Sober bars and zero-proof drink lists add buzz to alcohol-free socialization

More consumers want to abstain from alcohol at least some of the time, and operators are answering the call with booze-free cocktail selections that are just as buzz-worthy.
Animation by Nico Heins via Shutterstock. | Photographs below courtesy of the brands

Abby Ehmann is a longtime owner of Lucky, a neighborhood bar in New York City’s East Village with a loyal clientele. Fans refer to it as “a dive bar for grownups, with a toilet you’re not afraid to sit on and a glass of wine you won’t spit out.”

Over the years, Ehmann had noticed more sober-curious customers and less drinking among women and people under 25.

“In 2017, customer No. 1 had a stroke and had to give up alcohol, and customer No. 2 went sober,” she said. “I wanted to make a place for them that was as appealing as Lucky without the alcohol.”

When a space across the street opened up, she grabbed it. Hekate Cafe & Elixir Lounge, “a sober dive bar,” as Ehmann describes it, officially opened this past summer.

The completely sober bar is still a trickle of a trend right now—Hekate is the only one in Manhattan. But as more consumers look to abstain from alcohol some or all of the time, operators are accommodating them with long lists of inventive booze-free cocktails and buzzy gathering spots that de-emphasize getting buzzed.

Why now?

Some sober-curious consumers emerged from COVID quarantines with a desire to cut back on drinking after overindulging for months.

Dry January was in place before the pandemic, but now, customers are looking for more opportunities for sober socialization. Consumption of nonalcoholic adult beverages is expected to grow 31% by 2024, according to Global Market Insights. 

Gen Z is particularly hot on the sober trend. There’s increasing evidence that they are drinking far less than the generations that came before—even millennials.

Plus, the variety and quality of alcohol-free spirits on the market has skyrocketed, and bartenders are putting more craftsmanship into creating drinks that measure up to their boozy counterparts.

In other words, these are not your mama’s mocktails.

Raising the bar on innovation

The Hyatt hotel chain has been one brand to capitalize on the sober-curious shift.

Its Zero Proof, Zero Judgement drink list is available at over 20 of its U.S. hotels, with more to come, said Miranda Breedlove, Hyatt’s national director of bars and lifestyle operations.

“We introduced Zero Proof, Zero Judgement in August 2021 in response to travelers’ evolving alcohol consumption habits and increased focus on their well-being,” said Breedlove.

The platform was inspired by a local zero-proof cocktail menu launched by sober bar manager Anna Welker of Topside at Revival Baltimore after a successful Dry January list in 2020. “While the pandemic certainly brought more awareness to and curiosity around no-alcohol options, [Welker] already saw the need pre-pandemic to ensure non-drinkers, like herself, were met with understanding and a variety of beverage options,” Breedlove said.

Hyatt uses Ritual Zero Proof spirits for many of its drinks. At The Confidante Miami Beach, the Ambersweet menu offers the Miami Love Story, made with a tequila alternative, fresh muddled raspberry and mint, lime juice, rose water and club soda, topped with a rose-shaped ice cube. At Hyatt’s Thompson Denver, the Chez Maggy restaurant mixes up a NAgroni, featuring zero-proof gin, ghia (an alcohol-free aperitif), Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso and orange peel.

Bon Vivant Hospitality founder Josh Harris created the beverage program for San Francisco Proper Hotel, where an extensive list of alcohol-free drinks are offered in the lobby bar adjacent to Villon, the hotel’s restaurant.

“When we reopened Villon this past April, we were excited to add a new section to the cocktail menu,” said Harris, who shared that he’s been sober for 19 years. “The way the menu is structured gave us an opportunity to add nonalcoholic cocktails without marginalizing non-drinkers.”

Nowhere on the menu are the words “nonalcoholic” or “mocktail.” Instead, Harris divides the 49-drink list into 7X7, a reference to San Francisco’s square mileage, and devotes one section to “7 X The Wagon”—cocktails to enjoy when you’re on the wagon for whatever reason.

The buzz on buzz-free

With the improved selection of alcohol-free spirits and mixers on the market, “we no longer have to rely on zero-proof drinks that are juicy,” said Harris. For his Wagon Vault, for example, he combines Seedlip Garden, which has a botanical flavor like gin, with Martini & Rossi Floreale, a N/A vermouth, and olive brine, and garnishes the drink with an olive much like a martini. “It makes a drink that is complex with mouthfeel similar to the alcoholic version,” he said.

The Radio Flyer Wagon has an aperitivo-style base, similar to an Aperol or amaro; it’s mixed with grapefruit, cold-brew coffee, lime and tonic and served long. “There used to be a big absence of nonalcoholic aperols and amaros, but Figlia Aperitivo replicates that used in an alcoholic cocktail,” he said.

Although the 7 X The Wagon drinks are in a separate section of the cocktail list, “we don’t position no-alcohol only for those who are sober or in AA,” said Harris. “Wagon is a neutral way to describe them, and our bartenders are all in on this, encouraging people to enjoy the cocktails as they would their alcoholic counterparts.”

