Quicktake: Sub out gentiane, vermouth, bitter or anise softs for aperitifs without the alcohol
Sure, I’m into cocktails – researching them, drinking them, traveling to discover new bars and flavors, throwing cocktail parties, creating them, and so on. But when it comes to apero hour, I have a whole other level of engagement. I love everything it is and does: bringing people together, bridging a gap between day and evening, preparing us for a nice meal. I practice what I call the Art of Apero and enthusiastically obsess over all aspects of my aperitif hour set-up. Sometimes, though, I want to skip alcohol for a night or I want to go booze free before dinner to enjoy more wine with my meal or a digestive without overindulging. But, what about the apero?! Well, the beauty of this before-dinner drink is that it doesn’t have to be boozy.
Want to lighten up on the liquor and still practice the Art of Apero? Check out my five favorite non-alcoholic aperitif cocktails – in my order of preference:
Bitters & Soda
Italy’s aperitivo game is strong: Negroni. Aperol Spritz. Campari & Soda. All excellent cocktail hour options. I’ve never made a successful mocktail version of a negroni or Aperol spritz, but a Campari-like bitters and soda is easy. There are lots of versions of alcohol free bitters, but i usually go with the Venezzio brand because it’s easy to find in most major grocery stores here. I pick up a six pack of the cute little bottles of bright red bitters for just a couple of bucks and then pour them over ice and top with sparkling water. This isn’t something I necessarily do *instead* of making an alcoholic drink, but something I’ll just drink on its own merit. Play around to find your perfect ratio of water to bitters. Plus the empty bottles make cute single flower vases or vessels for bottled cocktails.
I’m a huge fan of Suze or Salers and tonic. These bright yellow gentian based aperitifs bring a welcome sweetly bitter element. This bitterness plus the bubbles of tonic aren’t just refreshing, but also make your mouth salivate and preps your palette for a meal to follow (which is really the idea behind any good aperitif!) As Suze comes in at 15% ABV, once mixed with tonic it results in a pretty light drink in terms of alcohol. But should you want to go for something with no alcohol at all, you can find non-alcoholic gentiane aperitifs too. Here in France, I can pick up a bottle of the Palermo brand for a couple of bucks easily at most large supermarkets. I do sometimes wonder if the extra conservatives and colorants in this aperitif are something I should be concerned about. But that’s a topic for another post.
So, I ordered a couple bottles of different non-alcoholic “gins” recently. I am aware that’s going to leave some eyes rolling back their sockets. But, the non-alcoholic distillate market is growing. Seedlip is the frontrunner when it comes to interesting distillates made to mix and has achieved worldwide recognition. Their Garden 108 mixes nicely with tonic and I especially appreciate their references as something that can lengthen a cocktail. I wanted to explore some of the other options in the category. Having tried a couple, the Siegfried Wonderleaf was my preferred. To be sure, I did only try a few. Because here’s the thing about non-alcoholic ‘gin’: It’s expensive and doesn’t last long on the shelf. So you only want so many open bottles at any given time to work through. I tried it with a martini. Big mistake. I tried a mock negroni. Also a fail. And just as I was about to give up, I tried it with tonic and that was the ticket.
This is my alcohol-free tweak on Pernod’s Green Beast cocktail made with their absinthe. The Green Beast is a fun drink that works as an individual cocktail or it’s great in a punch bowl. The recipe is a straightforward 1 part lime juice, 1 part simple syrup, 1 part Pernod absinthe and 4 parts water. Garnish with lots of cucumber slices. I dunno how Pernod would feel about me swapping out their spirit, but if you are looking to do this in a non-alcoholic way, I sub in an anise-flavoured soft drink. It’s pretty easy to find the Pacific brand in shops around France. You can also skip the cocktail mixing and just serve that up with water and ice.
Vermouth and Soda
Much like the gentian, it’s pretty easy to find a non-alcoholic version of sweet vermouth in France. I’ve tried the same brand that I use for the Gentian, Palermo. I mix it with sparkling water, over ice and garnish with a lemon or orange slice. I have both a Soda Stream and a siphon at home to make bubbly water, to avoid plastic water bottles. Like many of the drinks above, the regular version of this is already nice and low-ABV, so even if you don’t go with the booze-free alternative, you’re still on-trend with a light and refreshingly low alcohol aperitif.