Zero-Proof Sangria (for Dry January)

My husband and I are 16 days into our alcohol-free pledge to start the new year. For the most part, I have not minded this experiment of Dry January. The break from alcohol has already had some positive effects on my body; most noticeably, I feel more hydrated in ways that I did not expect. My skin and hair are not as parched, despite the recent cold snap that has kept us indoors with the heat running constantly. I have found more focus and energy for tasks that need to be done around the house, so that’s a good thing. And I am astonished at how much more sleep I am getting, and that alone makes it worth the sacrifice. Still, I have caught myself counting the days, making it unlikely that this would become a permanent lifestyle change.

When my husband and I made the decision to give our bodies a break from alcohol, we guessed correctly that the biggest challenge to our lifestyle would come on Friday nights. Our ritual, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been to finish the work week with (usually bourbon) cocktails, homemade pizza and, whenever it was scheduled, Quarantunes, the Facebook Live concert featuring our pals Glenn and Oria Alexander.

Ahead of the first dry weekend, I threw all my creative effort into an attempt at zero-proof cocktails. In my mixology experimenting over the past couple of years, I have already learned how valuable infused simple syrups can be for delivering extra flavors into a drink, so that is where I started my chemistry challenge.

For Les, I whipped up a smoky, spicy cherry simple syrup—featuring smoked black peppercorn, pink peppercorn, unsweetened black cherry juice and real vanilla paste—to mimic the essence of an Old Fashioned. For myself, I made another simple syrup—steeped with white peppercorns and coriander seed—and it had a nice balance of bite and spice that I thought could be a reasonable stand-in for tequila in either a paloma- or margarita-style drink. I liked this one so much that I named it “white-hot syrup,” and I expect that I will use it in real cocktails at some point in the future.

When Friday night arrived, I pulled out all my usual tools for cocktail setup—my mixing glass, shaker, citrus juicer, bitters, rocks glasses and giant ice cubes. Only it wasn’t as easy as mixing up real drinks, which I have had plenty of practice doing. I was a novice again, and I measured, squeezed, stirred, tasted, adjusted, stirred again, tasted again and finally ended up with a couple of drinks that were enjoyable.


Les’s drink had the smoky black cherry syrup, mixed with freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a couple shakes of orange bitters and a slight splash of oak wood tonic (an interesting find that I’ll describe in a moment), and I even garnished it with a ribbon of blood orange peel and a Luxardo cherry. For my own drink, I blended the white-hot syrup in a shaker with fresh lemon, lime and orange, plus coconut water. I strained it into a salt-rimmed rocks glass, tossed in an orange peel and it called it a “mock-arita.”

Finally, our faux cocktails!

They turned out beautiful, but I spent so much time in the kitchen fiddling with these faux drinks that I missed 35 minutes of Quarantunes, which was the whole purpose of Friday night “cocktails.” And then, cleanup, which was sticky and ridiculous. This past Friday night, I decided on a better, simpler alternative—a zero-proof sangria! I appreciated that I could make it (and adjust to taste) ahead of time so that enjoying it on Friday night was only a matter of pouring it over ice and dressing it up with fresh fruit. No muss, no fuss. More time for pizza and Quarantunes. Perfect!

These were fruity, spicy and delicious. Exactly what we needed for Friday night, and no hangover or sluggish feeling on Saturday morning! 🙂

The base of my zero-proof sangria was a “de-alcoholized” Merlot wine. I have seen no-alcohol “wines” before, but for the most part, they were just unfermented, unsweetened grape juice. In other words, flat and mostly flavorless. But a de-alcoholized wine has gone through the process of fermentation, and then has the alcohol removed, either by vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis, just before bottling. It is a fascinating concept, and one that is gaining traction with a significant audience of adults who aim to reduce their booze consumption, whether short-term or for good.


So how does this de-alcoholized wine taste? I’ll be honest—it’s different. I do taste the Merlot in this bottle, but it is missing the complexity and (obviously) the bite of real wine. I chose this for its base flavor but also its lack of sweetness, as I planned to jazz up our sangria with a few sweet ingredients. If I had used any regular grape juice, the sangria would have been cloyingly sweet, not to mention that it would have smacked of Welch’s grape jelly flavor.

I enhanced the dry “wine” with some of the smoky black cherry simple syrup that I had made the first weekend (recipe is included below), plus cinnamon syrup (also below), fresh citrus, unsweetened black cherry juice, ginger-berry kombucha and (again) the oak wood tonic. This tonic, on its own, has a sharp and bitter flavor with distinctive woodsy flavor. It’s an acquired taste, and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate on its own. But blended with the other ingredients, it brings a just-right, edgy bite to make my zero-proof sangria feel more “Friday night worthy.”

Cheers!

