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 email@example.com.
One of the main reasons I started this column was because as a person in recovery I was curious about non-alcoholic spirits but didn’t know where to start. Normally when I’m curious about tasting something new I’ll do some detective work to make sure I’m buying something worthwhile (good fake booze isn’t cheap!), but in the case of non-alcoholic spirits, online rankings and reviews are almost always heavily skewed by negative-nancies who can’t fathom why anyone would drink anything besides the “genuine article.”
The words “pointless” and “oxymoronic” get thrown around a lot in these negative reviews, as do amateur diatribes on the distilling process, along with plenty of other condescending comments. Sober people (and anyone else seeking a non-alcoholic alternative) are perfectly aware that non-alcoholic spirits aren’t the real thing, which is, you know, kinda the point. Just like we know Diet Coke doesn’t taste like Coke and SnackWell’s don’t taste like cookies, so too do we understand that Spiritless Kentucky 74 probably doesn’t taste exactly like bourbon, and it shouldn’t be judged purely on that fact.
True aficionados enjoy their bourbon either neat or on the rocks. But Kentucky 74 could not be more clear about the fact that it isn’t bourbon, with the words “Distilled Non-Alcoholic Spirit for Bourbon Cocktails” (emphasis mine) printed right beneath its name on the front label. If you’re expecting honest-to-goodness straight-sipping bourbon without the buzz, you’re going to be disappointed, because without alcohol, bourbon is essentially burnt wood juice. But if you heed the label and use Kentucky 74 in a cocktail, you’ll remember that with a little help from its friends, burnt wood juice can be delightful.
The first cocktail I whipped up was as classic as classic can be: three parts Spiritless Kentucky 74 to one part Pratt Standard’s outstanding Old Fashioned Syrup. This accomplished exactly what Spiritless’ founders had hoped: it made the product taste remarkably close to bourbon, with strong notes of oak interspersed with faint hints of vanilla and caramel.
Next, I made a Manhattan, using sweet “vermouth” from Lyre’s, a drop of bitters, and two Amarena black cherries. Was this a perfect Manhattan? Of course it wasn’t, but I didn’t expect it to be. After six years of sobriety, I just wanted to taste my favorite cocktail again. In this, too, Spiritless Kentucky 74 delivered the rich sophistication of aged wood with swirls of tobacco smoke which, when tempered with the sweetness of the vermouth and cherries, tasted like the library of a distinguished robber baron.
Like most of the zero-proof spirits I’ve recommended in this column (and I only recommend the ones I like), Spiritless Kentucky 74 has a relatively high price point, and that’s exactly why measured, thoughtful reviews of non-alcoholic spirits are so essential. If any of us are going to take a leap of faith with booze-free bourbon, we want some assurances that it won’t break our hearts. As long as you remember that Spiritless Kentucky 74 isn’t actually bourbon, you’ll find plenty of beautiful qualities that are well worth enjoying.