Build-A-Bar Goes Nonalcoholic: The 'Pony Boy' Is Born and All Is Good

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.

I suppose it's funny that one of my first (re)forays into nonalcoholic cocktails was largely inspired by my experiences with one of the most infamous spirits around. To go from Malört, bringer of grimaces, to beverages my kids can sip while building Lego houses might seem like a huge leap. Really, though, cocktails are all about two things: layering and balancing flavors. (Okay, so there's a bit more to it than that, but those are central concepts.) I so enjoyed the basic flavor components of Malört (honey, grapefruit, chamomile) that I wanted to explore them in a more direct way.

For starters, I made some chamomile tea. Rather than just brew it, I used a combined method of hot and cold brewing, pouring water just off the boil over the bags, allowing it to cool to room temperature, and then steeping it for a full 24 hours. I brewed at double-strength, to ensure that the chamomile flavor would come through clearly in the resulting drinks.

Following in the path of Malört, I decided on a honey syrup as sweetener. I've found that keeping sweetness from dominating nonalcoholic drinks is often a significant challenge. Alcohol helps balance out sweetness in normal cocktails, providing texture at the same time. For me, honey syrup helps on both of these fronts. It has a more restrained sweetness than sugar, provides a lot more complexity and has the added benefit of bringing in significantly more viscosity than regular syrup.

Whenever I add a sweetener to a nonalcoholic cocktail, I use it as an opportunity to add flavor as well. Working with the framework of honey, grapefruit and chamomile, I decided to infuse my syrup with peppercorns; black pepper works especially well with both honey and grapefruit, bolstering their notes of spice. I made a 2:1 honey syrup by combining two parts honey and one part hot water, and added a quarter-part peppercorns to infuse the syrup. It steeped for an hour, picking up floral notes from the pepper, as well as a subtle spreading heat. Taste yours every ten minutes or so, and strain off the peppercorns when it tastes right to you.

From there, it was just a matter of playing with ratios and tweaking until the drink came together. Originally, I had thought that the grapefruit would provide sufficient acidity to balance the drink, but a bit of lemon proved necessary. Then, the chamomile proved too dominant, in a funny sort of way. In order for the mild taste to come through, it had to provide the lion's share of the volume of the drink. By that point, though, the drink became unbalanced. A bit of mellow apple cider and a brief dash of Mole bitters brought it back in line. The bitters felt a bit like cheating, and might render the drink unacceptable to anyone who had to avoid alcohol entirely, though they add up to only .1% ABV in the finished drink, if my calculations are correct. I'm planning on playing around with other ways to get the flavors and bitterness in the drink, to make it 100% free of alcohol, but I'm pretty pleased with the results as is.

Pony Boy

2.5 oz strong chamomile tea .50 oz black pepper honey syrup .50 oz grapefruit .50 oz lemon .50 oz apple cider Dash mole bitters

Shake briefly over ice and double-strain into a (large-ish) cocktail glass. Express and float a grapefruit coin.

(If you want to booze it back up, most any spirit will work. You could sub in applejack for the cider, or add a small measure of whisky. Half an ounce of good dry vermouth also makes a nice addition, and still keeps this a very low-alcohol drink.)

The finished drink is layered and subtle, with each of the components both coming through and combining for a balanced effect. It's bittersweet and floral with a nice spicy edge from the grapefruit and syrup, sharpness from the citrus and just a bit of astringency. For a moment there, on your first sip, you'd have no idea that anything was "missing." That's because nothing is. This isn't an alcoholic drink robbed of its pride. It doesn't taste like a glorified glass of juice or tea, and has enough complexity to stay interesting. It's also going to stay in rotation, even after this project is done.

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