Mocktail Science: Easy Substitutes for Complexity

Kevin Liu

In Part One of our exploration of mocktails, we looked at what alcohol tastes like and how to recreate the flavor of booze in a nonalcoholic drink. Today, we'll explore some of the other complex flavors and aromas that spirits bring to a party, and think up a few techniques to serve up booze-free drinks with just as much complexity, sans inebriation.

Some of the flavors found in top-shelf liquor

Have you ever sipped a fine red wine and detected the pungent vegetal notes of green pepper? Maybe your smart wine-friend said something like "oh, that's the terroir of the wine you're tasting, isn't it amazing?" Since terroir literally means earth or soil in French, you probably thought your friend meant that you could taste the green peppers that were being grown down the street from the vineyard.

Not quite. It's true, a great wine can taste like everything from dark chocolate to lychee nuts, but that fact has nothing to do with the wine grapes actually growing anywhere near cacao plants or lychee trees.

Here's what actually happening. We tend to name flavor compounds after the foods where we most commonly find them. Here are some examples: vanillin (vanilla), citronellal (citrus), cinnamaldehyde (blueberries....just kidding. Cinnamon.)

We may have named these compounds after the foods we most associate them with, but these are all basic aromas that appear in many foods and beverages, including spirits.

It turns out that ethanol makes a great precursor for aromatic molecules. During the distilling process, heat, organic molecules, and ethanol react to create a symphony of complex tastes.

Then, when you take that raw spirit and let it sit in toasted wood casks for a few years, the raw spirit reacts with (1) the wood, (2) chemicals already present in the spirit, and (3) tiny amounts of oxygen trapped in the barrel. All these reactions create even more complex notes in aged spirits.

For example, a good rum will come out of the still perfumed with Amyl Acetate (banana) and Ethyl Acetate (funk, seriously). It then spends a few years in the barrel, where it picks up vanillin, guaiacol (smoke/roasted), and benzaldehyde (almond), among many other flavors.

A master distiller then mixes samples from dozens if not hundreds of casks to blend and create the exact flavor profile she's looking for.

Ideas for creating uncommonly good mocktails

Of course, you don't have to go to quite so much trouble as a master distiller to make a pretty decent complex drink yourself—even without any booze. When I'm making mocktails, I reach for ingredients and tools most home bartenders will already have access to in the course of making traditional cocktails.

Orgeat Lemonade


Most bartenders will have lemon juice on hand and orgeat is making a comeback. If you don't have a bottle of the aromatized almond syrup handy, it's surprisingly easy to make your own.

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For a variation this flavorful lemonade, try sweetening the drink with non-alcoholic versions of elderflower cordial or lavender syrup instead of orgeat. But go light on the lavender—a little goes a long way with that stuff.

Pomegranate Americano


A traditional Americano combines bitter Campari with flavorful vermouth and soda water. Here, we're replacing the acidity and astringency of the aromatized wine with good-quality pomegranate juice and adding back the bitterness and herbaceousness with a few heavy dashes of bitters (ok, so this drink's not totally non-alcoholic, but it's pretty close.)

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Light and Drizzly


Who doesn't love a Dark and Stormy? In this variant, we use extra-spicy ginger soda to replace some of alcohol's distinctive bite. Then we use allspice syrup (you can use the traditional liqueur for a low-alcohol version) to replace the complexity of rum. Some allspice liqueurs will end up noticeably astringent, which, in this case, is an added bonus.

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Barrel-Aged Cherry Soda


As I was brainstorming ideas for recreating the flavor of wood in a mocktail, it occurred to me to try making, well, wood syrup. So I bought a barrel-aging kit from Tuthilltown Spirits and filled it up with 1:1 simple syrup.

In just one day, the syrup was noticeably woody and tasted surprisingly of bourbon. I added this sweet syrup to some tart cherry juice (cherries naturally contain many of the same flavor compounds found in bourbon), tweaked the acidity with a little lime juice, and carbonated the whole shebang into a tasty barrel-aged soda.

This recipe could probably be amped up even further by smoking the syrup after barrel-aging it.

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These were just a few ideas for combining craft mixers into nonalcoholic creations. What sorts of mocktails do you make at home? Share your favorite combinations in the comments section below!

More Cocktail Science

5 Myths About Ice, Debunked
All About Foams
8 Tips and Tricks For Getting the Most Out of Citrus
Does Your Cocktail Need Salt?

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