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Hey, we know you enjoy a stiff old-fashioned or an extra extra extra dry martini as much as the next imbiber, but sometimes going for the hard stuff just isn't an option. But that doesn't mean you want to get stuck slurping on cranberry juice and soda water either. Wouldn't it be great if you could sip a mocktail that looks and tastes just like the real thing?

Today, we'll look at the science of how alcohol actually tastes, how to mimic it, and whether this is a good idea. Later this week, we'll look at the flavors that appear in great spirits and how to mimic them with some actual recipes.

The prevailing knowledge seems to argue that you can't recreate the taste of alcohol without actually using it. Is that true?

Let's step back. Maybe a better first question would be:

What, exactly, does alcohol taste like?

The answer to this question may not be as obvious as you think.

Sure, any whisk(e)y aficionado will be quick to point out that aged spirits contain notes of caramel, vanilla, cloves, and dozens if not hundreds of other aromatic notes. Got it.

But, what about plain old ethanol? Here's what we know:

  • Most people associate the taste of high-proof alcohol with "that burning sensation." Scientifically, this is known as a trigeminal sensation and you feel it through your pain nerves rather than through your taste buds.
  • Ethanol also has a "drying" effect at high proof. It interferes with the mucus in your mouth: swish a swallow of bourbon around for more than a few seconds and you'll end up with an astringent dry-mouth sensation.

Does low-proof alcohol taste different from high-proof?

First off, it's important to remember that a minority of drinkers are bona-fide supertasters who perceive alcohol in any dosage as much more bitter than everybody else.

With that being said, the research shows that at 10% ABV, alcohol is universally described as "bitter" while many tasters also called it slightly sweet.1

What effect does the "somewhat bitter and slightly sweet" taste of alcohol have on a low-ABV drink? Not a whole lot, as it turns out.

Consider, for example how nonalcoholic beers are made. "Near-beer," as it's endearingly referred to, begins life as normal beer. Bottlers then distill out any alcohol using a vacuum...

...And that's it. They just take the booze out and sell the remaining liquid as-is.

Even brewers of high-quality near-beer don't bother adding flavors back in to replace the lost alcohol. Beause, as Gizmodo put it, alcohol "gives [beer] that dryness, and it can accentuate some of the sweet flavors in the malt, but alcohol doesn't really add any flavor itself."

[1] Bitter and sweet components of ethanol taste in humans

How to simulate alcohol

We've established that alcohol tastes tingly, drying, bitter, and sweet.

To recreate these effects in a nonalcoholic drink, we simply need to add ingredients that produce the same effect.

  • The best analog for alcohol's burn comes from spicy ingredients such as ginger or chilies. Although the compounds involved are different*, both stimulate the same nerve that alcohol affects.
  • Astringency is harder to replicate. At home, the best option is oversteeped black tea, which contain naturally-occurring tannins that replicate the astringency of alcohol.**
  • Oversteeped tea is also one of the few readily-available ingredients I've tried that can add a respectable amount of bitterness to a drink. Most cocktail bitters use herbs like cinchona or gentian that are harder to come by. To make oversteeped tea, use twice as many teabags as you would normally use and simmer the tea for 10 minutes.

* Capsaicin is responsible for the spice in chilies. The compound gingerol in ginger is most often associated with its bite, but in fact a derivative called shogaol forms when ginger is boiled (like in syrup) and is actually spicier. I've compared fresh ginger juice vs. boiled syrup, and it's pretty noticeable—and cool.
** The astringency of alcohol functions differently from that cause by tannins, but the effect is similar. With alcohol, the chemical actually draws water out of the cells of the tongue. Tannins, on the other hand, bind with the proteins that make mucus feel "wet," which then makes your tongue feel more dry.

Does a good mocktail need to taste like alcohol?

If you've been following along, you may have concluded that you should be brewing up a batch of bitter, spicy, slightly sweet tea the next time you serve as designated driver. Gross.

But, there's no need to do that. That's because the true allure of alcohol isn't really derived from its own taste characteristics, but rather how it interacts with other compounds to create otherwise unattainable flavors.

Think of bitterness, astringency, and spice as creative ways to accent an already tasty mocktail, to add lend the slight feeling that you might be sipping an actual cocktail.

Next, we'll look at some of the complex flavors that develop in spirits and how to add those complexities to some innovative mocktail recipes.

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