The adult world was awash in alcohol, and I knew one day I would be able to drink as many real, rum-filled piña coladas as I wanted. And I did. I drank so many that I had to stop, and now I can never, ever, ever drink real piña coladas again.
Now hear me out: I love my sobriety, and I love a good nonalcoholic cocktail, but virgin piña coladas make me feel like I’ve been demoted to the kids table. Without the rum, piña coladas lose more than flavor — they lose their entire vibe.
And so, just as the countless teetotalers had before me, I begrudgingly settled for inferior poolside piña coladas. I did without daiquiris. I made do without mojitos and mai tais. Come winter, my coquito wouldn’t be quite as festive, and though my shivering body could find warmth in a mug of hot buttered water, it found no comfort.
But things have changed. We live in an age of miracles; a time where food is delivered by robots and there are restaurants meant for dogs. A time when you can walk into a liquor store, ask for a bottle of nonalcoholic rum and be asked, “Which one?”
When you go from having no choices to having many, it’s hard to make sense of what rum even is, or to know what exactly you want from it.
Rum comes from sugar cane, and the best sugar cane for rum grows in and around the Caribbean Basin. The distillation of a single tropical ingredient yields a world of tropical notes, and for a nonalcoholic rum to be convincing, it needs to taste like more than just sugar.
“Rum is a tropical drink, and the flavors in a good zero-proof rum should reflect that.” says Emily Heintz, founder of nonalcoholic bottle shop Sèchey in New York City. “Behind the sugar, there should be fruity flavors like citrus, pineapple, mango or papaya, as well as spices and aromas found in tropical terroir, like vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper.”
With that in mind, I tried every nonalcoholic rum I could easily get my hands on. Though fully dry shops like Sèchey remain a rarity, it’s no longer uncommon to see a local liquor store testing the temperance waters, or a back bar with a range of substitute spirits lined neatly in a row. If you’re in no rush for your rum, online specialty sites such as Boisson and Better Rhodes offer well-curated selections of alcohol-free beverages.
While I remain ecstatic for the very existence of nonalcoholic white rum, I have yet to find one worth its price tag. Nonalcoholic spirits may be more popular than ever, but they’re still a niche product, making them more expensive than their mass-distilled boozy counterparts. They’re a splurge purchase for when you want to treat yourself to something special or, like my beloved frozen piña coladas, something sorely missed. I’m optimistic that we will one day have a white rum alternative that meets the standards for a splurge, but alas, we are not there just yet.
Dark rum, however, is a different story. That’s because, with complex, strongly flavored spirits, nonalcoholic distillers have more variables to play with, and more routes to explore in their quest to make something that tastes (almost) like the real thing. Are they perfect replicas? Of course not, because rum tastes like alcohol, but these nonalcoholic rum alternatives are good enough to create the illusion of the “grown-up” cocktails I still crave.
Here’s a look at six to consider and ways to sip them and mix them up.
Bold and boisterous, this rum alternative follows its assertive spice notes with vanilla, citrus and oak. Lovely in a mojito, a daiquiri, or any place else rum likes to play with a spot of sugar and a squirt of fresh citrus. $35
Notes of roasted banana, with a smack of spicy warmth at the tail end mean Ritual’s spirit alternatives are meant for mixed drinks. Use this in easy cocktails where rum delights in making its presence known, like rum and cola. $29.99
Seir Hill Biscayne is made for cocktails, with bold notes of dark molasses and charred oak, hints of vanilla and black raspberry, and fierce gingery bite that cuts through any mixer. $34.99
With a slightly sweet spirit with strong notes of caramel and vanilla, this one is best used in sweet drinks, particularly of the tiki variety. $36
The color and flavor of a beautifully golden caramel, this bottle has toasty notes of clove, star anise and cayenne pepper. Try it in sweetened drinks like Hot Buttered Rum, or a Bee’s Knees. $29.99
Behind the warmth of island spices are fruity hints of pineapple, coconut and lime. It’s lovely when paired with something simple that lets it properly shine, like ginger ale. $31.99