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Have it both ways for Dry January with these cocktails that shine with or without the booze

And here's how to make other drinks that start off zero-proof but can gain strength with a splash of alcohol, if you want

By M. Carrie Allan | January 20, 2020 | Recipes

Hello, celebrants of Dry January - if "celebrants" is indeed the right term for those abstaining from drink for a month. How are you holding up? Are you counting the minutes till Feb. 1? Are you finding this tougher than you expected?

If so, have you thought about why that is?

I've written before about my mixed feelings about Dry January, which boil down to this: Alcohol, by and large, is not a healthy thing to put into your body, and if you've reached a point where you feel a real need to take a month off the sauce, you might benefit from taking even longer. For those in the booze industry, who genuinely have to drink for a living, a month off seems like a smart move, necessary to maintain sanity and health. But among us civilians who have an easier choice - in that choosing not to drink doesn't have as much capacity to impact our work - I generally think it's a smart call to treat alcohol as something for limited occasions for 12 months of the year rather than trying to collect all your bibulous health points over the course of one of them.

Enough with my quibbling, though. Live and let live, drink and let not drink. You're not here for an "ABC Afterschool Special." You're here for a cocktail.

So for our drinking guide today, let's take a page from Janus, the Roman god for whom this month was named. In fact, let's take two: Janus, after all, was often depicted with two faces, one that looks to the past and one to the future. A god of change and passage - ambivalent, capable of moving in one direction or the opposite. Likewise, these drinks, each of which starts with a brew of tasty nonalcoholic ingredients and can either stay in that form or, with an easy addition, transform into an alcoholic cocktail.

Not drinking, but have friends who are? Drinking but hosting a teetotaling chum? Generally trying to lay off the booze this month, but inclined to think everything is better in moderation, including moderation? Maybe your Dry January should just be a demi-sec. A Damp January, followed by a Frugal February, then a Mildly Moist March. (Actually, never mind that last one. I apologize for the m-word.)

However you're choosing to sip this season, these concoctions - a margarita riff with sweet strawberries and jalapeño heat, a flexible syrup bright and herbal with Meyer lemon and thyme, and a tropical fruit cooler that sips well with or without rum - will let you present something special in which both drinkers and non- can partake. They're based around flavorful nonalcoholic bases that can ladder up if you choose, but are delicious with no booze added. And should you want to play around with your own ambivalent two-faced sips, here are some tips for composing them.

- Pay your ingredients a complement. When I compose a cocktail, I usually start by thinking about the flavor of the base element, the spirit I want to use. In trying to make a dry drink (or one that could go either way), the basic principle remains the same, only the base element will be nonalcoholic: a juice, a syrup, a soda, an herb, a tea or infusion. Think of what flavors naturally work together or bring out new elements of each other. You want to build flavors that go together. And if you're planning to add a spirit later, you don't want it to be the weirdo at the party; think about how the flavors of the spirit will enhance what nonalcoholic components you've already got.

- Bring in a neutral party. I don't make a lot of cocktails with vodka, because it doesn't have a particularly strong flavor; I tend to use it where I don't want to overwhelm the subtle flavors of other ingredients. There are places where the neutrality of vodka can be hugely useful, and if you're looking to make a nonalcoholic drink that can easily ladder up into an alcoholic one, having vodka on hand is like having the cheat codes for a new game. You have your flavors already, and you're happy with them: Vodka is clean, will go with most every flavor and won't overwhelm the drink you've already created.

- Give it some teeth. One thing that nonalcoholic cocktails don't have is that sensation that spirit creates in the mouth - not actual heat, but something your tongue and taste buds register that way. Missing that intensity of mouthfeel, some dry drinks can come across as weak. But they don't have to. If you're composing a drink that won't contain alcohol (or one where the booze is optional), up the intensity in other ways. Think the intensity of tartness created by citrus juice or vinegars, the burn of peppers and ginger, the bitter tannic pleasures of dark chocolate and black tea. And toy with texture, too: the tongue-tingle of fizz, the froth of egg white or aquafaba, or the foam and crunch of a drink you've tossed into a blender and whipped up with crushed ice.

- Remember the optics. While flavor is the primary concern in composing a good drink, top craft cocktail bars will often make sure a drink also looks great. If you're trying to ensure that your guests - of all drinking stripes - feel coddled, use garnishing, color and glassware to make sure that your booze-free concoctions are just as good-looking as the loaded ones.

Strawberry-Jalapeno Non-a-Rita (or Margarita). Image: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

STRAWBERRY-JALAPENO NON-A-RITA (OR MARGARITA)

1 serving

A fruity, spicy syrup forms the base for what can either be a zippy nonalcoholic "mocktail" or a standard tequila-enhanced margarita variation, thus allowing you to satisfy both tippling and non-tippling guests. We used Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, which are widely available.

