Do Non-Alcoholic Drinks Taste Like Alcohol?

by Natalie Cooper

I’ve been living a sober lifestyle for nearly two years now and I have been asked this question time and time again.  When I'm drinking something non-alcoholic, people always ask “does it taste like the real thing?” Well, the answer is yes, and no.  It totally depends on what you’re drinking, and what your expectations are.  Let me explain.

Alcohol is effectively a flavour enhancer which helps carry flavours and provide body and mouthfeel for your drinks.  Once you understand this, you can better set your expectations when it comes to non-alcoholic drinks.  Drinks without alcohol will never taste exactly the same as drinks with it.  However, some can get very close. How similar any non-alcoholic drink is to the “real thing” varies considerably across the different categories...

Do Non-Alcoholic Beers Taste Like Alcohol?

If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic drink that tastes like the real thing, then beer is your best bet.  When you’re starting off going sober and want a non-alcoholic alternative to get you through a party or to help pass that 5 o’clock itch, then non-alcoholic beers will be your new best friend.  Non-alcoholic beers (less than 0.5% ABV) are a very close match to alcoholic beers and with such a huge variety available you’re bound to find one you like.  My favourite is the All Day IPA by Bach Brewing, it’s New Zealand made and honestly hard to beat.  If you haven’t tried any non-alcoholic beers before, then this is a great place to start. 

Without downplaying how innovative and crafty the breweries have been in getting their non-alcoholic beers to taste so great, it’s worth considering what beers are made from.  When you think about what goes into a beer – grains such as wheat and oats, sugar, yeasts, and hops, you’ve got a lot of ingredients there that can help cover up or mask the fact they are missing alcohol.  You’re also looking at a product that typically sits around the 4-5% ABV mark, so taking this down to under 0.5% is not such a huge change overall.  This has a lot to do with why non-alcoholic beers taste so close to the real thing. Unfortunately, we can’t quite say the same for non-alcoholic wines!     

Do Non-Alcoholic Wines Taste Like Alcohol?

When it comes to wine, there are fewer places to hide.  Taking a wine from 12-13% alcohol removes a large proportion of the wine’s character or backbone.  You can’t cover this up quite as easily as you can with beer.  Most, if not all, non-alcoholic wines have grape juice added, which helps balance the flavours after the alcohol has been removed.  It is hard to get this balance right, and inevitably results in many non-alcoholic wines having somewhat of a ‘grape juice’ flavour to them.  They also miss the sharpness that comes with a full strength alcoholic wine, which can make them feel a bit empty, like something is missing (alcohol – obviously!) 

To really enjoy a non-alcoholic wine, you need to shift your expectations and focus on all the other enjoyable characteristics that are still present in the wine.  At the end of the day, a non-alcoholic wine does not contain alcohol, and you can feel and taste that alcohol is missing.  To counter this, you need to look beyond the absence of alcohol, and instead appreciate the aroma, acidity, dryness or sweetness, the complexities and variety of the flavours, tannins and the mouth feel of the wine.  They all have different aspects that shine through, which appeal to a variety of tastes and preferences.

Sparkling Non-alcoholic Wines are the Closest Match 

The closest match you’ll find for a non-alcoholic wine that tastes like an alcoholic wine is with the sparkling varieties.  These have the help of sugars and bubbles to add texture and create a drinking experience that more closely resembles the real thing.  My favourite is the Noughty Sparkling Rose by Thomson & Scott, it’s so good and really does come close to a real bubbly! 

Next Comes Non-Alcoholic White Wines

Next comes the still whites – these are closer to the real thing than reds but often come with that grape juice feel.  My favourite non-alcoholic white would be Ara Zero Sauvignon Blanc or the Giesen 0% Pinot Gris, both of which are New Zealand made Marlborough wines.  Socially, I drink quite a lot of non-alcoholic still whites.  They help me feel part of the party and are very easy to drink.  Be prepared to go through an entire bottle quite quickly though, the absence of alcohol means there’s no buzz or sharpness that otherwise slows down your drinking.  If you’re thirsty it’s easy to get through an entire bottle fairly quick!

