The science behind nonalcoholic spirits

Alcohol consumption has been decreasing in the United States in recent years. According to the research firm Bernstein, the average alcohol consumption has dropped from 10.34 liters per person in 1980 to 8.65 liters per person in 2017. One possible reason for this decrease is increased awareness of alcohol's health impacts and the wellness movement. Another is the rise of the experience economy, which places more importance on quality and presentation than on quantity. With campaigns like Dry January and the emergence of alcohol-free bars, a market for so-called non-alcoholic spirits has arisen. These spirits are targeted at drinkers who want to enjoy the social side of drinking without the negative side effects. This movement is about creating an experience with complex flavors that the drinker can sip over a meal or conversation, like wine and cocktails.

Ethanol, the type of alcohol we drink, is made naturally by the fermentation of sugars by yeast. However, fermented drinks can only reach about 15 to 20 percent alcohol, because the yeast can’t survive in higher concentrations. Distillation reaches a higher concentration of alcohol through separating the components of a liquid mixture by exploiting differences in the relative boiling points of the mixture's components. In a traditional spirit distillation process, ethanol is converted into vapor and then condensed into liquid. Distillers repeat the process several times until they achieve a desirable alcohol-to-water ratio. The familiar spirits, such as vodka, rum, or whiskey, are distilled in this way to obtain a higher concentration of alcohol than possible by fermentation alone. However, distillation can also be used to reduce alchol content.

The makers of nonalcoholic spirits are trying to create complex, nuanced flavors using botanicals, herbs, barks, nuts, and seeds. Some companies use these to try to replicate traditional alcohols, such as with gin’s signature flavor of juniper berries, while others are creating their own flavors. One company, Seedlip, formulates its own mixtures using a technique called maceration — soaking the source of the desired flavor in a cold liquid. This mirrors how traditional herbal medicines have been made for hundreds of years. The base for this process is a neutral grain spirit, which works because of the molecular geometry of alcohol.

If you’ve ever mixed water and oil, you know that not all liquids are miscible, or able to be mixed. Molecules with similar polarities tend to be miscible. Water, for example, is a polar molecule, while oil is nonpolar. Alcohol sits in between: it has both polar and nonpolar parts, meaning it can mix with either hydrophilic (polar) or hydrophobic (nonpolar) molecules. This is what makes alcohol so good at carrying flavors. Because the alcohol evaporates readily, drink makers can then distill the resulting mixture to remove most of the alcohol and concentrate the flavors. Each botanical is distilled using its own optimized individual process. In the case of Seedlip, the finished product contains a small amount of alcohol (still less than the 0.5 percent legal limit to not be considered alcoholic in the US), though other brands use different, completely alcohol-free methods. Another option is steam distillation, which extracts essential oils from the botanicals by passing steam through the ingredient.

These products are, in fact, more than flavored water with a hefty price tag. With more and more people avoiding alcohol, these nuanced alternatives are gaining popularity. With time, nonalcoholic spirits might be worthy alternatives to regular alcoholic products.