I would absolutely make this again, for myself or for guests who prefer to abstain from alcohol. There are still plenty of ingredients in my pantry and spice cabinet to experiment with in these remaining days of Dry January, and I’m sure if I keep at it, I’ll discover the perfect formula for amazing zero-proof cocktails. Of course by then, it will be February. 😊


Ingredients for Zero-Proof Sangria

1/2 bottle de-alcoholized Merlot wine (Pinot Noir variety would also be good)

1 large blood orange, washed and sliced thin

1 good-size lime, washed and sliced thin

3 oz. smoky-spicy black cherry syrup (recipe follows)

1 oz. cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)

4 oz. unsweetened black cherry juice

2 oz. tonic water (San Pellegrino Oak Wood Tonica, if you can find it)


For each serving:

1 oz. berry flavored kombucha (adds a “fermented” flavor)

1 oz. strong ginger beer (adds bite and effervescence)

Fresh slice of citrus to garnish


Instructions

Load the citrus slices into a 1-liter carafe or pitcher. Add the simple syrups, black cherry juice, de-alcoholized wine and tonic. Stir to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

At serving time, fill 10 oz. glasses about 2/3 with ice. Pour kombucha and ginger beer over ice. Give the sangria a good stir to blend ingredients that may have settled. Pour over the ice to the top of each glass. Garnish with fresh citrus.


Smoky-Spicy Black Cherry Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup unsweetened black cherry juice in a saucepan. Add 3/4 cup organic cane sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, to dissolve sugar. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to lightly crush 2 tsp. smoked black peppercorns and 1 tsp. pink peppercorns. Add to the syrup and stir to blend. When syrup reaches a slight boil, remove from heat. Add 1/2 tsp. real vanilla paste. Cool completely and strain into a canning jar. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cinnamon Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup organic cane sugar in a saucepan. Add 3 pieces of cinnamon stick (each about 3” long) and bring syrup to a slight simmer. Continue to steep the cinnamon in the syrup until it is completely cool. Strain into a jar or bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.



Autumn at the Beach Sangria

In my book, the only thing better than autumn is a trip to the beach during autumn. My husband, Les, and I turned fantasy to reality last week, with a long overdue getaway to the North Carolina coast. Our trip was a make-good of sorts, given that our plans to go last year were totally thwarted by a snarky storm named Hurricane Dorian, which showed up just in time to force evacuation.

Being at the beach in October is the best of everything—clear skies, warm water, small crowds—and our weather was spectacular for the five days we spent there. One of the first things we did, of course, was map out a plan for snacks and drinks. I knew that Les would enjoy fruity, tropical drinks, and I planned to make autumn-spiced sangria for myself. What I didn’t expect was discovering a way to merge the two. Lo and behold, with some creative blending that’s exactly what happened with this sangria, and we both loved it.

The tropical notes came from fruit juices (pineapple and mango), plus this dandy summer edition Captain Morgan rum, which tastes like a creamsicle dipped in rum. And I had made a simple syrup using autumn spice herbal tea bags, which infused the whole blend with aromatic cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and vanilla. The resulting sangria was all at once fruity, spicy, tropical, sweet and totally refreshing. We were dipping our toes into the waters of the cooler season, but hanging onto summer for dear life!

Yes, it really was this perfect.

I’m sneaking this sangria into my series of Halloween-inspired cocktails, even though it technically doesn’t have a darn thing to do with the occasion. But it scared away all of our stress and exhaustion, so there’s that. Maybe you could think of it as the drink version of that one trick-or-treater who always shows up on your doorstep without a costume. Just go with it. 😀


Ingredients

We liked this sangria so much, I made another batch when we got home from the beach!

1/2 bottle fruity Spanish red wine (I used a tempranillo blend)

4 oz. Captain Morgan Caribbean rum (orange and vanilla twist flavor)

4 oz. autumn spice simple syrup* (1:1 sugar-water blend, steeped with 4 tea bags)

4 oz. pineapple juice

4 oz. mango juice

1/2 navel orange, cleaned and thinly sliced

1/2 Meyer lemon, cleaned and thinly sliced

1/2 lime, cleaned and thinly sliced

Club soda or flavored seltzer (optional, poured on top at serving)

*Notes

I made a batch of the spiced simple syrup ahead of our trip. We also used it to add pizazz to a bourbon old fashioned, which was pretty awesome, too. Heat 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan to the boiling point. Turn off heat and steep the “Fireside Vanilla Spice” herbal tea bags for about 15 minutes. Remove the tea bags, heat to low boil again and add 1/2 cup sugar. Stir until dissolved, then cool completely and store in a covered jar in the fridge up to one month.


Instructions

Add fruit slices to a pitcher or large bottle, then add wine, rum, syrup and juices. Stir to combine. Steep several hours or overnight to blend. Serve over ice. Top with additional rum float if desired. Enjoy it with someone you love, preferably while watching the ocean.