Storage Notes: The strawberry-jalapeño syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Ingredients

FOR THE STRAWBERRY-JALAPEÑO SYRUP

2 cups water

One (13-ounce) jar strawberry preserves

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 to 1 fresh jalapeño pepper, sliced into wheels, seeded if you prefer less heat

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

FOR THE DRINK

Crushed ice

2 ounces strawberry-jalapeño syrup

1 3/4 ounces fresh lime juice

2 slices fresh jalapeño pepper

1 1/2 ounces blanco tequila (optional)

Steps

Make the strawberry-jalapeño syrup: Place the water, preserves, sugar, jalapeño slices and salt in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil for 30 seconds, stirring to break up the solids in the preserves. Taste the syrup and adjust the amount of jalapeño to your liking, removing or adding some of the wheels from the mixture. Keep in mind: The drink will taste less spicy once other ingredients are added.

Reduce the heat to low and let the mixture steep for 5 to 10 minutes - the longer you steep it, the spicier it will get. Let the mixture cool slightly, then strain out and discard the solids. The recipe makes about 3 cups (enough for 8 to 12 servings of either drink).

Make the drink: Fill a rocks glass with crushed ice, then transfer the ice to a cocktail shaker. Add the syrup, lime juice, jalapeño slices and tequila (if using) and shake hard, then gently pour the cocktail, including ice, back into the glass.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

Meyer Lemon Squeeze.Image: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

MEYER LEMON SQUEEZE

1 serving

The syrup, made with the aromatic Meyer lemon, is flexible and pairs nicely with multiple nonalcoholic partners. Try it mixed over ice with Seedlip Garden 108, an herbal nonalcoholic spirit, and top it off with club soda, tonic water or lemon LaCroix - or add new notes with Dry's cucumber soda, Fever-Tree's bitter lemon, Q grapefruit or the Italian bitter orange soda, chinotto.

If you wish, use the syrup to make an alcohol-forward cocktail (we named it Meyer Lemon Lansky) by mixing over ice 1 1/2 ounces of gin or vodka with the same amount of dry vermouth and a quarter- to half-ounce of the syrup. Serve as is or garnished with fresh thyme sprig or a lemon-stuffed olive.

Storage Notes: The syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Where to Buy: Meyer lemons, slightly sweeter and more aromatic lemons, can be found at Whole Foods. Food-grade essence of bergamot, a citrus with highly fragrant peel, is available online.

Ingredients

FOR THE MEYER LEMON SYRUP:

2 Meyer lemons, peeled and quartered, reserve the peels

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups water

2 teaspoons dried thyme

2 dashes essence of bergamot (optional)

FOR THE DRINK:

Ice cubes, for serving

1 to 2 ounces Meyer Lemon Syrup, or to taste

2 to 4 ounces Seedlip Garden nonalcoholic spirit, club soda, tonic water or lemon seltzer, or more to taste (this ingredient becomes optional if using vermouth)

3 ounces Dolin dry vermouth (optional)

Fresh thyme sprigs or lemon slices, to garnish

Steps

Make the Meyer lemon syrup: Squeeze the lemon quarters into a saucepan, then add them to the pan. Add the lemon peels, sugar, water and thyme. Cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar and to press on the lemon peels and fruits to express their oils and juice. Add the bergamot essence (if using). Bring to a boil for 30 seconds, then reduce the heat to low and let the mixture sit over the lowest heat until the fruit is very soft and the peels are translucent, 10 to 20 minutes. Let the syrup cool completely; then strain out and discard the solids. You should get about 3 cups.

Make the drink: Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add the syrup, Seedlip (or club soda, tonic water or lemon seltzer), stir to combine. Alternatively, if using the optional vermouth, fill a rocks glass with ice, add the syrup and vermouth (omit the Seedlip), then top with soda water, tonic water or lemon seltzer, if desired.

For either version, garnish with thyme or lemon slice and serve.

Two-Faced Pineapple. Image: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

TWO-FACED PINEAPPLE

2 servings

A float of blackstrap rum at the end is all it takes to transform this innocent tropical fruit cooler into a boozy beach drink. You can make two servings of the "virtuous" version and serve them as is, or sully one or both with the rum. We used Vita Coco pineapple for an extra boost of pineapple flavor, but any good coconut water will work. Note that Angostura bitters are alcoholic, so while they're used in a small amount here, if you want a completely "dry" drink, leave them out.

Ingredients

Crushed ice

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon Angostura bitters

1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice

1/2 cup coconut water

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

1 sprig fresh mint (optional), for garnish

2 ounces blackstrap rum (optional)

Steps

Fill 2 tiki mugs or Collins glasses with crushed ice.

In a cocktail shaker, combine the sugar, bitters, pineapple juice, coconut water and lime, then shake hard for 30 seconds - you want to shake enough to dissolve the sugar and cause the pineapple juice to froth up a bit.

If making an alcohol-free version, pour the cocktail into the glasses to the rim, garnish with a mint sprig, if using, and serve.

If adding alcohol, when pouring the pineapple mixture over the ice, leave room at the top of the glass. Add the rum to the top of the drink and garnish with a mint sprig, if using.

Serve the drinks with straws, so the drinker can continue to stir as they sip.

This article originally appeared on The Washington Post

Feature Image: Stacy Zarin Goldberg

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