Welcome to Like A Virgin, a new column in which we’ll 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.
In previous Like A Virgin columns, I’ve written about non-alcoholic spirits that are meant for drinking neat or on the rocks, and ones that are best used in mocktails. This week I’m profiling a spirit that falls somewhere in between the two: a botanical, booze-free spirit that cannot stand alone, but should not be obscured under a bevy of mixers.
Saying Optimist Botanicals are intense would be an understatement. They contain a cacophony of flavors that is overwhelming and, quite honestly, confusing. Each of its three ambiguously named non-alcoholic spirits—Fresh, Bright, and Smokey—is infused with no fewer than ten different botanicals, some of which will not be easily identifiable to the average palate. (I consider myself an adventurous eater, but I’m pretty sure I have never tasted myrrh or cornmint before this.) Drinking any of these spirits straight will blow your sensory synapses like an overloaded fusebox. But—much like boozy botanicals such as gin or Chartreuse—when Optimist’s offerings are paired with a simple, high-quality mixer, that sense of confusion transforms into wonder.
The botanicals used in Optimist Bright are lemon, jasmine, green mandarin, lavender, turmeric, orange, tangerine, fennel, cinnamon leaf, and the aforementioned cornmint and myrrh. This is the lightest of the three, with a strong upfront hit of lemon that’s slowly brought back to earth with its backnote of bitter herbs. Following Optimist’s recommendation, I mixed one part Bright with two parts tonic water over ice, and they came together like puzzle pieces. They blended together so perfectly, it was nearly impossible to identify any flavors that belonged solely to one or the other. It’s a drink that’s as fascinating as it is delicious, and it commanded my full, undivided attention with every single sip.
When tasted solo, Optimist Fresh is eerily reminiscent of men’s cologne. It’s made from 13 botanicals I am familiar with—juniper, cilantro, lime peel, fennel, lovage, basil, angelica root, red thyme, tarragon, jasmine, habanero, oregano, and tangerine—and still it managed to taste unlike anything I’d had before. This, too, I mixed 1:2 with tonic water, which tamped down Fresh’s most aggressive flavors, and once again, they combined in near-perfect synergy. Though it had been only minutes since I had drank tonic water with Bright, I could barely find any similarities to this second beverage. It became clear that Optimist chooses its botanicals not only for flavor, but for their powers of transformation.
If you’ve tried smoked liquors before you probably know that even the most gentle ones can be considered an acquired taste. I’ve had the misfortune of tasting more than a few of them that, at my most kind, I would describe as “not fit for human consumption.” But despite my trepidation I found plenty of things to love about Optimist Smokey. Its bottle describes it as tasting like a bonfire, and indeed its blend of lapsang souchong tea, bitter red orange, clove, ginger, sage, bergamot, cinnamon leaf, habanero, geraniums, oregano, angelica root, Valencia orange, and our old friend cornmint is, at first taste, rather strange. I mean that as a compliment, because strange can be a very beautiful thing, especially when it comes to a adult-oriented beverages that are meant to be remembered. As you may have guessed, it was very enjoyable when mixed with tonic water.
Even though I don’t usually make mixed drinks, my non-alcoholic home bar is well stocked with Q Mixers, just because I like them. Out of curiosity, after trying all of Optimist’s zero-proof spirits with clean, classic tonic water, I tried them again with Q’s Indian and Elderflower tonic waters, which resulted in equally remarkable drinks, but with a bit more sweetness. Another thing to note: a little bit of Optimist goes a long way, so don’t let its $35 price tag put you off too badly. Its botanicals are so powerfully concentrated that I used only one ounce for every drink I had, and because even the tiniest of sips delivered such remarkable flavor, I was able to comfortably nurse them for just as long as I would a gin and tonic. It’s not an everyday drink by any means, but as something to unwind with on a Friday night after the kids go to bed, I find it to be an absolute bargain.