I saw a whiskey available on Amazon.com the other week. Which is strange — Amazon doesn’t sell whiskey. (I’m sure that’s somewhere in their future plans to take over the universe, though.) And sure enough, when I looked deeper into the product I actually became even more intrigued — it wasn’t a whiskey: it was an alcohol free “whiskey alternative”.
There’s a problem with whiskey. It’s absolutely delicious, but you can only drink a small quantity before becoming impaired. Which is bad news for parties or happy hours where you need to drive home, or the occasional hangover the following morning. So a few years ago, three friends had an idea: what if you could make something that tasted like a spirit and made good cocktails, but without the intoxicating effects or the calories?
Launched in 2019, Ritual is a Chicago based company founded by novelist Marcus Sakey, his wife GG Sakey, and best friend David Crooch. The goal was to use botanical ingredients to mirror the smell, appearance, taste, and even the burn of alcohol but without the actual alcohol. The company remains privately owned, and in 2020 sold a small minority stake to the British distilled spirits giant Diageo.
The marketing materials are light on the details of how this product is made, which I suspect is because the process is proprietary and really the “special sauce” that they want to keep secret.
What we do know is that, according to Ritual, this whiskey alternative starts as a set of botanicals that are distilled to extract the flavors within, and then blended to achieve the right flavor profile. According to their website the specific ingredients are:
Filtered water, cane sugar, natural flavors, Xanthan gum, citric acid, sodium benzoate & potassium sorbate as preservatives.
As you might notice, there is indeed sugar in this whiskey. The company claims that it’s such a small amount that it doesn’t even register as more than two calories worth.
Overall, this looks exactly like a standard whiskey bottle. Normally, I wouldn’t consider that to be a good thing — unique bottles are part of the entertainment with whiskey — but for something that isn’t whiskey (but wants to be part of that world), going with a standard design makes sense. The company is all about the ritual of whiskey drinking only without the alcohol content, so using standard whiskey bottles is right on target to make you feel like you’re drinking ‘real’ whiskey.
The label does hit my biggest pet peeve, but here I think that might be a strategic move instead of just a visual choice. Usually, you like to see the contents of the bottle… but in this case the contents are actually a bit cloudy. I don’t think that would be very appealing for many whiskey drinkers, so they chose to cover it up as much as possible with a big white label that has some minimalist printing on it. You can still see the contents over the top and bottom, but it isn’t nearly as prominent as the label.
Can’t fault them for that design decision. In this case, I don’t actually want to see what’s in here, and the label looks much better.
The liquid is cloudier than normal whiskey, but the rust color is spot on. It looks approximately like a whiskey but just a little… off.
The aroma coming off the glass is decidedly floral. I get notes of honey, graham cracker, nutmeg, and fresh flowers — it’s like walking into a florist shop and and a bakery, simultaneously. Not usually things you associate with American whiskey, but it might be close to something you’d see in Scotland or Japan.
Taking a sip, this certainly isn’t whiskey. Immediately there’s a bit of a flavor like diluted lemonade, a bit of mango and apricot, followed by some honey, maybe a hint of vanilla and caramel, and then there’s a slow build of red pepper spice that starts and lasts through the aftertaste.
I think that spice is what they are trying to use to approximate the burning sensation from the alcohol content in a whiskey — and, while I appreciate the attempt, I think these efforts are directed in the wrong place. With a whiskey, the burn is up front usually and more immediate, but here that burn takes a while to develop and lingers for quite some time. More delayed, longer in length, and a different kind of burn.
Once the red pepper spice starts kicking in, that’s pretty much the end of the flavors. I might see a bit of lemon hanging around at the end, but that one component covers up everything else and takes over the show.
Ice almost completely destroys the flavors in here. None of the components are really rich or well-saturated enough to keep their composure with the addition of some dilution and the lower temperature.
What’s left in the glass is primarily the nutmeg and a bit of cinnamon spice, some mango flavor, and the red pepper spice. The burn comes a little quicker this time, but I’m not sure whether that’s a result of the previous glass I had of this neat making me more sensitive or if that’s a real change.
A quick note on the mango, as that’s the most prominent thing now: I think the addition of the sugar cane is what’s bringing this to a fruity place — without it, those flavors would probably be closer to the oak-y vanilla based flavors that we see in a real whiskey.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
What you have here is a lighter, fruitier version of a whiskey… something close to a scotch. Usually, we’d stop after the neat preparation if this actually were a scotch (or a faux-scotch) — but as this specifically advertises that it works in cocktails, we’re treating it like any other American whiskey.
To be fair, there is some balance going on in the old fashioned here. But the added angostura bitters are throwing the flavor profile all over the place. I think the thing that this reminds me of the most is a vodka cranberry with some seltzer water in it… but one that someone added chili powder to as a kicker.
I don’t hate it, actually. It isn’t terrible as a cocktail, and it might be downright drinkable… but it isn’t an old fashioned.
I might be a strange duck in that I enjoy a mule with a kick. I like a little spice added into the cocktail, either through some muddled jalapenos or by using a spicy whiskey like the Still Austin Mother Pepper. Which might be why I kinda like this.
There are some good things going on here — the ginger beer is being toned down nicely by the other aspects in the cocktail, and there’s a spicy quality that adds some uniqueness to the flavor profile. It doesn’t have many of the darker and richer tones that I’d expect from an American bourbon, but instead is much closer to a penicillin cocktail. Fruity and herbal, not so much dark and rich.
To me, this isn’t likely to be confused anytime soon for a whiskey. This doesn’t really pass as an American whiskey (and definitely isn’t anywhere near a bourbon), but it might be able to sneak around disguised as a Highland scotch whisky. I could see it being used in some of those cocktails, but taken on its own it is pretty clearly something different.
Which, I think, is where Ritual was going with this. They say it straight out in their marketing material that they didn’t intend to replace whiskey, but instead provide something unique and different that had some of the same qualities. In that sense, I think this does a great job of being a novel new ingredient on the cocktail bar, bringing new and interesting flavors to the party. (And it’s handy to have on hand if you have guests who don’t drink alcohol and need to whip up a mocktail.)
I’d definitely recommend giving it a try if only for the experience. It tastes pretty good all on its own and doesn’t have any major issues, the only problems arise when you expect it to taste exactly like a whiskey.
And that’s where I think the marketing is doing it a disservice — by labeling it as a “whiskey alternative”, that flavor expectation is set right up front. So when the flavor doesn’t match the expectation, I wouldn’t be surprised if people write it off immediately.
|Ritual Zero Proof Whiskey Alternative|
Produced By: RitualProduction Location: Illinois, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Price: $24.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
Worth a shot or two. Or better yet, a cocktail or two. Just don’t expect it to be a whiskey.