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The growing interest in mixed drinks made without alcohol has spawned an array of toxin-free beverages that offer more sophistication than a soft drink, cranberry and soda or Shirley Temple. Commonly called mocktails, non-alcoholic mixed drinks continue to be one of today’s biggest cocktail trends.

Rising interest can be traced to a number of factors, but perhaps most notably the greater awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects. Reducing or eliminating alcohol has been widely suggested as a means to stay healthy during COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, health concerns were resulting in declining alcohol consumption, particularly amongst younger generations. An overriding interest in “wellness” continues to influence much of what we buy and ingest.

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While the initial use of the term mocktail dates back to the 1970s, non-alcoholic drinks as thoughtful and creative as conventional cocktails are a relatively recent occurrence. I’m not talking about virgin versions of popular cocktails, which typically are dilute and boring approximations. Mixologists are embracing the opportunity to create compelling flavour combinations as they muddle, shake or stir up fanciful drinks that don’t make you miss the alcohol.

Seedlip was one of the first companies to produce non-proof distilled spirits. These British-made substitutes are created with a range of botanicals distilled in a copper pot still. Products such as their Spice 94 and Garden 108 helped inspire alcohol-free possibilities for consumers and the restaurant trade – as well as competition from other non-alcoholic spirit brands.

Notable launches into the Canadian market in the past year include Ceder’s, an international brand created by a Swedish and South Africa husband-and-wife team, and Sexy AF, a lineup of mock spirits in four flavours created by Calgary-based entrepreneur Jo-Anne Reynolds.

The media release announcing the launch of Sexy AF explains that the most established market for alcohol-free, non-alcoholic and low-alcohol spirit brands is the United Kingdom, with more than 150 available products. The category in Canada and the United States is reportedly catching up.

I’ve recently sampled no-alcohol spirits looking for suitable selections to serve in the coming weeks. These alternatives are pricey and many of them are lacking, tasting like overly expensive tonic waters. But there were some bright spots. I wouldn’t recommend serving many of them neat, but that’s likely not the intent. My recommendations also include a widely available non-alcoholic beer and an enjoyable light beer.

The challenge for any successful cocktail with or without booze is striking a balance between the ingredients. Alcohol contributes weight, warmth and carries flavour, so even the best non-alcoholic spirit struggles to completely replace the original. But with flavoured simple syrups, fresh juices and other ingredients at the ready, I’ve got a better alternative to cranberry and soda.

Crodino Non-Alcoholic Aperitif, $7.97

Sold in a squat 100 mL bottle, Crodino is an orange-coloured non-alcoholic bitter aperitif with a curious bittersweet taste from a mix of herbal extracts and sugar. Since 1995, it’s been part of Gruppo Campari, where it sits comfortably in a range that includes Campari and Cynar, two herbal Italian liqueurs that rank amongst the most popular bittersweet spirits on the market. Crodino can be found in specialty grocery retailers across the country as well as a few bottle shops and Italian delis. It can be enjoyed on its own from the bottle or served over ice with soda water and a slice of lemon. Available in Ontario at the above price for 8x100 mL bottles, various prices across the country.

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Ceder’s Crisp Distilled Non-Alcoholic Gin, $24.99

Leading up to the launch of Ceder’s in 2017, Maria Sehlstrom and Craig Hutchison developed a variety of recipes for a range of non-alcoholic spirits by sourcing 18 hand-picked botanicals from the Cederberg mountains of South Africa’s Western Cape along with others from Europe. Each of the botanicals is individually distilled and blended with water before being blended and bottled in Sweden. Three of the couple’s labels have been available in Canada since the summer, including Ceder’s Wild, which features juniper combined with clove, ginger and rooibos, and Ceder’s Classic, with its juniper and floral notes making for a functional alternative for classic gin styles. I’ve had the best results with Ceder’s Crisp’s mix of juniper with citrus, cucumber and camomile. It’s the most refreshing of the three used in an alcohol-free gin and tonic. Available nationally at various retailers with a recommended sale price of $24.99, $22.99 through well.ca and $25 through jacobsons.ca.

Budweiser Zero Full-Flavoured Zero-Alcohol Brew, $17.45

A revamp of the popular Budweiser Prohibition Brew, this non-alcoholic beer makes the most of what it is lacking, with the retro label proclaiming no alcohol and no sugar to offer a healthier drink option. This strikes me as being more refreshing than the sweeter Prohibition style, which might signal less flavour for some. Budweiser Zero’s drawing card is its refreshingly clean and crisp flavour. As such, it’s a good substitute for the flavour experience of many light beers. Available in Ontario at the above price for 12x355 mL cans, $9.29 for 6x355 mL cans in British Columbia, $12.99 for 6x355 mL cans in Saskatchewan, $16.48 for 12x355 mL cans in Manitoba, $19.99 for 12x355 mL in New Brunswick, $20.19 in Prince Edward Island.

New Standard Brewing Co. Organic Light Lager, $3

Produced with organic malted barley and hops, this light lager also advertises that it’s vegan friendly. It’s pleasingly crisp with a lingering sweet cereal note that makes it more memorable than many light beers. Available in Ontario at the above price for a 473 mL can.

Sexy AF Kamparii Alcohol Free Spirit, $19.99

Sexy AF is an innovative Calgary-based brand with a selection of smartly packaged alternative non-alcoholic spirits made to low-calorie, low-carb, vegan-friendly and kosher specifications. This alt-version offers much of the herbal and bitter citrus charge of Campari, which makes it really useful for a range of non- or lower alcohol mixed drink options. I found a splash added interest to a glass of cheap and cheerful prosecco (I suppose the same would be true, likely more so, for non-alcoholic sparklers). It works with soda, too, but to my taste, the producer’s suggested Kamparii Christmas cocktail added necessary sweetness to balance the drink. The recipe calls for 1.5 oz Kamparii, 0.5 oz orange juice and 2 oz cranberry juice shaken over ice, strained into a rocks glass that’s topped with soda water. Available at the above price for 375 mL bottle, direct through sexyafspirits.com

Globe and Mail subscribers can register to join Christopher Waters on Thursday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. ET for a wine tutorial on buying bottles for the holidays, developing your palate and serving for best enjoyment.

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