Build-A-Bar Goes Nonalcoholic: The 'Pony Boy' Is Born and All Is Good
Following in the path of MalĂ¶rt, I decided on a honey syrup as sweetener. I've found that keeping sweetness from dominating nonalcoholic drinks is often a significant challenge. Alcohol helps balance out sweetness in normal cocktails, providing texture at the same time. For me, honey syrup helps on both of these fronts. It has a more restrained sweetness than sugar, provides a lot more complexity and has the added benefit of bringing in significantly more viscosity than regular syrup.
Whenever I add a sweetener to a nonalcoholic cocktail, I use it as an opportunity to add flavor as well. Working with the framework of honey, grapefruit and chamomile, I decided to infuse my syrup with peppercorns; black pepper works especially well with both honey and grapefruit, bolstering their notes of spice. I made a 2:1 honey syrup by combining two parts honey and one part hot water, and added a quarter-part peppercorns to infuse the syrup. It steeped for an hour, picking up floral notes from the pepper, as well as a subtle spreading heat. Taste yours every ten minutes or so, and strain off the peppercorns when it tastes right to you.
From there, it was just a matter of playing with ratios and tweaking until the drink came together. Originally, I had thought that the grapefruit would provide sufficient acidity to balance the drink, but a bit of lemon proved necessary. Then, the chamomile proved too dominant, in a funny sort of way. In order for the mild taste to come through, it had to provide the lion's share of the volume of the drink. By that point, though, the drink became unbalanced. A bit of mellow apple cider and a brief dash of Mole bitters brought it back in line. The bitters felt a bit like cheating, and might render the drink unacceptable to anyone who had to avoid alcohol entirely, though they add up to only .1% ABV in the finished drink, if my calculations are correct. I'm planning on playing around with other ways to get the flavors and bitterness in the drink, to make it 100% free of alcohol, but I'm pretty pleased with the results as is.
2.5 oz strong chamomile tea
.50 oz black pepper honey syrup
.50 oz grapefruit
.50 oz lemon
.50 oz apple cider
Dash mole bitters
Shake briefly over ice and double-strain into a (large-ish) cocktail glass. Express and float a grapefruit coin.
(If you want to booze it back up, most any spirit will work. You could sub in applejack for the cider, or add a small measure of whisky. Half an ounce of good dry vermouth also makes a nice addition, and still keeps this a very low-alcohol drink.)
The finished drink is layered and subtle, with each of the components both coming through and combining for a balanced effect. It's bittersweet and floral with a nice spicy edge from the grapefruit and syrup, sharpness from the citrus and just a bit of astringency. For a moment there, on your first sip, you'd have no idea that anything was "missing." That's because nothing is. This isn't an alcoholic drink robbed of its pride. It doesn't taste like a glorified glass of juice or tea, and has enough complexity to stay interesting. It's also going to stay in rotation, even after this project is done.