Have it both ways for Dry July with these cocktails that shine with or without the booze

Non-alcoholic cocktails from left: Strawberry-jalapeno Non-a-rita (or Margarita), Two-faced pineapple, and Meyer lemon ...
Non-alcoholic cocktails from left: Strawberry-jalapeno Non-a-rita (or Margarita), Two-faced pineapple, and Meyer lemon squeeze. Photo: Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Hello, celebrants of Dry July – if "celebrants" is indeed the right term for those abstaining from drink for a month. How are you holding up? Are you counting the minutes until August  1? Are you finding this tougher than you expected?

If so, have you thought about why that is?

For those in the booze industry, who genuinely have to drink for a living, a month off seems like a smart move, necessary to maintain sanity and health. But among us civilians who have an easier choice – in that choosing not to drink doesn't have as much capacity to affect our work – I generally think it's a smart call to treat alcohol as something for limited occasions for 12 months of the year rather than trying to collect all your health points over the course of one of them.

So for our drinking guide, here are some drinks that start with a brew of tasty non-alcoholic ingredients and can either stay in that form or, with an easy addition, transform into an alcoholic cocktail, and tips for composing them.

Pay your ingredients a complement

When I compose a cocktail, I usually start by thinking about the flavour of the spirit I want to use. In trying to make a dry drink (or one that could go either way), the principle remains the same, only using a nonalcoholic base: a juice, a syrup, a tea or infusion. Think of what flavours naturally work together or bring out new elements of each other. And if you're planning to add a spirit later, you don't want it to be the weirdo at the party; think about how the flavours of the spirit will enhance what non-alcoholic components you've already got.

Bring in a neutral party

I don't make a lot of cocktails with vodka, because it doesn't have a particularly strong flavour; I tend to use it where I don't want to overwhelm the subtle flavours of other ingredients. But if you're looking to make a non-alcoholic drink that can easily ladder up into an alcoholic one, having vodka on hand is like having the cheat codes for a new game. It's clean, will go with most every flavour and won't overwhelm the drink you've already created.

Give it some teeth

One thing that non-alcoholic cocktails don't have is that sensation that spirit creates in the mouth – not actual heat, but something your tongue and taste buds register that way. Missing that intensity of mouthfeel, some dry drinks can come across as weak. But they don't have to. If you're composing a drink that won't contain alcohol (or one where the booze is optional), up the intensity in other ways.

Think the intensity of tartness created by citrus juice or vinegars, the burn of chilli and ginger, the bitter tannic pleasures of dark chocolate and black tea. And toy with texture, too: the tongue-tingle of fizz, the froth of egg white or aquafaba, or the foam and crunch of a drink you've tossed into a blender and whipped up with crushed ice.

Remember the optics

While flavour is the primary concern in composing a good drink, top craft cocktail bars will often make sure a drink also looks great. Use garnishing, colour and glassware to make sure that your booze-free concoctions are just as good-looking as the loaded ones.

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Strawberry-Jalapeno Non-a-Rita (or Margarita). MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Booze-free drinks for Dry July feature feat. strawberry-jalapeno non-a-rita (or margarita). Alcohol-free cocktail recipes. Good Food use only. Single use only. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.

Strawberry-jalapeno Non-a-rita (with optional tequila on the side). Photo: Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Strawberry-jalapeno Non-a-rita (or Margarita)

A fruity, spicy syrup forms the base for what can either be a zippy nonalcoholic "mocktail" or a standard tequila-enhanced margarita variation. We used Bonne Maman strawberry jam, which is widely available.

INGREDIENTS

For the strawberry-jalapeno syrup

  • 2 cups water
  • one 370g jar strawberry jamX
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ to 1 fresh jalapeno chilli, sliced into wheels, deseeded if you prefer less heat
  • ½ tsp sea salt

For the drink

  • crushed ice
  • 60ml strawberry-jalapeno syrup
  • 50ml fresh lime juice
  • 2 slices fresh jalapeno chilli
  • 45ml blanco tequila (optional)

METHOD

Make the strawberry-jalapeno syrup: Place the water, jam, sugar, jalapeno slices and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil for 30 seconds, stirring to break up the solids in the jam. Taste the syrup and adjust the amount of jalapeno to your liking. Keep in mind: The drink will taste less spicy once other ingredients are added.

