Believe it or not, my most requested recipe isn’t a cupcake or a bread or any of the other goodies that you’ll find in my shared photos. My most requested recipe is a beverage . . . a non-alcoholic beverage. And I have to say one of my favorite things about this recipe is the reaction from people who try it for the first time. Almond Punch is an understated name for this drink that always stops people mid-swallow with an unexpected, “Wow!” before requesting for the recipe.
Which you can have, by all means. Is there anything more annoying than a “secret recipe?”
Despite its popularity it never occurred to me to post this recipe in the test kitchen until I was compiling the 31 drinks I put together for Dry January. Intrigued by claims of long-term benefits like better sleep, more energy, clearer skin, and weight loss in exchange for a one-month abstinence, I thought I would check it out. Click blow for the full list in order of best to worst, and read on for a detailed review.
Committing to the Dry January challenge was as simple as downloading the app and signing up. But I know me and I know my routine, so I was going to one damn fine plan to change things up. That morning cup of coffee is not so much about caffeine as it is routine and it’s the same with the after-work cocktail. So I decided to take a page out of my Halloween playbook and add a month of non-alcoholic drinks to yearly horror movie schedule. Yeah, that could work. Hell ... that could even be fun. And in the spirit of the rating horror movies, let’s rate the drinks. Spirit, get it? Never mind.
For scoring, I went with a simple scale from 1 to 3 against a benchmark of red or white wine in four categories: taste, calories, difficulty, and sippability. Sippability is my made up term for the tendency to want to have another glass. Wine is the ultimate sippable beverage for me so a drink that made me want a refill would be more likely to keep a cork in the wine bottle where it belonged for a month. I also prioritized the categories; taste was the most important followed by calories, difficulty and sippability. That meant a drink with a numerically higher score might be less likely to make it into my glass if something else tasted better without being too caloric or just a pain in the ass to prepare. As a benchmark, wine doesn’t have a perfect score thanks to its 25 calories per ounce. In fact, none of the drinks earned a perfect 12 but the #1 came close.
I did lay in a few ground rules as my goal was to find viable substitutes while experiencing those lasting benefits for myself. No caffeine, no non-alcoholic alcohols, and no water. Iced coffees, lattes, and Arnold Palmers were off the menu. Better sleep was more likely to happen without caffeine. Fake booze like O’Douls, Seedlip, and non-alcoholic wines generally pack all of the cost and calories of their real counterparts without the flavor or the buzz. These imitations don’t fool me, I know it’s a glass of nothing pretending to be something. I could never get there with diet sodas either, so if fake booze works for you there then by all means, go for it. The only reason I took water off the list is I already drink a lot of water, so “substituting” water really meant cold turkey and I was going for something different.
Who knew that coming up with up with 31 drinks would be so hard? Try googling non-alcoholic drinks and you’ll find plenty of mocktails that contain a lot of sugar (ginger ale and ginger beer are packed with it) or virgin drinks that are just boring without the booze. Like a virgin toddy, ranked #27 on my list. This version of my favorite winter warmer wasn’t just boring, it was nasty. It turns out that hot water with honey, lemon and spices needs a shot of whiskey. A better option is a cup of your favorite evening tea. I have two versions here at #12 and #13. Both are delicious, caffeine free, and great for warming up or winding down. One steaming cup is enough for me and while it has its place, hot tea just isn’t the right fit for sipping while cooking.
Now that I’ve dumped on the virgin cocktail, my second favorite drink turned out to be just that. Such is my bias against the virgin cocktail that it hadn’t even occurred to me to try a Virgin Mojito until a friend suggested it. I made it exactly the way I make the real deal except no rum - and I shocked myself when I didn’t miss the booze. And just like a real mojito, you can adjust the sweet, sour, soda, and mint to suit your taste. This drink is going to be my go-to cooler during the summer. Mojitos, with and without the booze, take a some work to prepare and clean up and that is why this drink earned second place with a score of 10/12.
First place went to the the Ginger Lime Spritzer which is could almost be described as a ginger mojito. Fresh ginger and lime infused simple syrup combined with club soda make for an easy to prepare beverage with great flavor and very few calories. There is some up front work to brewing the simple syrup but once prepared, it hangs out in the refrigerator for weeks. The strength of the ginger is totally up to you and depends on the amount steeped into the syrup and how long it has been in your refrigerator. This drink had a near-perfect score of 11/12 and I love, love the flavor of real ginger.
