Whether branded as zero-proof, spirit-free or the much-derided “mocktail,” the current landscape of nonalcoholic cocktails offered at bars and restaurants is flourishing with creativity and countless options for those who choose, for whatever reason, not to drink. But as bartenders continue to carve out dedicated sections of their menus for booze-free alternatives, there’s one drink in particular that’s become a familiar beacon: the nonalcoholic Negroni.
“The Negroni offers a different jumping-off point than the classic juicy ‘mocktail’ that, until recently, formed the bulk of nonalcoholic options,” says Resa Mueller, a bartender at R&D in Philadelphia. Indeed, unlike a sour, highball or spritz, the Negroni—save for the ice and garnish—is composed entirely of alcoholic components, presenting a particular challenge when recreating its signature silky texture in a booze-free format. Adding to the challenge is the universally known nature of what a Negroni should taste like. But according to Austin Hennelly, the bar director at Kato Restaurant in Los Angeles, this is exactly the appeal of the N/A Negroni. “The easiest way to get a bartender to devote hours of time, attention and resources to something is to tell them either that it’s impossible or, at the very least, no one has done it before,” says Hennelly. “Basically, it’s a bartender flex,” echoes Mueller.
At Storico Vino in Atlanta, beverage director Jose Pereiro keeps the Venetian-inspired wine bar’s N/A Negroni to a classic equal-parts recipe: Pentire Drift (a botanical nonalcoholic spirit from England), Wilfred’s Aperitif (a bittersweet nonalcoholic Aperol Spritz–inspired blend from London) and Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso (an N/A vermouth with notes of blood orange and vanilla). To compensate for the absent familiar heat of alcohol, Pereiro dials up the bitter citrus notes by way of extra expressions of orange peel over the finished drink. The No-Groni at Sidebar at Surdyk’s in Minneapolis takes a similar tack, drawing on the growing market of N/A spirits in the combination of GinISH (a nonalcoholic gin from Denmark) and Wilfred’s Aperitif, with split parts of Gnista Spirits Floral Wormwood from Sweden and a housemade grapefruit peel syrup subbing for the standard vermouth.
For Kristian Fidrych, beverage manager of Ember & Ash in Philadelphia, the familiarity of the classic Negroni is key to his rationale in creating a spirit-free version for the bar’s “Non-Booze Jawns” menu. “Each of the three ingredients have clear flavor profiles that bartenders understand well, and this allows you a lot of creative freedom in recreating the spirits,” he says. Fidrych took inspiration from Zero: A New Approach to Non-Alcoholic Drinks by Grant Achatz, Allen Hemberger and Nick Kokonas, learning to craft his own nonalcoholic spirits, including gin, Campari and Averna (which he uses instead of vermouth) for his N/A Negroni, to which he adds a small measure of Demerara syrup to amp up the sweetness and add texture. “Negronis have a certain mouthfeel that is associated with them; they have a viscosity that goes in hand with the bittersweet profile,” says Fidrych. “Mimicking the familiar mouthfeel of the Negroni is key.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Nicolas Torres, a partner and bar director at True Laurel in San Francisco, though he admits it will only get you so far. “The nonalcoholic Negroni is sort of the holy grail. The weight, bittersweet character and aromatics of a Negroni are associated with a true boozy drink—nothing [else] tastes like it,” he says. To compensate for the missing aromatic depth and weight from alcohol and sugar, Torres, like Pereiro, advises to go heavy on the bitter element. But heed his koan-like reminder: “This is only advice for someone who is attempting to have a Negroni that is not a Negroni.”
It is perhaps this forthrightness about the Negroni’s inherently irreplicable nature that has made the St. Agrestis ready-to-drink Phony Negroni, a bottled nonalcoholic take on the aperitivo icon, such a rapid success. Launched in January of this year, the drink can already be found in over 200 New York–area bars and restaurants, including Amor y Amargo, Roberta’s and Death & Co., and has been purchased by consumers in all 48 contiguous states, according to owner Louie Catizone. As the name implies, the Phony Negroni is not trying to suggest that it is, in fact, a Negroni. Instead, it follows the N/A Negroni dictum set forth by Hennelly: “The first thing that one needs to come to terms with on this quixotic quest to make an alcohol-free Negroni is that one is not making a Negroni.”