In the waning days of the season of spritzes and tiki cocktails, mezcal margaritas, and endless bottles of rosé, I’ve decided to dry out a little. In fact, given the past few months of excessive lockdown drinking, many of us might benefit from some teetotalism—or perhaps more moderate-minded choices. If a late-summer sunset without a cocktail in hand seems too onerous a sacrifice, there’s an expanding selection of virtuous-feeling, low-A.B.V. aperitifs and spirits for one’s wet bar these days.
It’s hardly a surprise that just as our national confidence took a pandemic-induced nosedive—the stock market, employment rates, our bank accounts, too—sales for alcohol of all persuasions have skyrocketed. Americans relied on spirits to lift our spirits, and so we have become a nation of imbibers under lockdown. A daily Negroni certainly did give me bolster: my siren-red beacon as I concluded the workday, however stressful or mundane. But, alas, I’ve re-stocked my bar cart more in the past three months than I do in a single year, and my liver could use a break.
Currently, I’m making my way through a bottle of Ghia (pronounced “ghee-ah”), a stylish new aperitif with all the complexities and layers of an Italian bitter, only without alcohol. According to founder Melanie Masarin, developing the recipe required a year of formulations, and more than 35 iterations involving ingredients such as white grape, elderflower, lemon balm, and gentian root. “I was thinking about all the friends over the years who told me they also didn’t want to drink, and they didn’t want a drink that was full of sugar. They wanted something as sexy as alcohol but also dry—something that’s not a soda,” she says.
I’ve re-stocked my bar cart more in the past three months than I do in a single year.
For Masarin, a non-drinker who enjoys the rare Negroni, too, Ghia is a nod to the joyful, sun-soaked spirit of the aperitivo hours she recalls from family summers spent along the Mediterranean coast. I take mine straight up on the rocks, or as a spritz with soda water and an orange slice when I want to pretend my Manhattan fire escape overlooks the Amalfi Coast. Fashion designer Rosie Assoulin is also a fan of the spritzy version (with fresh lemon and mint), while Anna Polonsky, a James Beard Award–winning restaurant designer, says that she and her husband occasionally opt for a stronger variation: “I have to admit that we love mixing Ghia with Yola Mezcal,” she says.
Even before the need for a widespread lockdown detox arose, data from the analytics firm Nielsen had anticipated a surge in low-A.B.V. and zero-proof spirits for the year ahead. Spiritless, a zero-proof Kentucky-style bourbon, recently made its debut, while Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirits continue to be favored by some of the most discerning professional bartenders for their intricately layered blends of distilled botanicals such as allspice berries, cardamom, cascarilla bark, and even peas. The fact that Seedlip’s bottles—like Ghia’s—are gorgeous, thoughtfully designed expressions on their own has made them easy sells at serious cocktail dens like the Nomad and Dead Rabbit.
For something with a little more boost (and by “boost” I mean boozy), there’s Haus’s expanding selection of low-A.B.V. aperitifs derived from California Chardonnay grapes. The Rose Rosé, with notes of raspberry, fig leaf, and rose essence, pairs beautifully with soda and sparkling wine for a refreshing, naturally low-sugar alternative to the hangover-inducing Aperol spritz. But imbiber beware: tipple on several, and all bets are off.
Laura Neilson is a writer based in New York