Much like a perfumer challenged with recreating the scent of a familiar flower whose olfactory molecules cannot be extracted from the source—lily of the valley, hyacinth and honeysuckle, for instance—the bartender’s quest to make the perfect N/A Negroni requires deconstructing the essence of the drink and rebuilding it with an entirely different toolkit.
“You know you want it to be bitter, citrusy, with delicate sweetness and botanicals,” said Marc Rodriguez, bar manager at Atomix in New York, describing the target profile for any nonalcoholic Negroni. Tom Macy, partner in Brooklyn’s Clover Club and ready-to-drink cocktail company Social Hour, agreed: “The Negroni seems ripe for dealcoholization because it has specific flavor elements that don’t require alcohol to be there.”
In theory, ticking those flavor boxes in an N/A format has never been easier, thanks to a growing crop of nonalcoholic spirits and the shops dedicated to them, like Boisson and Spirited Away, among others.
Yet, as Rodriguez and Macy joined Punch Editor-in-Chief Talia Baiocchi, Punch Art Director Lizzie Munro, Leyenda head bartender Leanne Favre and myself to blind-taste 10 nonalcoholic Negronis, it became apparent just how difficult it is to replicate the familiar template. The drink is, after all, composed entirely of alcoholic ingredients. And while its hallmark flavors—citrus, bitterness, botanicals—can easily be mimicked sans alcohol, there’s a certain something that nearly every entrant lacked. “There’s this mystical thing that the booze brings,” said Macy. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s important.” Favre, meanwhile, knew exactly what was needed: “It’s missing heat; it’s missing structure.”
Accepting that we might never find the texture we were hoping for, the Negronis that stood out were those that had enough complexity to slow you down before taking another sip. The best versions possessed a layered botanical profile and pronounced bitterness rather than tasting, as one judge put it, “like clarified Gatorade.”
Our favorite of the bunch was, in fact, not a recipe submitted by a bartender, but a mistake that—much like the Negroni Sbagliato—worked. By omitting a gin substitute and accidentally adding Wilfred’s nonalcoholic aperitif in its place, Favre (who mixed the drinks for us at the tasting) landed on a recipe that the judges found to be one of the most bracing in the bunch. In addition to one and a quarter ounces of Wilfred’s, the recipe consisted of an equal measure of Martini Floreale, which lent the requisite vermouth character that many of the submitted recipes lacked, alongside three-quarters of an ounce of Lyre’s Italian Orange, an N/A take on an Italian red bitter. “The bitterness helps me come back for another sip rather than want to throw it back,” said Macy.
Taking second place was the equal-parts combination of Amass Riverine (a pine-forward distilled nonalcoholic spirit), Wilfred’s aperitif and Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso that “dry drinks shop” Boisson sells as its preferred “NOgroni” bundle. Though the judges did not find it particularly Negroni-esque, the drink still stood out for its interesting earthy, botanical profile that Macy described as “nudging up against root beer.” As Munro summarized, “I’m not certain it’s a Negroni, but it’s still fun.”
Third place went to Resa Mueller of R&D in Philadelphia. Her recipe consists of one and a half ounces of Abstinence Blood Orange aperitif, a half-ounce of Abstinence Cape Floral (an herbal, floral, gin-adjacent product) and a half-ounce of grapefruit honey. The drink had noticeably more body than other entrants, and it too displayed layered complexity that kept the judges wanting another sip. As Baiocchi explained, “It has a gentian-y, root-forward botanical profile that makes it not taste artificial.”
Whether any of these could stand in for their alcoholic counterpart in a blind taste test remained highly unlikely, but that isn’t necessarily a shortcoming. As Los Angeles bartender Austin Hennelly noted in our story on the rise of the Nogroni as a bartender flex, “The first thing that one needs to come to terms with on this quixotic quest to make an alcohol-free Negroni is that one is not making a Negroni.”