Reduce the heat to low and let the mixture steep for 5 to 10 minutes – the longer you steep it, the spicier it will get. Let the mixture cool slightly, then strain out and discard the solids. The recipe makes about 3 cups (enough for 8 to 12 serves of either drink).

Make the drink: Fill a rocks glass with crushed ice, then transfer the ice to a cocktail shaker. Add the syrup, lime juice, jalapeno slices and tequila (if using) and shake hard, then gently pour the cocktail, including ice, back into the glass.

Serves 1

Note: The strawberry-jalapeno syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.

Meyer lemon squeeze

The syrup, made with the aromatic meyer lemon, is flexible and pairs nicely with multiple nonalcoholic partners. Try it mixed over ice with Seedlip Garden 108, an herbal nonalcoholic spirit, and top it off with soda or tonic water or lemon-flavoured mineral water  – or add new notes with Fever-Tree's bitter lemon, Capi grapefruit soda or chinotto, the Italian bitter orange soda. If you wish, use the syrup to make an alcohol-forward cocktail (we named it Meyer Lemon Lansky) by mixing over ice 45ml of gin or vodka with the same amount of dry vermouth and two or three teaspoons of the syrup. Serve as is or garnished with fresh thyme sprig or a lemon-stuffed olive.

INGREDIENTS

For the meyer lemon syrup

2 Meyer lemons*, peeled and quartered, reserve the peels

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

2 tsp dried thyme

2 dashes essence of bergamot (optional)

For the drink

ice cubes, for serving

30-60ml meyer lemon syrup, or to taste

60-120ml Seedlip Garden non-alcoholic spirit, soda or tonic or lemon-flavoured mineral water, or more to taste (this ingredient becomes optional if using vermouth)

90ml Dolin dry vermouth (optional)

Fresh thyme sprigs or lemon slices, to garnish

METHOD

Make the meyer lemon syrup: Squeeze the lemon quarters into a saucepan, then add them to the pan. Add the lemon peels, sugar, water and thyme. Cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar and to press on the lemon peels and fruits to express their oils and juice. Add the bergamot essence (if using). Bring to a boil for 30 seconds, then reduce the heat to low and let the mixture sit over the lowest heat until the fruit is very soft and the peels are translucent, 10 to 20 minutes. Let the syrup cool completely; then strain out and discard the solids. You should get about 3 cups.

Make the drink: Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add the syrup and Seedlip (or soda, tonic or mineral water), stir to combine. Alternatively, if using the vermouth, fill a rocks glass with ice, add the syrup and vermouth (omit the Seedlip), then top with soda, tonic lemon mineral water, if desired.

For either version, garnish with thyme or lemon slice and serve.

Serves 1

*Meyer lemons are slightly sweeter and more aromatic lemons. Food-grade essence of bergamot, a citrus with highly fragrant peel, is available online.

Note: The syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.

Two-faced pineapple

A float of blackstrap rum at the end is all it takes to transform this innocent tropical fruit cooler into a boozy beach drink. You can make two servings of the "virtuous" version and serve them as is, or sully one or both with the rum. Note that Angostura bitters are alcoholic, so while they're used in a small amount here, if you want a completely "dry" drink, leave them out.

INGREDIENTS

  • crushed ice
  • 1 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • ½ tsp Angostura bitters
  • 1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
  • ½ cup coconut water
  • ⅓ cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 sprig fresh mint (optional), for garnish
  • 60ml blackstrap rum (optional)

METHOD

  1. Fill 2 tiki mugs or Collins glasses with crushed ice.
  2. In a cocktail shaker, combine the sugar, bitters, pineapple juice, coconut water and lime, then shake hard for 30 seconds – you want to shake enough to dissolve the sugar and cause the pineapple juice to froth up a bit.
  3. If making an alcohol-free version, pour the cocktail into the glasses to the rim, garnish with a mint sprig, if using, and serve.
  4. If adding alcohol, when pouring the pineapple mixture over the ice, leave room at the top of the glass. Add the rum to the top of the drink and garnish with a mint sprig, if using.
  5. Serve the drinks with straws, so the drinker can continue to stir as they sip.

Serves 2

The Washington Post