Excerpted from washingtonpost.com.
Whiskey is a serious drink made for serious occasions. Sure, you can ask it to do its job with some compatriots in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, but those are rather serious cocktails themselves, aren’t they? Sazeracs, Rob Roys — these are the sorts of beverages that have gravitas; even an Irish coffee dolloped with pillowy whipped cream gives off the vibe that you’re not taking any guff, not even at brunch.
“A good whiskey should have hints of oakiness up front and finish with vanilla, caramel and stone fruit — like black cherries,” says Bob Simko, whiskey connoisseur and director of R. Bar in Baltimore. That’s more complexity than what many nonalcoholic spirits, whiskey or otherwise, are able to deliver. And what’s the point of drinking faux-whiskey if you can’t drink three fingers of it in a cut-crystal rocks glass?
In the world of zero-proof spirits, nonalcoholic whiskeys have to work twice as hard to be successful, or be taken seriously. No one is spending upward of $40 for a bottle of whiskey-ish liquid that needs to be drowned in cola to be palatable. If a nonalcoholic whiskey doesn’t make you want to slip into a smoking jacket, settle into a tufted wingback chair and relax in front of a crackling fire, it’s simply doing it wrong.
There’s no single tried-and-true way to produce nonalcoholic spirits; every brand has its own (often proprietary) process. Just because a zero-proof spirits company can bottle up a convincing rum or tequila alternative doesn’t mean its methods make a palatable whiskey.
It’s been more than eight years since I’ve tasted whiskey, and when you’ve sipped as much whiskey as I have (hence the sobriety), it’s not a flavor you can easily forget — or one you’re willing to compromise on. Of the many nonalcoholic whiskeys I’ve tasted, almost all have needed a serious handicap to be, at best, enjoyed, or at worst, choked down. But the ones that have succeeded? They’ve tasted like sorcery that will leave you wondering how on earth they exist in the first place.
Just like any good magician does, the best zero-proof whiskey brands keep their secrets close to their chests, revealing just enough to tempt while leaving most of it a mystery.
The bottle I found to be a dead-ringer for what I can remember of the real thing (Spiritless’ Kentucky 74) is open about their use of reverse distillation process, which begins with a high-proof oak-infused spirit that’s dealcoholized via heat and condensation. Another top contender, NKD LDY, uses vacuum distillation to extract alcoholic ethanol from real Kentucky bourbon.
The two other zero-proof bottles I’ve found to be legitimately enjoyable are cagier about their proprietary production processes, revealing little besides that they’re blended beverages that use top-secret natural ingredients to mimic the taste of proper whiskey. Enjoyed neat, neither will fool you into thinking they’re the real McCoy, but they do become convincing chameleons when worked into cocktails — even the simplest ones where the whiskey itself is doing the heavy lifting.
“When making a whiskey-based cocktail, the upfront wood flavor should be prevalent from the first sip,” Simko says. “The aromatic finishing notes — vanillas, cherries, caramel — should seamlessly mesh into whatever you’re mixing it with, like vermouth, bitters, or fruit garnishes like orange rind or Luxardo cherries.”
Spiritless, Kentucky 74
As if by magic, this quaff delivers everything there is to love about whiskey, but without the booze or harsh burning sensation. Upfront are spectacular, almost creamy notes of vanilla that skip hand-in-hand with toasted oak, blossoming into something that straddles the line between smoke and sunshine. It’s a “fake” whiskey that deserves to be tasted straight. If you’re not one to savor spirits neat, try this in something timeless, like an Old Fashioned or Mint Julep. $30
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