Then we've got Non-Alcoholic Red Wines

Now let’s talk about the reds.  Here’s the funny thing I’ve found with non-alcoholic red wines.  When I first went sober, I absolutely could not drink them!  They just tasted awful – sweet and juice-like with nothing that resembled anything remotely like the real thing.  I may have even said to others that they are a waste of time and money… However, as I continued to be sober, my taste buds changed quite a lot.  My palette is far more sensitive now and I can pick up different characteristics and find complexities in flavours that I could not initially taste. 

I am now finding that non-alcoholic reds are often my first choice when I’m looking at buying a non-alcoholic wine!  I would have never thought that would be the case when I first went sober.  It’s probably partly a palette adjustment and partly due to the growth in the non-alcoholic drinks space, with more variety and better-quality non-alcoholic red wines coming to the market.  Whatever it is, I'm loving it. 

What I love the most about the non-alcoholic reds (apart from the gorgeous colour) is the gritty tannin taste you get in your teeth.  It really makes you feel like you’ve got a full-bodied red wine in your glass.  Hands down the best non-alcoholic red wine is the Ariel Cabinet Sauvignon.  This can be hard to get hold of though so a good local alternative I’ve found is the Giesen 0% Merlot.  It’s not as gritty but it’s still good, and so is the Plus and Minus Shiraz (which is also a great price).

One tip I want to share about non-alcoholic reds is that you need to chill them.  I know it feels wrong, but it really helps to sharpen up the flavour and give the wine a bit more of a punch.  Drinking it at room temperature makes it feel a bit soft, and it just kind of misses the mark a little.  Chilling it once opened also helps it retain its flavour for longer 👌

How Do Other Non-Alcoholic Drinks Compare?

Aside from non-alcoholic beers and wines, there’s a whole range of other alcohol-free drink options available which again, vary considerably when it comes to comparing them to their alcoholic counterparts.  Non-alcoholic ciders are similar to beer in that they taste quite close to the real thing.  This could be due to the heavy fruit flavours, relatively low alcohol content, moderate sugar content and of course the bubbles. 

Some non-alcoholic RTDs also rate quite well, for similar reasons to the cider – a new one I enjoyed recently was the premixed Margarita Muse by Terps & Co.  Another one I remember trying earlier in my sober experiment was the AF Cuba Libre which I found hard to believe it didn’t contain alcohol, it had a very strong burn going on! For this reason alone, I thoroughly enjoyed this drink, even though I was never a rum and coke kind of girl.

When it comes to the distilled non-alcoholic spirits, these can be a bit hit and miss, and your enjoyment factor will vary depending on what you’re hoping these drinks can provide.  If you’re looking for a substitute spirit to drink on the rocks, they will probably disappoint.  Most are designed to be mixed, and what you mix it with helps to bring out the flavours. 

If you’re looking for something to mix along with your favourite tonic, sparkling water or soda, then these non-alcoholic spirits will definitely enhance your drink.  One I tried early on that I liked was Warner’s Pink Berry Gin.  This really hit the spot for me in terms of flavour and mouth feel.  It also created a bit of numbing sensation in my mouth much like alcohol, creating a placebo effect and tricking me into thinking I was actually drinking – which was very welcome during the “early adjustment phase” of going dry!

Adjust your expectations to fully appreciate non-alcoholic drinks

I don’t go to any social events without bringing something non-alcoholic to drink.  I’ve been that way from day one and I intend to keep it that way.  I greatly appreciate the huge range of quality non-alcoholic and alcohol-free options that are available.  These options really do make the sober journey one that can be easily enjoyed, without any hint of deprivation.

Next time you try a non-alcoholic or alcohol-free drink, I encourage you to look at it a different way.  Rather than critically evaluating whether it tastes like alcohol, why not give yourself a chance to enjoy it for what it is, and simply ask yourself “do I like it?” If the answer is yes, then drink more, and revel in the glory that you can drink as much as you like with no nasty side effects!  The best part is, the longer you stay dry the more your taste preferences will change and the better the non-alcoholic options get 🥂 

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