How Much Alcohol Do Bitters Contribute to a Non-Alcoholic Drink?
November 12, 2020
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.
A dash is "little less than one milliliter" according to this post. According to this 1/8 tsp is a dash and that's .6ml.
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.
Now let's look if we used a non-alcoholic spirit in the five-ounce drink along with bitters.
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.
All of these calculations are basically rationalizations for adding alcohol to an allegedly non-alcoholic drink. There is no reason to go to these lengths to justify adding bitters.
If someone tells you they don’t drink alcohol, they have a reason. It may be:
For health reasons, for which two dashes of bitters may or may not be OK.
They are teetotalers, for whom any alcohol whatsoever may be at best disrespectful.
They are alcoholics, for whom any alcohol is a violation of their decision not to drink.
This is too personal territory for a party host or drink-offering friend to enter. Cocktails are not the venue in which to divine whether you can add a little alcohol without causing a problem. The solution is simple: If someone tells you they don’t drink alcohol, don’t give them alcohol, period. Ask them what they’d like to drink and honor their preference. That’s what a good friend would do.
Posted by: Ed Stannard | November 12, 2020 at 07:45 PM
@Ed - There are many reasons people don't drink, and the calculation of how much alcohol bitters contribute to a cocktail is one of a large number of parameters to what makes a non-alcoholic cocktail and what makes a cocktail appropriate for a sober person. There are lots of great discussions going on about this post on FB now. This post isn't permission for anyone to do anything; hopefully it's part of the decision-making process.
Posted by: Camper English | November 13, 2020 at 08:28 AM
Great intel, thanks as always for sharing and showing your work.
Posted by: Sother Teague | November 13, 2020 at 12:46 PM
Camper, I think you did the right thing by sounding a note of caution. I am surprised some bar owners would be interested in taking the risk on this, either on the odd chance that even a legally non-alcoholic drink (or a simple bartender error in the proportions) could still trigger a physiological problem for a recovering alcoholic; or by unnecessarily alienating a customer who didn't understand the owner was using a legal definition instead of a literal one.
What is the motivation on operating on the edge of the legal definition? Is it just that it is hard to come up with satisfying strictly alcohol free substitutes?
Posted by: David E. Nardolillo | November 26, 2020 at 09:43 AM
@David - Yes, it's hard to get the depth of flavor and drinks that taste adult, rather than just a glass of juices, without extracting the traditional bitter botanicals via alcohol. That's why all the 0.0% n/a spirits tend to be silty rather than pure liquids. There's the added factor that if bartenders could use ingredients that they have on hand at the bar already like bitters, they could make good n/a drinks without buying a new set of ingredients.
Anyway, for me doing this math made me realize both that a couple dashes of bitters = using Seedlip in a legally n/a cocktail and that it's super unlikely to have any physical impact. However at these levels for many non-drinkers it's not the physical impact that's the problem.
Posted by: Camper English | November 29, 2020 at 10:32 AM
Thus was jnteresting, my husband is recovering ftom pancretitis and has been told NO alcohol unless he wants excruciating pain, m I re hospital emergency rooms and the possibility of an extremely painful and debilitating chronic condition. So when opting gor a drink lemon lime&bitters-then I remembered bitters have alcohol so I thi u ght I'd find out how much...still to kuch for zero alcohol...so he will keep looking for and adult drink with zero alcohol .... thanks for the info cheers
Posted by: Ailsa McQuade | October 15, 2022 at 08:16 PM
Thank you for this explanation and break down. This helps me with making my NA drinks (for myself). Personally the little bit of alcohol added to my drink is not enough to cause an issue for me. Normal amount of alcohol, like those found in a glass of wine or something, mess with my medication. This small amount however is fine and does add a lot of flavor to my NA drinks. This makes me feel more at peace!
Posted by: Bailli | November 18, 2022 at 10:56 AM