In my younger days, I thought the purpose of tequila was to get hammered under the hot summer sun. Boisterous sidewalk brunches fueled by tequila sunrises. Bubbly palomas on the back porch. Enough frozen margaritas to make everything seem like a good idea. (Note: Nothing was actually a good idea.)
Then I got older and sober, thus putting an end to my dubious definition of summer fun. While I don’t miss the alcohol, hangovers or bad decisions, I do miss the taste of tequila, which I only began to fully appreciate once I stopped drinking it. Life is full of cruel ironies.
For years, my sobriety meant satiating my adult thirsts with a lot of club soda, served with a twist of lime to make it seem a bit more classy. It was the best I could do. The word “mocktail” most always elicited a puzzled response from bartenders, who seemed unable to fathom why any adult woman might turn down alcohol. Sobriety wasn’t cool yet, so I’d lie and say I was on antibiotics. They’d nod in understanding, offer to whip me up “something special,” then hand me a glass containing every mixer from behind the bar, garnished with a maraschino cherry. I’d quickly remember why I stuck to club soda.
I have not regretted my sobriety for a second - it truly is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made - but I have had many moments where I missed feeling “normal” in the company of adults. Because drinking alcohol is what normal people do, right? Fancy dinners call for bottles of wine. Meeting up with friends means going out for drinks. Celebrations often turn into nights on the town, followed by mornings hiding beneath the covers with shades drawn.
Choosing to abstain from alcohol meant choosing to be different, or worse, “difficult.”
Then, by some miracle, everything changed. Sobriety ceased being something that was only be spoken about in hushed tones. Nonalcoholic beer and wine stopped being treated like a consolation prize, and started to get good. Nonalcoholic spirits began to exist.
Bartenders take me seriously now when I ask them to make me something without the booze; some have even made spirit-free cocktail menus with the love, care and attention I’ve long craved from behind the bar. Nonalcoholic tequilas are not a novelty, but a proper ingredient to be mixed thoughtfully.
“Generally with nonalcoholic tequilas I’m looking for it to mimic that agave flavor, slight salinity or mineral flavor I find in tequilas,” says Ashley Mac, bar manager at Baltimore’s NiHao, who has been crafting cocktails with nonalcoholic tequilas for over a year. “Other agave spirits, I’m looking for the smoky char flavor.”
I never thought I’d be able to taste tequila again, much less one I could appreciate with a wiser, less reckless palate. But here we are, living in a golden age of nonalcoholic beverages, where not only do I have access to nonalcoholic tequila, but I have access to many nonalcoholic tequilas. There are tequilas I can slowly sip from chilled rocks glasses and blend up into poolside-worthy frozen or on the rocks margaritas. There are even tequilas that taste lovely served with club soda and a twist of lime.
Just as the world of nonalcoholic spirits continues to grow at a gloriously dizzying rate, so too grows the number of zero-proof tequilas and agave-based beverages on the market. The following bottles are by no means an exhaustive list (a statement that not long ago would have sounded unimaginable), but they’re a good place to start.
CleanCo Non-Alcoholic Tequila Alternative
A gentle spirit with floral agave flavor, perfect for drinking simply with a spritz of citrus.
Escape Mocktails Non-Alcoholic Tequila Alternative
Forward vanilla flavor with a strong peppery bite at the end, this tequila alternative is best used in cocktails where more dominant flavors are present, like fresh fruit juices or premade mixers.
Mockingbird Agave Spirit
Mockingbird is a celebration of everything good about agave: beautifully sweet with a suggestion of warm cinnamon, closing with a mild habanero kick. (Also available through Boisson.)
Ritual Tequila Alternative
Ritual Zero-Proof is possibly the most readily available tequila alternative; found in many bottle shops that are just beginning to wade into the world of nonalcoholic spirits. This non-alcoholic tequila is definitely made for mixing, with an exceptionally strong burn that isn’t great for sipping but is perfect for making its presence known when in the company of other, louder ingredients.
Free Spirits The Spirit of Tequila
Free Spirits’s take on tequila is oaky and smoky; quiet enough that it can be easily buried in cocktails, but loud enough to be heard through club soda or, for that paloma, grapefruit soda.
Lyre’s Agave Blanco and Agave Reserva
The Blanco is rich with floral agave and hints of citrus and can be enjoyed simply; the Reserva has a slightly stronger peppery bite, making it the better of the two for mixed drinks.
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