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With alcohol-free cocktails it’s all about inclusion.

By Stef Schwalb

Spirit-free. Zero-proof. Dry drinks. Soft cocktails. Mocktails. No matter the nomenclature, alcohol-free beverages continue to evolve as a sector on the upswing. In addition to numerous reports of expansion in market share (like this one from Grand View Research), we’re also seeing an increase in new products releases; the inclusion of alcohol-free options on restaurant menus; and bars dedicated exclusively to nightlife experiences that are enjoyed sober. We spoke to a few industry sources who shared their thoughts on the subject, but they all had one thing in common: their support of this topic isn’t anti-alcohol, it’s about being more inclusive – even for those who may have struggled with excessive drinking in the past.

Lorelei Bandrovschi, founder of Listen Bar in New York, didn’t struggle with that issue. Yet when a friend who doesn’t drink dared her take a month off of drinking as part of a birthday challenge that would help Lorelei grow, something remarkable happened. “My attitude to the challenge at the time was, ‘I’ll prove I can do it, but I don’t see a huge value in it.’ Mostly because I am a person who prides herself in not doing diets and cleanses and things like that,” she explains. “To my surprise, the challenge had a huge impact on me – obviously. It sort of exposed all of these blind spots that I had around drinking, but mostly, it was that I really enjoyed going out without drinking. I realized it was something that I never paid attention to or created space for in my life.”

At the time, Lorelei was also working in innovation, and one of the principles that she was applying in her job was design thinking. “It’s really understanding an unmet need, and then building and designing an experience around that,” she adds. “Those two parts of my life really ended up intersecting, and I realized this unmet need for having a nightlife that doesn’t necessarily run on alcohol. Listen Bar was part of a lifestyle shift that I wasn’t seeing reflected in the bar world even as I was seeing more people responding with ‘me too’ when I would say my enthusiasm around drinking had waned.”

For Marnie Rae, founder of National Mocktail Week, sobriety is a part of her story – although most of the people in her inner circle do imbibe. “I’m not looking to convince people to stop drinking,” she says. “As a non-drinker, I just want to be included in the fun.”

Launched in 2018, National Mocktail Week is a weeklong celebration that takes place the second week of January – a month traditionally known as a time for people to go “dry.” Rae founded it to recognize people who enjoy life without alcohol. When the first annual event took place in January 2019, she held a launch party in Seattle to promote it. “We served mocktails that were created by my team, and we raised $1,000 for a local charity – The Recovery Cafe. More than 100 people attended the event. I was amazed and so encouraged by all of the support and interest.”

For the next edition, Rae and her team plan to host a few events and are excited to see what other people do across the globe to participate. “Right now this is being called a trend and a movement, but I believe non-alcohol beverages will become part of normal life – similar to gluten-free or vegan foods. There are so many reasons people aren’t drinking these days. Recovery is just one of many,” she notes. “I believe at some point we’ll be able to walk into any bar or restaurant and have an alcohol-free cocktail to choose from off the menu. It’s a choice many people are making for mental health, physical health, and overall wellness, and as a bonus, it’s building community.”

The Making of Mocktails
At restaurants around the country, like Elske Restaurant in Chicago, that time has already come. “Our spirit-free cocktails are in two different categories because we have the non-alcoholic pairings as part of our tasting menu, and then we also have non-alcoholic cocktails as part of our regular a la carte drink menu,” explains Bar Director Jake Kelly. “The beverage pairings for the tasting menu had actually been at the restaurant since day one. It was an idea of owners David and Anna (Posey) – they were way ahead of the curve. The restaurant will be open three years in December. Non-alcoholic beverages were even less common back then, but based on their travels through Europe and Scandinavia (where they are more common), David and Anna decided that was something they wanted to bring back with them and implement here as well.”

On the a la carte cocktail side, Elske has a focused menu featuring six regular cocktails and two spirit-free options. “It gives people more choices, so that everyone can participate in all aspects of the meal, because people who don’t drink (or choose not to) can often feel left out,” says Kelly. “I think also part of it for me is that I like making delicious drinks – and that doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol. The way people are going out now, they are looking for something delicious that isn’t going to wreck them, the rest of the night, or the next day.”

Bandrovschi has found this to be true with her clientele as well. She notes that a survey conducted at the end of Listen Bar’s first proof of concept, it was validating and surprising when her team found out that two-thirds of her audience identified as drinkers – while only one-third never drank or usually didn’t. “It is very much a mix and part of what people are responding to. Listen Bar feels like a no judgment space, and that’s one of the reasons we never call ourselves sober. Some people assume and label us as a sober bar, but I don’t want people to feel the pressure of that term and having a very set lifestyle expectation before you walk into the door,” she explains.

Instead, Bandrovschi thinks having alcohol-free options is about creating that space in your life – whether you exist there all the time, or just every once and a while– and partially because that’s been her journey. “I want people to exist anywhere on the spectrum with regards to anything. Having empowered choices that you make for yourself based on what works for you, and having that be an individual choice rather than a blanket statement for everyone at the bar, that’s what I want to cultivate and that’s what we’re seeing.”

For Kelly, it’s the chicken and the egg thing. “Maybe the demand was always there, and we just weren’t giving it to people. Now that they see spirit-free cocktails on the menu, it appeals to them, and they’ll go for it more. I think the availability and the demand go hand-and-hand for me.”

A born and bred New Yorker, Stef Schwalb’s love of everything culinary knows no bounds. She has written about food and beverages for several years, covering everything from how to make goat cheese to pairing oysters and Chablis. Schwalb is the senior content manager at Gregory White PR where she writes about enticing food and wine experiences at restaurants, bars & lounges, wineries and wine regions across the globe.

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