Whiskey (or whisky, depending on the style) is a staple for cold weather cocktails. But until recently, booze-free options were either lackluster—the warm lemonade of a whiskey-less toddy—or literally impossible, like a non-alcoholic Manhattan. Luckily, zero-proof whiskey options have exploded over the last few years, but it’s rare to find the non-alcoholic alternative that is one-size fits all. Armed with a cocktail shaker, an array of mixers, and a lot of ice, I set out to test seven whiskey alternatives to find out how they could best replace bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys. Below you’ll find the best non-alcoholic whiskey alternatives for every cocktail. There are some that are “uncanny imitations" that taste just like the real thing; three options that simulate the warmth whiskey gives you when drinking it that will satisfy those looking for heat over all else; and two “impressionists” that don’t taste like whiskey at all, but will satisfyingly scratch the same itch.
Spiritless’s Kentucky 74 is the closest to the real deal you can get. An undeniable blast of charred oak stays with you from first sniff to last swallow, the body and slip are perfect, and rather than using the industry standard capsaicin to imitate the burn of alcohol (more on that later), it has a subtle tongue numbing effect, like sichuan peppercorns. Sweet corn and buttery caramel flavors are present but not cloying, and a sharp kerosene note contributes to its verisimilitude (though becomes unpleasant in cocktails with bitter ingredients like a Manhattan). Kentucky 74 pairs perfectly with mixers and makes I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-bourbon old-fashioneds and mint juleps. This is the one to sip straight or on the rocks for the most accurate bourbon alternative.
Lyre’s American Malt, on the other hand, has the correct flavor and subtle chest warming heat, but a disappointing, water-thin texture. Mixed with other non-alcoholic spirits, however, the downright photo-realistic flavors more than compensate, and Lyre’s makes pitch perfect imitations of sweet vermouth (Apéritif Rosso) and Campari (Italian Orange) for shaking up delicious Manhattans and Boulevardiers. (I use Apéritif Rosso for my Manhattans, and I highly recommend it as a staple in your dry bar!) Where American Malt truly shines is with ingredients that add much needed heft: blended with Liber’s full bodied gum syrup and fresh egg white, it makes an exquisite whiskey sour,
Many non-alcoholic spirit makers try to replicate the burn of alcohol with capsaicin, the chemical compound in chili peppers that makes your mouth burn. These pepper bombs can be great in cocktails, but the burn is overwhelming if sipped straight. This isn’t to warn you off of them; they just need some acid, sugar, and ice to tame their fire.
Monday Zero Alcohol Whiskey is the most aggressively spicy, but works best in the widest variety of cocktails. It makes a heavenly faux-rye Manhattan, a hot toddy that could take on flu season, and elegantly coaxes the aromatics out of an Old-Fashioned’s orange twist. For a clove-studded-orange sparkler mix it with Fever Tree’s Spiced Orange Ginger Ale, or with their Distiller’s Cola for a rich, chocolate-covered cherry cocktail.
The Spirit of Bourbon by Free Spirits has a higher acid content that offsets its heat and evokes red cherries, and a pure, smokeless caramelized sugar flavor that perfectly replaces Jack Daniels or Southern Comfort with cola, ginger ale, and lemonade. For colder weather, mix with mulled cider for a decadent, drinkable caramel apple.
Ritual Zero Proof Whiskey Alternative is downright strange, with caramelized banana, new oak, a nose-tickling green jalapeño, and a huge peanut butter finish. Ritual makes a pleasantly unique, though undeniably peanutty, Old-Fashioned, as well as an appropriately medicinal hot toddy.
Sometimes, what you want in a non-alcoholic spirit is to replicate a feeling more than a specific flavor. Made by Swedish company Gnista, the flavor profile of Barreled Oak is the least like any existing alcoholic spirit, but tastes like warming up from the snow in front of a crackling fire, and lives up to its name with woodsy spices, a pronounced but cozy campfire smoke, plus a touch of bitter herbs to balance sweet molasses, rye, and raisins. Best enjoyed straight up at room temperature, though it makes a surprisingly good non-traditional Manhattan, and is scrumptiously raisin-bready mixed with cola.
Despite its name, Sexy AF’s Friski Whiski is a strong, sweet, and bracingly bitter amaro that tastes very little like whiskey. Over ice with a splash of water, however, it’s a ready-made Reverse Manhattan on the rocks, with a blast of cinnamon and a viscous mouthfeel that isn’t afraid of a little melted ice. For an absurdly easy but delicious and sophisticated tasting cocktail, serve it over ice with Fever Tree Ginger Ale.
With so many available options, and substantial differences between them, you might need more than one whiskey to stock your dry bar. I hope that this guide has helped clarify which brands are right for crafting non-alcoholic versions of your favorite whiskey cocktails.