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.
I taste test a lot (seriously—a lot) of non-alcoholic beverages to find ones I feel are “Like a Virgin”-worthy, and they all fall into one of three distinct categories. There are the true soft drinks, like sodas and sparkling waters. There are the ones that are trying to be something else, which encompasses your non-alcoholic beers, wines, and spirits. And then there’s the rarest of them all: beverages that seek to break the mold, upend convention, and exist as their own special thing. There are few brands that attempt this at all, and far fewer that succeed.
For Bitter For Worse falls into this last category, which is a remarkable accomplishment. Creating a conceptually brilliant and entirely new non-alcoholic beverage isn’t as simple as jumping behind the bar and mixing up familiar ingredients; it’s more like retreating into a lab and trying to invent a color that’s never been seen before. It’s running headfirst into the great wide open with no rules and no limits, being brave enough to try things no one else has ever done, and praying to god that other people think what you’re doing is delicious. The team behind For Bitter For Worse has not done this but once; they’ve managed to do it three separate times.
Though the company advertises all three of its beverages as “cocktails,” they should not all be treated as something that should be enjoyed straight from the bottle. In fact, the only one I think can be sipped that simply is the Eva’s Spritz, which has a base of Pacific Northwest rhubarb juice infused with citrus peels and botanicals. A freshly cracked fizzy bottle is lovely over a few cubes of ice, but I discovered purely by accident that it’s just as wonderful—if not better—when left to go flat and enjoyed as an aperitif. Served this way, it tastes syrupy and rich, like fresh farm-made jam, uplifted with deep bitter notes. But my favorite way I’ve found to enjoy it is by mixing it with bitter grapefruit soda and pretending I’m on vacation in Italy instead of squirrel-watching from my stoop in Baltimore.
The Saskatoon is far too intense to drink straight, which is fine by me; this stuff costs $28 a bottle, and though it’s worth every penny, I’d still like to stretch it out. This is the first and only time I’ve tasted Saskatoon berries, and they are not something I am hoping to be done with anytime soon; the longer I can make this bottle last, the better. The closest thing I can compare this beverage to is Proteau’s Ludlow Red, another drink that exists in an entirely different reality than the one we’re used to. You could, theoretically, use this as an ingredient in a complex cocktail, but why would you want even partially obscure all that Saskatoon magic? Keep your cocktails made with this extremely simple, mixing a few splashes with an ultra-effervescent water like Topo Chico, or a few ounces with a clean, simple tonic water like Q.
If you’re a person who has never had a strong desire to understand beverage culture, you may not like For Bitter For Worse’s Smoky No. 56, nor have any idea what to do with it. Out of the bottle it tastes like—and I am being completely serious here—burnt ends and barbecue sauce, with strong notes of caramelized brown sugar and smoke. After the initial shock of my first taste wore off, I approached it again looking for some of the other flavors that are supposedly in there, like dried figs and tea. I was able to find a few of them, but they were all coated in sweet, sticky BBQ glaze. It’s almost like drinking liquid ribs and, honestly, I kinda dig it.
Like $300 wines that taste like pencil shavings and cocktails that arrive at your seat with a 15-minute explanation, I knew that Smoky No. 56 was entirely over my head, and to enjoy it, I needed to defer to the experts. For Bitter For Worse has a small but excellent selection of recipes on its site, and because it’s been close to 100 degrees all month, I decided to treat myself to a Christmas-in-July eggnog. Once I whizzed it up with some milk, cream, coconut sugar, and egg, Smoky No. 56 made perfect sense to me: it tasted like the Yule log jumped out of the fireplace and into the punchbowl.
Later on I started thinking about how I love charring grapefruits on the grill, and decided to mix the Smoky No. 56 with Q Sparkling Grapefruit. I loved the combo, but I admit it’s an acquired taste. This is why I suggest if you’re interested in trying out For Bitter For Worse, spring for the sampler pack and keep an open mind. These are unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before, and that’s a very, very good thing.