I was a speaker on a panel for Tales of the Cocktail 2020 in which I said that we should be careful about bitters in non-alcoholic cocktails. In my experience, if you ask someone who orders a non-alcoholic cocktail if "a dash of alcohol is okay" to put bitters in the drink, most people get uncomfortable with the conversation and then almost all of them say no. So I stopped offering.
When you ask someone if a touch of alcohol is okay, you're really asking them to agree to drinking alcohol even when they're just told you they'll have the non-alcoholic drink. For several different segments of people who are not drinking, this is like asking "will you violate your sobriety a little bit?" and I've come to see it as inappropriate.
After the talk I had a nice chat with Camille Vidal of La Maison Wellness, who has also been thinking about the impact of bitters. The real question was not so much about asking someone if they want to take alcohol in their drink, but what if the impact of bitters in a cocktail is so insignificant that we can skip the question and use them anyway?
We know that products legally allowed to be labelled as "non-alcoholic" can have up to .5 percent alcohol in them. We also know that some food products like bananas and orange juice and even bread can have tiny percentages of alcohol in them.
Out of the conversation we decided it would be interesting to do the math.
What is the alcoholic impact of alcoholic bitters in a non-alcoholic cocktail?
We'll use Angostura bitters to figure it out. Angostura bitters are 44.7% ABV
How much is a Dash?
According to Don Lee, 41 dashes equals one liquid ounce. (this is .7 ml per dash). Dave Arnold in Liquid Intelligence puts it at .8ml.
I decided to say we're adding 2 dashes or 1.5 ml of alcoholic bitters to a non-alcoholic drink.
1 fluid ounce is approximately 30ml
To calculate the ABV of a drink, our math is:
Volume of each alcoholic component x ABV% Divided by Total Volume of Drink
For a one ounce cocktail with 2 dashes of bitters = 1.5ml X 45% / 30ml = .02 = 2 percent
For a two ounce cocktail with 2 dashes of bitters = 1.5ml X 45% / 60ml = .01125 = 1.12 percent
For a three ounce cocktail with 2 dashes of bitters = 1.5ml X 45% / 90ml = .00755 = .75 percent
For a four ounce cocktail with 2 dashes of bitters = 1.5ml X 45% / 120 ml = .005625 = .562 percent
For a five ounce cocktail with 2 dashes of bitters = 1.5ml X 45% / 150 ml = .0045 = .45 percent
First Conclusion: If you want to make a cocktail that's legally non-alcoholic with 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, the cocktail must be 5 ounces in volume and contain no other alcohol.
A non-alcoholic spirit like Seedlip must be less than .5 percent ABV. We'll use a Non-Alcoholic Daiquri as an example:
If we didn't add bitters, we'd have:
60 ml N/A Spirit at .5% + 30 ml lime + 30 ml simple + 30 ml dilution + = .3 / 150 = .2 percent ABV cocktail.
And with bitters plus n/a spirit, we have:
60 ml N/A Spirit at .5% + 30 ml lime + 30 ml simple + 30 ml dilution + 1.5ml Angostura bitters at 45% = .3 + .675 / 150 = .65 percent.
A 5-ounce cocktail with 2 ounces of non-alcoholic spirit base and 2 dashes of bitters is barely over the .5 ABV limit, still under 1 percent ABV.
Second Conclusion: The bitters in a cocktail with n/a spirit contribute more alcohol to the overall drink than the "non-alcoholic spirit," as the bitters are so concentrated in alcohol.
Final Boss Conclusion: If you wanted to serve legally non-alcoholic (<.5%) cocktails with bitters, you can
- Use non-alcoholic bitters, such as the ones from Dram Apothecary
- Make sure the drink is at least 5 ounces (including dilution) in volume for cocktails with 2 dashes of bitters
- If you want to make the drink with a non-alcoholic spirit base like Seedlip, dial down the bitters to one dash or leave them out to stay within the legal limit if your drink is 5 oz or less.