The Unexpected Treat (a mocktail for whisky drinkers)

A simple rocks glass sits on a glass tabletop, filled with a fizzing, dark brown, iced drink with a wedge of lemon floating at the near side of the glass. Behind the glass, a book lies open on the table, pages spreading like a fan.

I’m a big fan of an evening tipple to cap off my day: a bottle of beer or glass of wine with dinner, a highball while watching TV, a cocktail with friends. Often, however, it’s not the right time or situation for alcohol: I’m on antibiotics, I’m hanging out with friends in recovery, I’m doing detail work, whatever. In those situations there are, of course, a whole panoply of nonalcoholic drinks available. It’s not as if we’re at a loss for beverages that happen not to contain alcohol.

Sometimes, though, my desires and my circumstances come into conflict, because I’d really like a nice bracing cocktail, something rich and spicy and bitter. (When it comes to liquors, I gravitate toward the browns: rums and bourbons and scotches, the darker and funkier the better.) This becomes a problem, because if you go traipsing into the land of mocktails, it’s mostly sweet and pastel-colored.

The drink sits on a glass table, dark brown and inviting. In the background, a book with age-yellowed pages is held open by a black smartphone.

And that’s really great, if you like sweet, fruity drinks — but I don’t. And while the field’s not entirely barren, the list of mocktails-for-people-who-like-whisky is pretty short, especially compared to the scores of fruit-juice-and-fizzy-water drinks out there. And so I started trying to make my own. I thought about the characteristics of whisky — what  makes it whisky in flavor? There’s some smoke, some sweetness, a woody background, sometimes even a hint of floralness. But it’s all cloaked in a bite and a burn.

I had some dead ends along the way. I can tell you that liquid smoke, while it seems like a smart idea, pretty much always ends up giving a weird hotdog note. Vinegars aren’t bad, per se, but they always end up tasting a bit like a wine cocktail or a shrub: interesting, but wrong. Vanilla’s just really strong, and though it’s a valid flavor component in whiskies, unless you’re batching something up it’s really hard to get its concentration low enough to not be overpowering.

A gray marble mortar is filled with swampy looking liquid: greenish leaves floating in a brown liquid. It looks medicinal, and maybe a little magical.

What does work? Well… maple syrup’s in there. Not surprising: it’s subtly sweet, woody, sometimes even smoky. Pomegranate molasses is in there too, giving some sharpness and body to the whole thing. The dark horse, though, is sweet soy sauce: thick, salty, sweet, a little musty. When I mentioned this to friends, many were concerned: doesn’t it taste like, well, soy sauce? But it doesn’t! Instead, it adds a richness to the drink that really brings it together. The other magic elements are a good amount of woody herbs and peppercorns, steeped in boiling water to make a strong herb extract that makes the whole thing aromatic and slightly spicy.

Combined with some tonic water and a big wedge of lemon, it’s a little bitter, a little sweet, a little astringent, a little sour, and a whole lot tasty. Drink with good cheer, and enjoy the sunshine with a bracing drink in hand — hold the alcohol.

The Unexpected Treat with a totally expected book: we see the drink from above, a solid mass of ice, lemon, and fizz. It sits next to an open book; the text is out of focus and unreadable.

The Unexpected Treat (a mocktail for whisky drinkers)

  • Servings: 2 short drinks
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Finally: a mocktail for people who like whisky! This drink combines a number of strong herbal flavors and complex natural sweeteners to make a drink that — though I’ll freely admit it doesn’t take like whisky — hits all the sensory buttons my tastebuds are looking for in a mixed drink. If you’re a brown liquor drinker, but would like to skip the booze this time around, this drink’s for you.

A couple of the ingredients may be unfamiliar: pomegranate molasses is simply the concentrated juice of the pomegranate, and can be found at Middle Eastern stores (and increasingly in mainstream groceries). Orange blossom water is a very strong floral extract, also common in Middle Eastern preparations. Sweet soy sauce is a thick, sweet-salty sauce from Indonesia, also called kecap manis; if you can’t find it, the internet tells me you could probably get away from equal parts brown sugar and non-sweet soy sauce, maybe with a touch of molasses.


1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp rubbed sage
1/2 tsp dried rosemary leaves
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 c boiling water

1 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 tsp sweet soy sauce
1 tsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp orange blossom water

2 wedges lemon
Tonic water


In a small bowl or ramekin, combine the herbs and pepper, and pour the boiling water over. Let steep five minutes, then strain off the liquid (discard the solids).

Combine the herb-and-pepper water with the pomegranate molasses, sweet soy sauce, maple syrup, and orange blossom water. Divide evenly between two rocks glasses.

Squeeze a lemon wedge into each glass (drop in the wedge afterward), add 3-6 ice cubes to each, and fill with tonic water.


The orange blossom water adds a nice tinge of floral scent, but if you don’t have it around don’t sweat it; you can leave it out.

With a small amount of ice this is a much more bitter and astringent beverage, because the tonic is more present. If you’d like it a little smoother, add more ice. You might also substitute soda water for some or all of the tonic — I personally find the drink a little bland with soda only, but trust your taste buds.


3 responses to “The Unexpected Treat (a mocktail for whisky drinkers)

  1. This is intriguing. I’m not a huge whisky fan (or any of the “browns” to be honest) but this mix of ingredients sounds amazing – a bit weird, but sufficiently witchy to really interest me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This recipe was a great leaping-off point for me! Your wild flavor combos emboldened me to try a few variations. I really like adding some clove and anise to the boil– the clove provides a sort of tongue-numbing quality that alcohol would otherwise impart, and the anise provides another sharp aromatic. Thanks for posting your experiment!

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