Making drinks for those who can't (or prefer not to) drink alcohol can be a bit of a challenge. It's easy to offer a guest a bottle of soda, juice, or sparkling water, but in the context of a party, particularly during the holidays, it's more fun and inviting to plan ahead and be able to offer them a beverage that's more intricate, more special, more festive.
Non-alcoholic cocktails can be broken down into three basic categories. Each of them more or less emulates the basic concept behind a cocktail with alcohol in it: a handful of ingredients are chilled and mixed together to create a beverage with a complex and refreshing flavor profile. Adding a garnish to the drink adds to its formal yet inviting appeal – the cocktail equivalent of a handshake.
In the first category, a drink is made out of a variety of fruit and vegetable juices, which are shaken with ice and drained, in the style of a martini. When making one of these drinks, it's fun to experiment with different and complementary flavors. Earthy vegetables such as beets or carrots pair well with the sweetness of an apple, cut with a little honey. (If you own a juicer, experimenting with different ingredients is fairly easy to do. Herbs and leafy greens can also be mixed in.) Once shaken and strained into a chilled glass, if the drink isn't quite sweet enough, the rim of the glass can be dusted with sugar.
The second category of non-alcoholic drinks uses fruit or vegetable juice as its base, then adds some kind of carbonated liquid. This is analogous to a champagne cocktail, where a small amount of flavoring enhances the main ingredient, which itself is the focus of the drink. The carbonated liquid can be anything from tonic water or colas to ginger ale or ginger beer. For example, muddle a few sprigs of thyme with a shot of mango juice before adding it to a champagne flute and topping with lemon lime soda. The key is to find flavors that go well together and create a complex result that has more depth than something that can be bought ready-made at the store.
The third category of drinks takes this idea one step further. These cocktails use a small amount of highly concentrated, sweet or savory liquid and combine it with a lightly carbonated addition. The concentrate can be anything from steeped green tea with cane sugar to a layered, multi-ingredient simple syrup. In this type of drink, the concentrate is similar to a shot of liquor. Accordingly, the added carbonation should not overshadow the concentrate; it should be paired with soda water or sparkling apple cider - anything that has a muted flavor that will be supplemental to the base liquid.
I've been making (and enjoying and serving) the following nonalcoholic cocktail from this third category of drinks. As with other simple syrups, the key here is to make a batch and then keep it in the fridge for when needed. Having several syrups on hand leads to easy spontaneity when mixing drinks. I've paired this particular syrup with sparkling apple juice because I like the latter's sweet, sour, and crisp flavor.
Ginger Cranberry Syrup with Vanilla
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 cup frozen cranberries
- 1/2 cup dried cherries
- half an orange, cut into four sections
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 4 quarter inch slices of fresh ginger
- pinch sea salt
- pinch ground black pepper
- Simmer the water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.
- Meanwhile, lightly crush the cranberries with a rolling pin (this will prevent them from popping while cooking.)
- When the sugar is fully dissolved, squeeze the orange sections into the mixture then add the rind/pulp. Add the ginger, salt, and pepper.
- Cover the mixture and turn the heat down to low. Let the mixture simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Turn the heat off and remove the lid. Stir in the vanilla and let the mixture cool for 20 minutes.
- Strain the mixture using a fine mesh strainer. Press on the solids to extract all the syrup before discarding them. Allow the syrup to cool completely before storing it in a jar or other container.
The syrup should keep, sealed in the refrigerator, for a few weeks.
Ginger Cranberry Apple Spritzer
Makes 1 drink
- 3 tablespoons Ginger Cranberry Syrup
- 6-8 oz sparkling apple juice
- orange slice and dried cherries (for garnish)
- Fill a medium-sized wine glass halfway with ice. Add Ginger Cranberry syrup and fill rest of glass with sparkling apple juice. Add garnish and serve.
Peter Groynom is a graduate of Carleton College and the San Francisco School of Bartending. He is an avid home cook, a writer, and a Photoshop enthusiast. His photography can be found at Arts and Hovercrafts. He lives in Minneapolis. His writes SGT's DIY Craft Cocktails series, and his latest post was DIY Craft Cocktails: Beer Shandies for Cooler Temps.