The mystery genre loves that delectable combination of murder and fancy drinks! But, our fictional tastes don’t translate 1:1 to real life. For example: generally we humans are not fans of murder, and a lot of us don’t like to drink. However, alcohol has historically been a large part of socializing. Enter: award-winning science fiction / fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal, who’s upcoming book The Spare Man is a spacefaring murder mystery set amid glitzy future high society, and each chapter is punctuated by a different drink recipe, several sans alcohol! We asked Mary Robinette to write for us about her concoctions, and why she has chosen to include these delicious alcohol-free mocktails. Read on for recipes and insightful commentary! And then read The Spare Man when it releases on Tuesday, October 11th : )
by Mary Robinette Kowal
A considerable part of the publishing culture is “bar con,” which happens in the hotel bar. The problem is that it isn’t accessible to everyone. Some people don’t enjoy the taste. Some people avoid alcohol for religious or health reasons. Some people overindulge and forget that, as an author, a convention is still a professional setting.
Fun fact: Women can only metabolize a third of the amount of alcohol, by body weight, as men.
The seemingly innocuous question, “Want to get a drink?” becomes loaded as the assumption is that one means alcohol.
Right up front, I want to say that I think that everyone should be able to have a celebratory beverage and that it shouldn’t require alcohol. I’m interested in cocktails because I like flavors, and alcohol affects how flavors evaporate or change in your mouth. It’s neat. “Mixology” is also not exclusive to alcohol.
When I decided to write a novel that is basically The Thin Man in space, I knew there would be drinking. In the original film Nick Charles, played by William Powell, is drunk from the moment he appears on the screen. I didn’t want that.
In the real world, I’m unexcited about getting drunk, so having zero-proof cocktails to switch to makes an evening more enjoyable. I’ve come to prefer that term to “virgin” or “mocktail” because both seem to place a value judgment on the drink.
As a culture, we place a lot of stigma on people who don’t drink. I’d rather we didn’t. In settings where drinking is expected, people who don’t consume alcohol for whatever reason are at a disadvantage. I’d like to see us normalizing having a zero-proof drink. This meant that in the book, I wanted to ensure I included opportunities for fun drinks sans alcohol.
I start each chapter with a cocktail recipe that’s relevant to the chapter—things like Corpse Reviver #2, The Obituary, and Murder in the Afternoon.
But all of the zero-proof names were things like “Shirley Temple” or “Roy Rogers.” Items seemingly designed for children. They were overly sweet, not terribly interesting, and not thematically appropriate for murder. That led me to create things like:
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- 5 blackberries
- 3 slices jalapeno
- 3 wheels cucumber
- 1 oz lime juice
- 1 tbsp honey syrup
- 2 tsp Angostura bitters
- 4 oz. Soda water
Muddle blackberries, jalapeno, and 2 cucumber wheels in a cocktail pitcher. Add lime juice, honey syrup, bitters, and soda water. Stir to combine—strain into a rocks glass over a single large cube. Garnish with the remaining cucumber wheel.
If you don’t have all the ingredients, you can always try a substitution. In many ways, it’s just like cooking : you think about the flavors and substitute something that will live in the same family of flavors.
No blackberries for Frisky Business? Try blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries. Each will result in a different drink but still something fun. If you don’t have fresh fruit in the house, you could replace the fruit and the honey syrup with a spoonful of jam.
Simple syrup is just 1 part sugar and 1 part water, heated enough to combine easily. Honey syrup is the same thing, but with honey. Don’t want to bother? Try maple syrup.
A helpful trick when substituting is to start with 1/2 of the original amount and then add more until it’s tasty.
If you want to do more playing, let me share a way to think about shaping a cocktail. Cocktails are composed of a base “spirit,” which is the primary taste, then some modifiers, often a bitter, a sweet, and an accent. Sometimes all of them are in equal parts, as in a negroni, but you’ll also often see cocktails structured as 8 parts base, 3 parts modifier, 2 parts accent. This works regardless of what proof the cocktail is. Sometimes you’ll want to adjust up or down depending on how strong a particular flavor is.
For instance, a zero-proof cocktail might be:
- Base spirit = tonic water
- Bitter = oolong tea
- Sweet = apricot jam
- Accent = black pepper
To build that, steep oolong tea in 4 oz. water. Stir 1 tablespoon—Apricot jam to combine while warm. Remove the tea bag. Add a large ice cube, and top with 8 oz tonic water. Crack fresh black pepper over the top for aromatics. You can adjust all of those for your palate. More bitter? Oversteep the tea. Sweeter? Increase the jam. Spicier? Use siracha instead of black pepper. More concentrated? Reduce the amount of tonic water.
Or another one might be:
- Base spirit = ginger beer
- Bitter = lime juice
- Sweet = honey
- Accent = herbs de Provence
With all of these, you can play with the proportions to get something that is tasty to you. Maybe you like more tartness. Perhaps you want more sweetness.
Fun fact: Vanilla beans and orange peel make a nice infusion in water.
To be clear, I also like a well-mixed spirit-forward drink and can linger over it for ages. This is part of why I favor drinks served “up” because I don’t have to worry about the flavor diminishing as the ice melts.
If you want to create your own cocktails, take a classic cocktail and swap out an ingredient. Swap out two. Dangerous Words, for instance, is a Last Word with Rye instead of Gin and Amaretto instead of Maraschino. And note, it’s equal parts.
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- .75 oz. Green Chartreuse
- .75 oz Amaretto
- .75 oz lime juice
- .75 oz rye
Shake over ice for 15 seconds—strain into a coupe.
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If the bartender is not on the mixology god end of the scale, my secret is asking for tonic and bitters with a lime. For those who haven’t explored them, bitters contain alcohol, but proportionally it’s like adding a teaspoon of vanilla to your beverage. There are a ton of fun things like cardamom or orange bitters.
Half yellow bell pepper, deseeded and muddled
6 oz Tonic water
1 oz lime juice
Dash cardamom bitters
Fresh ground pepper for garnish
Muddle bell pepper in the bottom of a rocks glass. Add a large cube of ice, tonic water, lime juice, and bitters. Stir till cold. Grind black pepper for light garnish.
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I’m hoping that seeing the zero-proof drinks here will give you expand your options for celebratory evenings. Flavors are fun, and making something tasty doesn’t have to be intimidating or exclude people from participating.
Mary Robinette Kowal (she/her) is the author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning alternate history novel, The Calculating Stars, the first book in the Lady Astronaut series. She is also the author of The Glamourist Histories series and Ghost Talkers and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo Awards, the Nebula, and Locus Awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Uncanny, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary Robinette has also worked as a professional puppeteer, is a member of the Award-winning podcast Writing Excuses, and performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and Neal Stephenson. She lives in Tennessee with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters.
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The great thing about zero-proof cocktails as well is that they shouldn’t disrupt your sleep like regular cocktails so you can enjoy them on a work night. Frisky Business sounds delicious, I will have to try making that at home.
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