Never mind what T.S. Eliot once blathered on about two decades before getting back on track with The Cocktail Party—there is no crueler month than January. Think about it for a minute as you stare out at the endless monsoons that have ushered in 2021.
Traditionally, for all of December the rules and guidelines that apply to the other 11 months of the year go out the window. Happy hour starts with Mad Men-do-Christmas style lunches, where one martini is an appetizer for the next three. Eggnog is consumed by the gallon, with little care that one is pounding back a defibrillator-taxing mixture of raw eggs, whipping cream, half-and-half, whiskey, brandy, rum, and 30 times the daily amount of sugar recommended by Health Canada.
And there’s no point limiting oneself to three or four cans of Granville Island Lions Winter Ale when you’ve got a couple of two-fours in the fridge and three more lurking under the tree.
From living a gloriously sedentary lifestyle on the couch watching Bad Santa and Black Christmas to endlessly stuffing one’s face full of rum balls, shortbread, and mincemeat tarts from dawn until dusk, December is all about glorious fucking excess. And that went double last year thanks to the everlasting shitshow known as COVID-19. Which explains why so many of us are white-knuckling it through Semi-Dry January.
The key word there is semi. Unless you ended up with gout, or spent December drinking enough to make Shane MacGowan seem like a pillar of restraint, there’s no real reason to lay off the liquor full-time in the cruelest month of the year. Raise a stir stick if you’ve chosen the three/four split, which is to say breaking out the cocktail shaker on hump day and weekends, and going dry the other four. Except, that is, on days when friends drop by—sorry Dr. Bonnie Henry, but sometimes you weigh the odds and crank Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name". Or when an event so horrific happens, as in Donald Trump’s Capitol catastrophe, that something is needed to take the edge off.
But most days this January you’ve tried to be good—which is another way of saying boring. Which is no fun, because half the joy of being a hard-core cocktail nerd is creating, whether that’s charring cedar planks and hunting down wild cherry bark in the name of a better bitter, or crafting a perfect Clarence Oddbody Flaming Rum Punch.
Luckily there are options for not only a Semi-Dry January but a dry one. Far-flung locales with less-than-tolerant attitudes towards liquor—think Dubai—have embraced brands like Arkay, which makes alcohol-free riffs on scotch, rum, and tequila.
Australia’s Lyre produces highly decorated zero-proof offerings like London Spirit Gin, American Malt Whiskey, and Italian Orange, all of which have one thing in common: you can pop the top, chug them dry, and then drive to the corner store for a bag of Dorito’s Chile-Limón Dinamitas without breaking the law. Get ready for day-drinking without the hangover that comes with running over the neighbour’s dog and hockey net before taking out three garbage cans in the alley, crashing into a mini-van of nuns, and then leading the 6 o’clock news.
Sweden-based Ceder’s has moved into Canada with a whole range of zero-proof botanical offerings great for creating complex and layered mocktails. Ceder’s Classic is distilled with juniper, coriander, and geranium; Ceder’s Crisp incorporates juniper, citrus, cucumber, and camomile; and Ceder’s Wild brings clove, ginger, juniper, and South African rooibos to the alcohol-free party. Substitute in a Singapore Sling or Rosemary Gimlet to keep your Dry January streak intact.
You don’t have to make the trek overseas to find zero-proof offerings. The folks behind British Columbia’s Sheringham distillery are now producing Lumette! Bright Light Alt-Spirit and Lumette! London Dry, both made with botanicals that make a sensible substitute for Kazuki or Sipsmith in a gin and tonic.
Assuming you’re on the three/four program, there’s a way to scale back your alcohol consumption without going the Meaford Temperance League complete-abstinence route.
Based in the glorious Niagara region on Ontario, 18.8 is a distillery making vodka and gin with a low-alcohol spin. If Dry January has you begrudingly trudging off to the gym five days a week, take note that roughly half the alcohol (that would be 18.8 percent) also means half the calories.
Winningly, both offerings taste like the real thing. With 18.8 Vodka you get a smooth and light vanilla kiss in a spirit with none of the unpleasant afterburn that can comes with, say, Poland’s legendary Spirytus Rektyfikowany.
As for 18.8 Gin, expect a pleasantly floral bouquet—hello, elderflower—underscored by juniper and citrus. Think elegant and understated without being the liquor equivalent of a wallflower.
The best thing about 18.8? You know how Uncle Ernie always ends up with the lampshade on his head four drinks in at family gatherings? Both 18.8 Vodka and Gin have enough juice to get him buzzed, but not to the point where you’ll have him insisting on starting a conga line to Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It”. Which, admittedly, was a lot of fun in the 31 straight days of debauch that was last December.
Here are three drinks you can make for a liquor-reduced January.
18.8 Moscow Mule
2 oz 18.8 Vodka
2 oz club soda
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz ginger syrup
Pour ginger syrup, lime, and vodka into a shaker with crushed ice. Shake, pour in club soda, and shake again. Pour into a copper mug (or old-fashioned glass), and garnish with lime wedge.
Ceder’s Wild Tiani
2 oz Ceder’s Wild
1/2 oz Jasmine Tea
1/3 oz Earl Grey Tea Syrup
1/3 oz fresh lemon juice
Pour all ingredients over cubes in a shaker, shake and strain into a chilled coupette glass. Garnish with floating edible flowers.
Sheringham Distillery Blood Orange Sour Recipe
2oz Lumette! Bright Light or London Dry
1oz Lemon Juice
3/4oz Fresh Blood Orange Juice
2oz Dashes Orange Bitters
1 Egg White
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker over ice, shake and strain into a chilled coupette glass, and then crank up "You Can Do It", conga line optional.