Welcome to Like A Virgin, a column in which we recommend a different zero-ABV drink each week. They’re not “near beers,” they’re not “mocktails”—they’re delicious beverages that anyone and everyone should try at least once. Got an idea for a future Like A Virgin column? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many non-alcoholic spirits out there that are phenomenal in their own right, with complex flavors unlike anything I’ve tasted before. But sometimes I’m not looking for a brand-new bespoke experience. Hell, sometimes I don’t even want anything too nice! I want the low-budget cocktails from diner menus and bowling alley bars, the old reliable ones we make do with at weddings and bar mitzvahs. If I only indulged in fancy beverages every day, then fancy things would stop feeling special. It’s important to embrace the average.
As far as non-alcoholic spirits go, Ritual Zero Proof is about as average as it gets, and I truly mean that as a compliment. These products were designed to act as stand-ins for four common liquors—whiskey, gin, tequila, and rum—and as long as you have realistic expectations, they’re highly enjoyable. When sipped straight they are somewhat reminiscent of their boozy brethren, but they are not a perfect match, nor are they necessarily… well, good. But herein lies the magic! Ritual doesn’t seek to clone the exact notes of familiar spirits; instead, it follows their blueprints, balancing unique non-alcoholic flavors in a way that, when mixed into cocktails, sets off the same sensory triggers.
For its Whiskey Alternative, Ritual lists ten (ten!) different notes on its front label: American oak, Madagascar vanilla, capsicum fruit, sugar floss, mesquite smoke, caramel, hemp leaves, green peppercorn, prickly ash, and toasted spices. (Its actual ingredients, as listed on Ritual’s website, are filtered water, sugar, xanthan gum, citric acid, and the all-encompassing “natural flavor.”) On its own it tastes nothing like any whiskey I’ve ever tasted, and I have had a lot of whiskey (hence why I’m sober now). It’s watery and mildly acidic with a rather unpleasant burn from the capsicum fruit, which I assume is used to mimic the harshness of hard liquor. But when simply mixed with Coke, ginger beer, or sour mix, this alternative does everything you want whiskey to do without getting you drunk or annihilating you with a nasty hangover.
Ritual’s Gin Alternative is a definitely a step up from the whiskey when sipped straight, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the superlative Monday Gin, which remains my top choice for simple on-the-rocks enjoyment. Ritual’s take on gin, like its whiskey, also has a harsh burn from capsicum fruit, which helps prevent its beautiful notes of cucumber and lemongrass from being completely drowned out in cocktails.
That burn is also present in Ritual’s Tequila Alternative, which, unfortunately, is about the only thing you can taste when drinking it straight. This product, too, has ten different flavor notes listed on the bottle, but it’s impossible to taste a single one behind all that fire. It’s unpalatable on its own, and is too strong for cocktails that don’t meet its furious bite with similarly bombastic flavors. (Ranch Waters, no; Palomas, yes.) That being said, I know that the majority of people looking for a non-alcoholic tequila are doing so to make margaritas, and I’m happy to say that, yes, it does work well in the frozen variety. In fact, you could argue that the violent burn is essential if you’re hoping to taste anything tequila-ish in a glass of pulverized ice and lime juice.
Ritual’s best offering is its newest: a Rum Alternative. It is not very enjoyable straight from the bottle (no surprises here), but it doesn’t need to be. Unlike the whiskey, gin, and tequila alternatives, Ritual’s “rum” does not list capsicum fruit in its flavor notes, instead achieving a lighter, more pleasurable burn from cinnamon, cloves, fresh ginger, and star anise. The label lists six other notes—Madagascar vanilla, molasses, ripe banana, bitter orange, Tupelo honey, and charred apricot—and not a single one is wasted, nor obscured by a tidal wave of liquid fire.
Though I haven’t tasted it in every rum cocktail that’s ever been listed on a diner placemat, I’ve tried Ritual’s Rum Alternative with Coke, mixed it with ginger beer into a Dark & Stormy, blended it into pina coladas, and, my personal favorite, shook it with simple syrup key lime juice for the closest thing I’ve had to a daiquiri since I quit drinking over six years ago. It’s nice to have them back in my life, along with whiskey sours, gin fizzes, and frozen margaritas. Ritual Zero Proof Spirits are meant for mixing, and as long as you keep that in mind, you’ll find plenty to love about them.