I did the holidays; not the cooking part, which, of course, I definitely overdid last year, but the traveling and the shopping and the parties and the family part. And while I have a piece coming out this week on alternatives to wine to pair with your Thanksgiving dinner, and I will definitely get you some intricate holly, jolly cocktails you can serve to impress your guests at a holiday party, there’s a lot to be said for the ease of the humblest of highballs: the 2 ingredient long drink. There’s a reason why most bar patrons order whiskey ginger, gin and tonic, and vodka soda; anywhere you go is likely to have the ingredients and they’re reliable from place to place. It’s very hard to make a truly bad spirit + mixer highball.
As non-alcoholic drinkers, we are usually limited to nothing + mixer at the average bar, but we can make our own dry bars as mix and match as a neighborhood local, though I will warn you that the pairing process is not quite as plug and play with booze-free options. Whereas pretty much any rum or gin from well to top shelf will hold its own against any mixer, it can be tricky to find the right zero proof spirit that doesn’t disappear when mixed with a strong ginger beer or a complexly spiced tonic. Of course, it’s not all bad news for us! As non-alcoholic drinkers, we also get to center some exciting expressions that aren’t even available in booze form, like Bonbuz’s fantastic limited edition Slowburn, and the cozy delicious Barreled Oak by Gnista, but because they’re unique new flavors, choosing the right mixer isn’t as obvious as it is with a non-alcoholic impression of an alcoholic liquor.
Which is why I’ve done the work and tasted a whole bunch of them for you.
Rather than bring you a specific recipe this week, I’ve made a list of holiday season highballs you can make with just 2 ingredients. Many of the ingredients can be mixed and matched for maximum versatility at minimum cost if you’re hosting a get together this season. I’ve used Fever-Tree mixers for all of these, and chosen the sweet, darker, and spicier products in their catalogue to fit the season of cookie swap, fondue, and latke parties. While you could swap out some of these mixers for other brands, do so with the warning that not all mixers are created equal. For instance, the Harmony Alpine Digestif is exquisite with Distiller’s Cola, but is a frankly just OK approximation of a Fernet y Coca with traditional Coca-Cola. I’ve also chosen Fever-Tree because it comes in little single serve bottles that make mixing drinks so easy that you could even let guests mix their own. Garnishes are totally optional, but I’ve listed suggestions if you really want them, and you need nothing more exotic than Luxardo or Fabbri Amerena cherries, and lemon, lime, and orange slices for the whole lot.
RECIPE: Standard 2 Ingredient Fever-Tree Highball
• 2 - 2.5 ounces of the non-alcoholic spirit of your choice
• 1 small (6.7 ounce) bottle of Fever-Tree mixer
Fill highball glass with ice.
Pour spirit over ice.
Top with Fever-Tree mixer.
SPIRIT + MIXER PAIRING SUGGESTIONS
To mix with Fever-Tree Distiller’s Cola
Free Spirits The Spirit of Bourbon + Distiller’s Cola is a dead ringer for Jack and Coke. Garnish with a cherry or a slice of lime.
Harmony Alpine Digestif is a riff on alpine amari like Fernet-Branca, and mixed with Distiller’s Cola tastes like a drinkable Ricola cough drop. Herbal and medicinal, and as sinus clearing as a blast of ski-slope air. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s currently my go-to cocktail when I just want something to sip after work or dinner. It’s perfect, don’t garnish it with anything.
Gnista Barreled Oak is tasty enough served neat, but Distiller’s Cola adds a bready element to the spirit’s concentrated flavors of raisin and baking spices, for a drink that tastes like a whisper sweet, perfectly toasted cinnamon raisin brioche. A fantastic cocktail for an après-ski or ugly sweater themed party. Garnish with an orange slice.
To mix with Fever-Tree Aromatic Tonic
Monday Zero Alcohol Gin is my default gin alternative for almost everything; it has the body to stand up to mixers, and the mouthfeel and flavor are so exactly like a top-shelf London Dry that you can make a realistic tasting martini out of it. While gin and tonic is considered a hot weather drink, Fever-Tree Aromatic Tonic is slightly sweeter and warmer than classic tonic water, with less quinine plus the addition of ginger, cardamom, and allspice. Combined with Monday’s juniper-forward flavor, this pretty pale pink drink tastes like sitting by the Christmas tree while the scent of baking gingerbread wafts in from the next room. Garnish with a lime or an orange slice.
Rum and tonic isn’t as popular as the G&T, so it’s not surprising that the drink hasn’t really filtered down to the non-alcoholic drinks world, yet, but it’s a lovely combination. Caramel rich Ritual Zero Proof Rum Alternative pairs beautifully with the baking spices of Aromatic Tonic, while the mixer’s bitter angostura balances Ritual’s sweetness. Cozier than a gin and tonic, but just as well balanced. Garnish with a lemon slice.
Sexy AF Friski Whiski tastes nothing like whiskey, but this full bodied alcohol-free spirit brings cinnamon to Aromatic Tonic to complete the gingerbread profile, while amping up the bitterness with the addition of gentian to Fever-Tree’s angostura, for a sophisticated drink that tastes like a winterized amaro spritz. Garnish with an orange slice.
