At some point or another, most, perhaps all of you reading this have tried to cut down on your consumption of alcohol.
Last weekend, we had a get-together, and on a whim, we opted to try cocktails made with Ritual Zero-Proof alternatives, which are available as gin, whiskey, rum and tequila. We started with gin-and-tonics made with Ritual alternative gin, which has a surprisingly sturdy, botanical nose and, like many of the Ritual alternatives, a viscosity that feels like liquor. The G&T was quite an enjoyable sip, and even for those of us who’ve been drinking for years, the botanicals in the gin, along with the tonic, made for one of the tastiest soft drinks in memory. Such an alcohol-free alternative also made it possible for one of our guests, who is expecting, to enjoy drinks with all the others.
Later, I made Manhattans with Ritual alternative whiskey, which has vanilla, caramel and smoky notes that suggest barrel aging, and capsicum (chili pepper) contributing to the slight burn in the throat we expect from whiskies. Again, any grown-up who has had a few drinks in their life can tell it wasn’t alcohol, but it was close to whiskey’s flavor, mouthfeel and color.
I posted a photo of Ritual Alternatives on Facebook and Instagram and I should not have been surprised to see that many of those who turned up their noses were also those who were most passionate about traditional spirits. One distinguished writer of books on bourbon wrote, “Did you lose a bet?,” and another buddy who leads cocktail seminars in Portland was forthright in his dismissal of even the name: “I would call it an alternative TO booze, not a booze alternative. Seems disrespectful to the devil’s nectar.”
Clearly, convincing some people of Ritual’s value in cocktails will be an uphill battle, and it did not have a promising start.
“That Is Awful”
Ritual alternatives first hit the market in 2019, right before the pandemic, and they are the product of three Chicago friends: David Crooch, Marcus Sakey (a Chicago novelist previously featured in Newcity), and Marcus’ wife, GG.
“Marcus is my best friend,” says Crooch, “and when I went over to his house one night, he was playing around on his cutting board. He was just trying to make something that could stand in for a cocktail. He was using things like ginger and peppers. I asked, ‘What in the world are you making?’ He goes, ‘Just try this,’ and I took a sip. I looked at him and I said, ‘That is awful.’ But a few hours later in the night, I said, ‘You know, if we could make something that approximated the flavor profile of known spirits’…and that became the only thing we talked about that night. And then we talked about it again the next day, and then nonstop for the last few years. Now, it’s a real thing.”
You can be served Crooch and Sakeys’ zero-proof alternative at places like Gordon Ramsay Burger and Cindy’s in the Chicago Athletic Association, or you can purchase bottles of the Ritual alternatives at Binny’s or online at Total Wine & More.
Slightly More than Half of Us Want to Drink Less
Diageo, the British beverage company, a major distributor of spirits and the world’s largest producer of Scotch whiskey, recently made a significant investment in Ritual. “Diageo is our sole investor,” says Crooch. “They recognize the shift in the category. They see where this is going. Thirty percent of people don’t drink alcohol at all, and fifty-two percent of adults who do drink actively are trying to drink less.”
So, Ritual may be hitting the market at the right moment. But how do you go about creating a good-tasting, credible alternative to gin, whiskey, rum and tequila? “We decided to go straight to the heart of the business: we made lots of trips to Louisville, the distilling center of the United States. We worked with distillers and flavorists, and we hired a third-party team to do research for us. Basically, we went to the pros.
“A lot of people said, ‘This just can’t be done.’ But we were determined that it could be done, and we found the right people to do it.
“We decided that the best way to proceed was to focus on the cocktail, and so how do you replicate gin and whiskey well enough so that it will work in a cocktail? It’s kinda like coconut milk, right? Coconut milk tastes different from cow’s milk. You can taste the difference immediately. But you use coconut milk the same way as cow’s milk. Coconut milk is close enough that it works great in my latte. I don’t need to have any dairy if I don’t want it. Can you make whiskey exactly as it’s normally made, minus the alcohol? No, you can’t. But is there a way to create a drink that people can use in place of the spirits? Absolutely, yes.”
But it wasn’t easy. Crooch tells us that “for our first two [gin and whiskey] alternatives, we made over 500 iterations to get each right.”
Created for Cocktails
My first move was to open the alternative whiskey and pour myself a straight shot. It wasn’t bad, not bad at all, but the best way to appreciate a Ritual alternative is to mix it into a cocktail. “Our products,” says Crooch, “were designed to be used for cocktails. But we found out that about twenty percent of our whiskey consumers are drinking Ritual alternatives neat or on the rocks. Which is wonderful! That’s actually how I use it a lot of the times, but, yeah, they’re meant to be used in cocktails. Same thing probably happens with nut milks. The first time people try oat milk, maybe it tastes weird. Maybe they have it in their coffee a few times, and it becomes their go-to for adding to coffee. Then one day, they pour a glass of it because they want a glass of milk.”
The brand name “Ritual” is an evocative choice. There’s the ritual of making a cocktail at home but then there’s also the ritual of enjoying a cocktail with friends. “Let’s say you’re all getting together,” hypothesizes Crooch, “maybe you’re all at a conference, and everyone’s meeting at the hotel bar, and you’re going to be celebrating a big success, but you don’t want to go because you don’t want to drink that drink. You’re trying to avoid it, right? But with Ritual, you can not only go, but you can say yes to another drink. And another. You can keep being a part of it. And if the pandemic showed us anything, it’s that you should say yes to more time with friends and family; with Ritual, you can also say yes to another drink.”
One Taste, a Trigger?
In “I Second That Emotion,” Smokey Robinson sings, “A taste of honey is worse than none at all.” So, I was thinking, if I were an alcoholic, and I was trying to avoid alcoholic beverages of any kind, would a Ritual whiskey sour, or Manhattan or whatever, make that process of avoiding booze even harder? In that (imaginary) scenario, I’m trying to avoid whiskey, for God’s sake; I went cold turkey and I’m trying to avoid all alcohol. Then I have something that’s kind of close, and it’s like, “Damn, that is good. I’ve been waiting for that flavor.” It couldn’t be any better. Or could it? Maybe just a little actual whiskey wouldn’t hurt.
I recounted this hypothetical scenario to Crooch.
“Could our alternatives be a trigger for an alcoholic?” asks Crooch. “Up-spiraling, right? And we’ve made a very conscious effort to not market at all to that population. On the site, some people say, ‘You know what, I really want to try this, but I think I probably shouldn’t.’ Personal choice, right? We’ve also heard, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been looking for this forever. I am a recovering alcoholic. And I can have this and have all of the experiences and go all in.’ However, if you think about it, and decide you shouldn’t risk it, then I fully respect your staying away from our product.”
All About Balance
The main message that Ritual is trying to send, Crooch tells us, is that it’s all about balance, and “the opportunity to be a part of the conversation, to be a part of the party, to be a part of the cheers and the hugs but to not necessarily have alcohol, which has been so deeply ingrained in our social traditions. I love alcohol. We’re a company of drinkers. But we’ve had meatless Mondays, and in the same way, you can pick a day every week when you don’t have alcohol.”
Though Ritual offers a buzz-free experience, these alternatives provide the opportunity to join in the group, even if some are having the hard stuff, and enjoy a genuinely flavorful beverage with friends and family. If you’re a longtime fan of the hard stuff, you will probably be the hardest sell, but instead of thinking of Ritual as an alternative to gin or whiskey, maybe it’d be best to think of it as simply another beverage—and a good one—that happens to be booze-free.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org