I love everything about wine and spirits. The way they taste. The way they smell. The way they look in a glass or in bottles on the shelf. When I worked in a wine store, I loved to run a dustcloth over the bottles, pour samples for customers, and breathe the sour fumes expelled when you vacuum-seal an open bottle. I even have a soft spot for objectively terrible booze: ever since we cracked open a bottle of Cinnabon-flavored vodka one New Year’s Eve, my annual lucky-food dinner includes a toast with shots of something awful so the year can only go up from there.
I’ve never been seriously interested in practicing sobriety. But you know what, this is a year for trying new things. Picking up new hobbies. Establishing new habits. I was waking up with headaches and a parched mouth every day, so I figured, what the hell. Dry July. I started a week early, in June.
About two weeks into my experiment, it became clear that the continued headaches and dry mouth were due to allergies, not drinking, but I stayed dry for the month anyway. It was interesting to notice which times I most wanted a drink: usually because I was bored, or anxious, or wanting something festive for virtual socialization, or something comforting as I relaxed in the evening. I was reminded of an essay in the wonderful Nothing Good Can Come of This by Kristi Coulter; whether you have the drink or not, it will not fundamentally change the conditions that make you want one.
Your mileage may vary, but to make a stint of sobriety work for me, I knew I would need to stock up on bright, interesting flavors that could make tea and seltzer feel festive, and simple combinations that I could pour as easily as I’d measure a finger of whiskey. So I splurged on some quality basics and got to work mixing up some syrups and blends, and was very pleased by the shelf of colorful mason jars in my refrigerator. It turns out that honey, tea, and vinegar are ingredients with depth and complexity that open up when you add a little water, not unlike a good whiskey. Simple syrup smooths and simplifies, but also makes an excellent agent for carrying flavors.
There’s a whole wide world of punches and shrubs and syrups I haven’t gotten to yet; 13 Syrups/Mixers Made Simple is a great starting point for the classics. If you have any favorite festive non-alcholic beverages, tea sodas, or punches, feel free to share!
Meanwhile, here are some ingredients and combinations I tried out this month.
- Shrub. I had strawberry and blueberry on hand. Sometimes it was nice just to slug some sweet, tart shrub into a glass of Lacroix and call it a night.
- Loose tea. I always keep a few different black tea blends, but I stocked up on rose hips and refreshing herbal tea blends like strawberry rhubarb, Holy Detox, and Respiratory Rescue.
- “Good honey,” whatever this means to you. Sometimes grocery chain honey has artificial flavors add it, giving it a perfumey taste. I use smartweed honey, which is dark and complex but sweeter than buckwheat, perfect for cocktails. You might also use blackstrap molasses or maple syrup, but honey is probably the cheapest option if you’re making a lot of syrups and shrubs.
- Bitters. I had old fashioned, black walnut, peach, and cranberry.
- Seltzers. I tried a bunch. Fever-tree tonic is my favorite; it has a great flavor on its own, but really complemented and opened up the flavors in my fussy syrups. Lacroix gets the job done. Perrier was a bit hard and mineral for my purposes, but good with lime. I bought some flavored San Pellegrino on sale and regretted it.
Bay leaf honey syrup
Steep 5 dried bay leaves in 1 cup of hot water until it starts to smell gorgeously of tea. Stir in 1 cup of good honey until it dissolves. I keep the leaves in the honey syrup until I use it.
1/4 cup dried rose hips steeped in 1 cup of hot water until it smells fruity and turns pink. Strain out rose hips, the stir in 1 cup sugar until dissolved.
Lime cordial or limonata
I am obsessed: blending whole limes with sugar and water yielded a sweet, sour, bitter, and frothy mixer I wanted to mix into everything.
Quantities are extremely approximate; I never measure anything.
1 oz rose hip syrup, splash of lemon juice, splash of cranberry bitters, muddled lemon balm leaves, 1 can citrus Lacroix (I used tangerine or lime)
1 oz bay leaf honey syrup, 1 oz lime cordial, splash of old-fashioned bitters, 1 bottle of Fevertree Tonic water
Mint iced tea with a splash of rose hip syrup. My mint tea was actually Holy Detox, a blend of mint with holy basil and rose hips and some other delightful herbs, but I think regular mint would work too.
For a wineglass: splash of rose hip syrup, shot of pure cranberry juice, fill up with strong black tea. For a pint glass: double the syrup and cranberry.
Juice of 1 orange, a splash of rose hip syrup, 1 can coconut Lacroix.
Works in progress
Some of the mocktails are so delicious that I will continue enjoying them in any month of the year. Other concoctions did not win me over, but let’s just say they need more tweaking.
There are many many recipes for this historic recipe (here’s one) but I made it by creating a sort of apple cider vinegar shrub with Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, lemon zest, good honey, loads of ginger, and some tender herbs I had on hand (lemon balm and apple mint). The shrub, I cannot emphasize enough, smelled heavenly. I would wear it as perfume. But no matter what ratio of shrub I diluted with hot or cold water, the mixture was overwhelmingly vinegary. I couldn’t help thinking of Sarah Gailey’s story of the ruined mimosa brunch.
A cafe that used to be near my house had this as an add-on for any tea. It was some combindation of ginger, lemon, black pepper, and honey–the best flavors in the world! Perhaps I used too much black pepper, crushed it too fine, or left it to steep too long, but my elixir attempt was a little too bitter.
Sour cherry anything
I love cherry season and was very excited to turn a quart of sour cherries into a puree, with the intent to add a scoop to my daily yogurt and granola or a spoonful to festive sparkling beverages. I added very little sugar while simmering the sour cherries–maybe a couple of tablespoons to help create a more uniform consistency in the cooked puree–but the result was cloyingly sweet, like a cherry popsicle. I added a spoonful of the puree to black cherry San Pellegrino, which made the cherry seltzer slightly more drinkable, and combined some cherry and the heaven-sent elixir with seltzer for a sour cherry ginger ale, but these attempts were all disappointing.