The Even More Adventurous:
Did you know that oranges used to be so treasured in Northern Europe that people gave them as Christmas gifts? Not boxes of them, or orange trees, but literally a single fruit. Bonbuz Slowburn and Fever-Tree Aromatic Tonic made me understand why. Mixed with Aromatic Tonic, the drink blooms with orange blossom perfume on the nose. Slowburn’s grapefruit shaves the edge off of the original Bonbuz’s green tea tannins, as well as the bitterness of the tonic, while the mixer’s sweetness crystallizes the ginger and candies the orange peel on the finish. Garnish with an orange slice to play up the candied citrus flavor, or a lime to turn up the tart.
To mix with Fever-Tree Ginger Beer
Ritual Zero Proof Rum and ginger beer may be a bit of lime juice short of a true Dark and Stormy, but serve it with a slice of lime and I promise you won’t notice the difference. Sweet with a strong ginger bite, it’s just as good for a party as it is for an easy, comforting warm-up when you come in from a day of shopping in the cold. Garnish with a slice of lime.
While less popular than the Dark and Stormy (or the vodka based Moscow Mule), the Gin Gin Mule, a mix of gin and ginger beer, trades the comfort of rum for the crisp, evergreen flavor of juniper. As opposed to the burn of a Dark and Stormy, that makes me think of those little shakable hand warmers that always get just a little too hot in your gloves, the flavor combination of Monday Zero Alcohol Gin and ginger beer hits like a blast of winter wind, bracing and invigorating. Garnish with a slice of lime.
To mix with Fever-Tree Ginger Ale
For a spot on whiskey ginger, mix Free Spirits The Spirit of Bourbon with ginger ale. I wish I had more to say here, but it’s just so exactly what it is, and so good at it, there’s no need to elaborate. Garnish with a cherry or a slice of lime.
Sweet, warm, and spicy but without the sting of ginger beer or tonic, Fever-Tree Ginger Ale amps up the cinnamon in Sexy AF Friski Whiski to a scrumptious 11. A round, warm, dessert friendly drink that has just the right palate clearing bitterness on the finish to keep it grown up and drinkable. Garnish with a slice of orange to keep it from getting too sweet.
To mix with Fever-Tree Spiced Orange Ginger
When I first tried Fever-Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale, I was expecting sour orange juice, the bitter bite from orange peel oil, cinnamon burn, and a fiery ginger finish. Reader, I was seriously disappointed. Spiced Orange Ginger Ale is sweeter and softer than Fever-Tree’s classic Ginger Ale, never mind their Ginger Beer, and the cinnamon is cinnamon-and-sugar, rather than the hot version of the spice. Once I got over my expectations and came to appreciate Spiced Orange Ginger Ale for its comfy flavor, I mixed it with some Ritual Zero Proof Rum, for a soothing cocktail that tastes like clove studded oranges simmered in sugar syrup, and a warm rum finish. Garnish with a slice of orange (and maybe a few cloves).
Bonbuz Slowburn mixed with Spiced Orange Ginger Ale actually delivers exactly what I had expected: a complete orange pressé, not just the juice but the peel and the oils, and a hot hot HOT! ginger heat that burns just painfully enough to be pleasant. I’m going to be sipping this one all winter long. Garnish with an orange if you must, but it needs nothing.
While I was stuck at home during the pandemic, in those early days when we all let ourselves watch entirely too much television and feel not the least bit guilty about it, one of the first shows I watched was a German historical detective drama on Netflix. This has, ever since, completely ruined my recommendations; it’s all but impossible for me to find anything that is in English that I can just put on as background noise and still kind of keep up. I have probably watched more Netflix series in “foreign” languages than I have English over the last year as a result, and watched (or listened to) a lot less television over all. While some of them haven’t been worth the investment (sorry, Cable Girls), most of them are the first things that spring to mind whenever someone asks for a Netflix recommendation: Dark (German), Kingdom (Korean), Kakegurui (the live action version, not the anime; Japanese), and that very first one, Babylon Berlin.
Set in Germany between the wars, Babylon Berlin presents the political and economic unrest of the time that eventually leads to the rise of the Nazis, but also the art, music, and the gritty but glittering, sexual permissive, openly queer and gender nonconforming cabaret culture of the Weimar Republic. The main characters are mostly cops, but it manages to subvert copaganda by demonstrating very clearly that a few bad apples spoils more than just the barrel of the police station. There are murder mysteries, and political intrigues, and sex scandals, and even the financial background of the Wall St. crash is shown in a way that is captivating.
Though the narratives and the characters are quite compelling, one of my favorite things about the Babylon Berlin is that there are three directors on the show, and rather than swapping directing duties from one episode to the next, they all work on every episode. The scenes that they helm are often divided by location, e.g., one of them shoots everything on the streets or the clubs, one does everything in homes, and one takes the police station and the backrooms of businesses. While the styles are not jarringly different, they are distinctive enough that they firmly establish the differences (and the conflicts) between the public and private, the domestic and professional, the legal and the criminal, the comfortable and the destitute. It’s a brilliant choice that I would love to see on more television shows.
Now that half the world has watched and enjoyed Squid Game, I feel like English speaking audiences are hungry for more subtitled television, and I hope that the next one they embrace is Babylon Berlin. Not that it really needs our support, given its runaway success in Germany, and a fourth season has already wrapped and will be released sometime next year. But whether or not it needs the views, Babylon Berlin is fantastic and engrossing television that is well worth spending an hour or two every night logging off of your email, putting down the laundry, and reading a little television. Maybe in a pair of fancy pajamas with a Harmony Alpine and Distiller’s Cola.
Until next week, keep your drinks zero-proof and it will always be 5:00 PM wherever you are— and let yourself off the hook if they don’t take much more effort than popping the top off of a bottle!