With a fifth of all Americans saying they’re at it again this year, “Dry January” is becoming as popular as Whole 30 or outlandish New Year’s resolutions. It started as a public health campaign for an English charity back in 2013 and has quickly become a global phenomenon. There are obvious benefits to taking a break from alcohol, including increased energy, better performance and high quality sleep. It might also be the perfect time to get acquainted with non-alcoholic options. And the advances in non-alcoholic beer and spirits helps the distillers, brands and makers align themselves with health trends and “sober curious” individuals. As is the case with whiskey in general, it’s not for everyone and neither are non-alcoholic beverages. Would you try alcohol-free whiskey? Here’s the case for why you might want to consider it.
First, a caveat: if you’re new to sipping non-alcoholic spirits, these liquids don’t taste like alcohol. Unfortunately, there is no singular ingredient that can mimic the burn of ethanol in booze. Most of the alcohol-free makers focus, instead, on the spirit’s color, flavor notes and aroma. Spiritless, an alcohol-free spirit brand, has Kentucky 74 which is a “whiskey” that’s made in a two-step process. To make Kentucky 74, a grain neutral spirit and oak are combined in a pot still, and then variations of pressure, vapor, and temperature create a highly concentrated extract. The second step of the process is like “reverse distillation” where the alcohol is cooked off by putting the resulting liquid into a second pot still. The liquid left after the two step process contains oils, tannins and other flavor molecules that are then pH-adjusted and made shelf-ready for selling.
Similar alcohol-free “whiskies” are blended with essential oils, flavor and aroma extracts, and distillates of oak or other ingredients. Sometimes sugar and preservatives are added. There are two ways these drinks differ from regular whiskey: one, all of the contents are listed on the label and because of ingredient separation they may appear somewhat hazy. And two, because they are free from alcohol to act as a preservative, they generally don’t last as long and need to be consumed within a few months of opening.
As for the flavor, while there are some flavors in common with a standard whiskey, they tend to be thin in body and the overall experience of tasting through your nose and palate is rather unusual. The benefit of alcohol-free whiskey is more noticeable in a nice whiskey cocktail. Some might say these are overrated whiskey cocktails but the reason they can work with a whiskey free of alcohol is because of the other ingredients distinct in flavor. Like a citrus-forward Whiskey Sour and a Manhattan (as long as you have quality vermouth). For cocktails where the whiskey is the star, like an Old Fashioned, you’ll want to avoid trying the alcohol-free whiskey as the result can be underwhelming.
So if the alcohol-free whiskey definitely doesn’t taste like the real thing, then what is the point of drinking it? Lauren Chitwood, who co-founded Spiritless in 2019 and serves as its CEO, says it’s not to replace all other whiskey. “We are not at all trying to step on toes,” she notes. “We just want to ride along and be a great option for when you were either going to not participate or do something else.”
Dana Garves, a beer chemist who owns the Oregon BrewLab, which analyzes beer and other fermented drinks, says it’s a generational trend. “In general, I find the younger generations are pushing for more healthy-living style beverages,” she says, “stuff with lower calories, lower carbs, no alcohol, and that’s actually starting to permeate into the older generations, as well.”
In another sign of the alcohol-free segment’s growth, there’s now a trade association devoted to non-alcoholic beer, spirits and other drinks. The Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association is less than a year old, but already has more than 50 members.
Knowing what you know now, would you try alcohol-free whiskey? If your response is “to hell with this, I want the real thing,” then check out RackHouse Whiskey Club. RackHouse scours the U.S. looking for the best distilleries with the most interesting stories to curate a unique subscription box filled with full-sized bottles of hard-to-find small batch whiskey (alcohol included). It’s a way to enjoy craft whiskey and see these trends play out for yourself. We’re building a community of premium craft whiskey drinkers and you’re invited. Join us!