Third place on the list is an Orange Honey Ginger-Ale. The base of this drink is a honey simple syrup infused with orange and ginger, and it is delightful when combined with club soda and orange juice. I think this is the best tasting drink of the bunch - it also has about twice the calories of the top two, but still a lot less than wine.
Pause for a fun fact. There is no ginger in ginger ale or ginger beer. At least not in any of the brands readily available in my supermarket. I was able to find a ginger beer that claimed to have real ginger way down the ingredient list, and it carried a higher price tag to prove it. After making a half dozen simple syrups, I’ve learned that a ginger simple syrup with club soda is better than any store bought ginger ale. I will definitely sip a glass of commercial ginger ale over any other soda, but make your own sometime and see if it doesn’t change your religion.
Earlier I described the virgin toddy as nasty so you may wonder what drinks kept it off the bottom. How about a fruity spritzer made with lemons and kiwi fruit? The worst drink of the pack sounded so much better in my head than it tasted in my glass. Kiwi fruit is expensive and a pain in the ass to peel so when you combine it with lemonade, a little sugar and club soda . . . it tastes like lawn grass. Worse is the texture that might have you thinking you whipped up a batch of clippings liberated from the lawnmower. It isn’t appetizing to look at either with all of those kiwi seeds sitting on the bottom. I would love a second opinion on this one if you’re up for it.
Three different herbal iced tea blends also floated at the bottom. I thought I would be getting a caffeine-free version of my beloved Arnold Palmer so I had some expectations. What I got was something that tasted more like soap. Two of the bevvies looked like beer, especially after beign poured into a Guinness tumbler, but all of these drinks went down the drain. I also put the Mango Lassi near the bottom, mostly for the calories. A mango lassi is a smoothie, and there’s only so much smoothie a person can drink. My version made with frozen mango and plain, whole-milk yogurt was not quite as tasty as what I have gotten at Indian restaurants, but adding more honey to balance the rest of the ingredients made a high calorie version of a smoothie even worse. My own morning smoothie has no added sugars, although you can argue that fruit juice is sugar and I won’t even try to defend that.
A few bevvies in the middle of the pack deserve honorable mention and a seat at your dry drink table. The white grape spritzer as designed was a little sweet for me, so it came in at #9. I changed it up later by mixing the recipe as written with club soda which would bump it into the top 5 for me. As a bonus, it looks like a glass of wine if you serve it right and skip the garnish - plus you still have the original, sweeter version for your guests who are into that. I made the garnishes optional in the recipe; frozen grapes don’t really have a place in my routine. The Lemon Basil Mock-jito is another non-alcoholic version of a mojito using a basil instead of mint, and lemon instead of lime. It’s a bit of work to whip up and higher in calories than it’s more traditional virgin cousin (that sounds naughty), but a solid member of the virgin mojito family. Finally, the Cucumber Ginger Limeade at #20 gets a bye in the difficulty category from the simple syrup you already prepared. There is still plenty of prep owing to the cucumbers but I found that bitterness of the cucumber really complimented the tart of the lime and made for a uniquely refreshing drink. If you don’t want to make the full mocktail, try muddling a bit of cucumber with the Ginger Lime Spritzer and see if that speaks to you. Prep and calories also got the best of the Cucumber Gimlet, but mixed in a batch for a group will distribute the effort and earn you some well-deserved praise.
I made it through Dry January just fine and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I think that is due to making a commitment and sharing it combined with the game of drinks I played all month. I found I wasn’t focused on what I was missing and I never felt cranky. Quite the opposite in fact. I also noticed improved sleep and a little more energy in the day. The most lasting benefit is awareness and just less consumption overall. I will totally do this again next January and have a few tips if anyone is interested in trying it for a week or a month or whatever.
Use the app, keep track if your progress, read the stories, watch those little umbrellas add up.
Engage an accountability buddy. They don’t have to go dry with you and it helps you to stay on track. If you can’t find one, I’ll do it.
Find one of the easy drinks on the top 10 list and keep the ingredients on hand. Tonic with lime, club soda with bitters, or store-bought flavored seltzer are as easy to pour as a drink and if you stay committed, these will keep you from using “too hard” as an excuse.
Go to the gym for 30 minutes, put your clothes in the laundry or closet, tidy up the kitchen, plan your outfit for tomorrow, walk to the mailbox, go to bed early. Simple tasks will keep you busy and you may be surprised that you stay ahead of weekend chores when you aren’t taking the time to relax with a cocktail. Bonus, it will keep your mind occupied as well and ease you out of work and into the evening.
Reward yourself with a nice bottle of wine and enjoy what it feels like to get a buzz after a few sips.