What non-alcoholic liquor taught me about drinking


The sound of ice cubes clinking into a heavy glass tumbler followed by a crisp, fizzy splash. The smell of fresh peeled citrus rind. The delicate ombre of dark syrup seeping into soda. The revelation when a subtle tang hits my tongue. These are the things I actually miss about drinking. And when you order a virgin cocktail at a bar or a party, what you often get is some crappy canned juice and a maraschino cherry served with a condescending sigh.

It’s not just the sensuality of the experience, either. I love the way a beautiful bartender squints as she layers flavors just so. I love painstakingly curating the perfect pairings and choosing the bespoke stemwear. What I’m saying is that the buzz is good, but I really enjoy the ritual attached to drinking.

I've struggled with addiction, but not with alcohol. I don't drink all the time, but you can still catch me hanging out on Cabrini Bridge — a quintessentially New Orleans bright blue bridge that crosses the canal we call Bayou St. John — with a glass of dry rosé. I drink with what people outside of New Orleans call "moderation" and what locals call "teetotaling." I’ve found that, most of the time, I really like being sober. A tipsy buzz can be charming, but I’m not that cute after three gin fizzes. All in all, I seek balance.

The joy of low-hangover living is real and it's attainable without going totally sober. In fact, there’s a whole low alcohol movement happening right now. Non-alcoholic cocktails are popping up everywhere and bartenders are starting to get hip to what to put in them.

I recently went on a kayaking excursion sponsored by Seedlip, a non-alcoholic liquor company. The whole set up was quaint and lovely. The had a bar on the bayou complete with glass trays and copper barware. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen copper barware. It glinted gorgeously in the sun. The bartender, Laura, was magnanimous and careful with her technique.

Courtesy of Tracey Anne Duncan

The drink itself was as thoughtfully designed as any high thread count cocktail. It was made of Seedlip’s Garden 108, a lightly floral non-alcoholic liquor with an earthy undertone, Fever Tree’s Ginger Beer, which is pleasantly heavy on the ginger, all poured over a slice of dried blood orange. It was artisanal and nuanced and served with a flourish.

Sharing in the ritual of an experience, surprisingly, can be its own hangover-free friend-making lube. I paddled the bayou and chatted with folks from all over. I made friends, something that it often feels difficult to do sober.

Unlike the Shirley Temples and smirks I’ve gotten in bars as of late, this experience was comforting, decadent, and filled with intention. The day was hot and the drinks were cold. We milled around the bank of the bayou, chatting, and smiling. All of it led to a revelation about non-alcoholic liquor, which at first, boggled my mind: The drink can be about the experience. If orchestrated as thoughtfully as a Sazerac — chilled, absinthe-kissed glass and all — it can be the experience.