Build-A-Bar Goes N/A: Nilsson Schmilsson

Remember: Drink 'em both up.
Remember: Drink 'em both up.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

My wife is pregnant. It's our third time in the barrel, and as unexpected a ride as the prior two. We (think we) know what we're in for this time, though, so it should be smooth sailing. To help ensure pacific waters, I'm (mostly) teetotaling in sympathy with my wife for the next 40 weeks or so. That seems like a pretty good reason to revisit my semi-abandoned nonalcoholic "cocktail" experiments. Drink along with me.

Sometimes, inspiration comes from chasing an idea; other times, an intriguing new ingredient catches your eye. Once inspiration comes, it's just a matter of trial and error, tweaking and refining. One good thing about booze-less cocktailing is that the R&D doesn't decrease in quality as it increases in volume. That fact came in handy while I was developing this recipe, which took quite a bit of adjustment to get right.

When I go shopping these days, I'm pretty much always on the lookout for new and interesting ingredients. Without a boozy backbone, you have to find different ways to grab a drinker's attention, and a new or unusual flavor can do that handily. That's how I found myself staring down a bottle of coconut vinegar.

I put that vinegar through the paces for a few days, first trying it out subbed 1:1 for citrus in various actual cocktails, just to get a feel for it. Nothing really clicked. With its aggressive, biting acidity, vinegar can be difficult to work into drinks. Coconut vinegar is no different, though it does carry a subtle nuttiness that speaks to its origin, giving it a few more bridges to other flavors. I keep planning on turning it into a shrub, combining it with a bit of sugar and toasted coconut, to amplify the rich flavors that lurk under its surface, and to temper its sting. I'll let you know how that goes.

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It was actually a different idea that led me to a successful drink. With all the sparkling grapefruit juice and soda my wife's been drinking through her pregnancy, I've had Palomas on the brain.

A super-simple, intensely refreshing combination of tequila, lime, grapefruit soda and salt, the Paloma is one of my favorite easy cocktails. I prefer mine with mezcal, for a subtle smokiness that sets off the bitter, spicy notes of the citrus soda. Awhile back, I'd disovered that the flavors of a Paloma work really well with my Nước Mắm Bitters standing in for the salt. The subtly savory, funky-fruity taste added a layer of intrigue that really set the drink off.

Since tequila's off the table, I've been chasing a non-alcoholic stand-in. The Nilsson Schmilsson isn't quite it, but it did spring from a few failed efforts in that direction. It also showcases an idea I've been playing with a lot lately: using the heat of chiles to replicate the burn of alcohol. I find that the more I can reproduce the sensations of a traditional cocktail, the more I can trick my palate into enjoying a non-alcoholic version. If you can replicate alcohol "burn," astringency and texture, you can take a lie-bation from good to great.

Nilsson Schmilsson 3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed 1/8 tsp Cayenne 1d Nước Mắm Bitters Bsp Lime Curd .25oz Coconut Vinegar .25oz Lime Juice Tonic Water Grapefruit Soda

Combine all ingredients but tonic/soda in rocks glass. Stir to combine and incorporate the lime curd. Add ice, top with equal parts tonic/soda. Stir gently to combine. Top with a lime wedge and dust with cayenne.

The drink starts out sweet/tart, with a keen, bitter edge. Then the heat of the cayenne blooms in your mouth, spreading down your throat. The sweetness pulls back, a slightly savory saltiness joining the heat, and the whole thing wraps up with a slightly rich finish. The next sip cartwheels you backward through those flavors, the sweetness calming the growing fire. Just when you think you've tasted everything, the green, dusky, slightly astringent cardamom creeps in. Though I don't tend to go for sweet drinks (and this one definitely skews in that direction), I really like the way this one drinks. It's also easily modified by holding back a bit on the curd, adding more or less acid, and changing the ratio of tonic to soda.

It's easy to tell whether my wife likes a drink, loves it or can't stand it. This one fell somewhere in the middle in its earlier iterations, owing mostly to her sensitivity to vinegar flavors. Those first efforts tended to sit in front of her for a while, sipped slowly but not ignored. I haven't actually had the chance to try her out on the final version, but I'm confident it will find favor. If not, I can always just give her the rest of the grapefruit soda.

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