The Most Interesting New Aperitif Doesn't Have Any Alcohol
There are all kinds of reasons people don’t drink. Sometimes it’s temporary; sometimes it’s a lifestyle. While some non-alcoholic mixed drinks (don’t call it a mocktail) have become increasingly popular in recent years, a standalone bottled beverage, with all the complexity and nuance of, say, a great wine or cocktail, has yet to emerge. Until now.
Meet Proteau, a new nonalcoholic botanical aperitif developed by John deBary, Momofuku’s longtime beverage director and a former bartender at PDT in New York. The first incarnation, called Ludlow Red, is made primarily of blackberry juice, with hints of fig vinegar, chrysanthemum, black pepper, and licorice root. It has the same deep ruby hue as wine and sits smoothly and richly on the palate. Proteau is meant to be enjoyed straight from the bottle, no mixing or pouring over ice necessary. deBary recommends chilling it, then allowing it to sit at room temperature for a few minutes. That said, he’s also enjoyed it hot, like a toddy, or with soda water, as a spritz.
From the start, deBary set out to create something unusual. “Whatever everyone else is doing, I try to do… not that,” he told me. “One of the biggest reasons I wanted to make this is because there’s such a lack of credible nonalcoholic drinks—that’s changing, but it’s still nowhere near the craft renaissance we’ve seen in wine, beer, and spirits.”To create Proteau, deBary utilized his knowledge from years of mixing cocktails—focusing on balance, flavor, and complexity—and the availability of global ingredients in his home base of New York, trawling international markets like Kalustyan’s for inspiration.
He knew from industry experience that plenty of bartenders and sommeliers don’t drink at all. “Drinking is such a part of the job, it’s nice to have an option to step back to that doesn’t sacrifice interestingness,” deBary said. “A lot of mocktails or nonalcoholic sodas are really sweet or acidic, and it’s really nice to have something a little more moody and mysterious, with a smooth texture. Most non-drinkers don’t even realize that’s what they’re missing until they try it, and then it’s like, oh my god, where have you been?!”
At the moment, deBary is only making one variant, the Ludlow Red, but he has plans for a light, sparkling version akin to a spritz set for release this spring. “The structure of everything I make will be based around botanicals, fruit flavors, something bitter, something floral, and a bit of fancy vinegar,” he says. “I’ll use that formula with different ingredients to create things that are lighter, darker, heavier, smoother, and so on, building out this world from different plants and seeing where it takes me.”
Proteau’s tagline is “drink for pleasure,” and that’s very much on purpose. “I think a lot of people associate nonalcoholic drinks with anti-hedonism, or with something that might seem kind of sad or lesser-than. My goal is to prove that you can make a nonalcoholic drink with the same amount of culinary integrity, complexity, and persistence on the palate,” deBary says. He emphasis that Proteau is not intended to serve as a replacement or replica of an alcoholic drink. “It’s meant to be its own thing, and it’s meant to be delicious.”
Ludlow Red is available in a limited-release two-bottle pack online and is being sold in New York at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Momofuku Ko, Dirt Candy, and ACME, among others. California distribution will begin early next year, with plans to go national shortly thereafter.
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