Huertas, a Spanish restaurant in New York City, added a zero-proof section to its cocktail list this past spring. “We always had options that were off the menu but not a dedicated section,” said Katie Goeller, the restaurant’s GM and beverage director. “Alcohol is so codified into every social occasion that I wanted to normalize the choice not to drink.”

Six zero-proof options are now on offer, two of which use ISH non-alcoholic spirits, a brand based in Denmark. An alcohol-free Paloma, named “When Doves Cry,” is based on ISH zero-proof Mexican Agave Spirit, while the Ginnish & Tonic uses N/A London Botanical Spirit. There’s also an Amalfi Spritz that mimics the Aperol version.

Like Harris at San Francisco Proper, Goeller tags the drinks with names that are conversation starters and engage guests.

Premium pricing raises status

Non-alcoholic drinks used to be much lower in cost than their boozy counterparts. But not so much anymore.

“They’re priced comparably because the alcohol-free spirits are as expensive,” said Goeller. So are the premium mixers, bitters and other ingredients that make for a well-balanced drink. At Huertas, she charges $13-$16 for a cocktail, with the zero-proof drinks slightly lower at $11-$13.

The drinks on the 7 X The Wagon list at Villon in the San Francisco Proper are $18, the same as the other 42 cocktails on the menu.

“If you’re making nonalcoholic cocktails that are as carefully crafted with the incredible alcohol-free spirits on the market, they should cost as much,” said Harris. “The cost of goods is the same and it’s all about the flavor and the experience. Alcohol is not driving that experience.”

Price doesn’t seem to be a deterrent, though. All the operators agree that feedback from customers is overwhelmingly positive—especially when the lists are presented with alcohol-free choices that are tailored and intentional.

Hyatt’s first Zero Proof, Zero Judgment program at Revival Baltimore has “averaged a 37% increase in zero-proof cocktails purchased per month since the launch,” said Breedlove. “As of January 2022, a little more than half of guests ordered a zero-proof cocktail over a signature cocktail.” Prices average around $12 a drink.

Marketing the list

Although traditional cocktails still outsell zero-proof versions, Goeller intends to ramp up marketing for a Dry January promotion.

The Mix Up Bar at the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix just came off a Sober October promotion, another opportunity to build awareness around bars’ new and improved collection of alcohol-free options.

“We have a very talented crew of mixologists; they are artists who can balance the drinks to play up the flavors of the no-alcohol spirits,” said Martin Celaya, food and beverage operations manager at the Royal Palms.

The list, which debuted in mid-2021, changes seasonally, and the fall/winter selection debuted for Sober October. Included in the lineup are a Honeysuckle Collins made with Ritual zero-proof gin infused with honeysuckle and mixed with lemonade. There’s also a Kentucky Mule, a mix of Ritual bourbon and house-made ginger beer. The Hurricane uses alcohol-free rum with house-made passion fruit soda, fresh orange and lemon.

“If a guest wants something else, they can tell the bartenders the flavor profile they are looking for, and they can create a drink or transform any cocktail into a ‘dry’ cocktail,” said Celaya.

Sober bar Hekate also just ran a Sober October promotion, ambitiously offering a different alcohol-free drink every day of the month.

Hekate has several alcohol-free spirits on the shelf, including mezcal, vodka, gin and prosecco. One of the most popular drinks is the Empress, made with Clean Co. Apple Vodka, Seedlip Garden (a gin-like product), pineapple soda, a splash of pomegranate juice and a green apple garnish. Cocktail for Comfort, served on Oct. 7, is a combo of Lyre’s Pink London Spirit, Amethyst Blueberry Ginger Mint (another gin alternative), lavender simple syrup and butterfly pea flower elixir, which turns the drink purple.

“Super-fancy mixology is not my milieu,” Ehmann admits. “The people I hired are fairly new to bartending, and they’re having fun playing with all the products to make drinks.”

Ehmann is also a fan of elixirs, hence the full name of her bar. The bottled alcohol-free elixirs now on the market are complex herbal drinks and can be subbed for a cocktail as-is or mixed with other ingredients, like tea or juice, though they “take an education process,” she says. Many boast mood-enhancing, stress reduction and healing properties, a good fit with the whole wellness trend.

Making a connection

As a female bar owner, another way Ehmann attracts business is by positioning Hekate as a gathering place. She hosts events such as book signings, art exhibits with a Meet the Artists night, tarot card readings, musical performances and more.

“Men open bars, and women open community spaces,” she said. “I’m creating a place where people can socialize without getting drunk.” 

At Mix Up Bar in the Royal Palms, the beverage team offers a N/A mixology class for hotel guests seven days a week. “Our four core mixologists demonstrate how to make alcohol-free cocktails and participants learn about flavors that go together so they can master the art of zero-proofing at home,” said Celaya. “The classes have really increased interest.”

Hyatt extends the educational component to its beverage teams. “We do tastings and brand education on the non-alcoholic options as well as discuss how important the guest experience is for those who don't desire alcohol,” said Breedlove. 

Zero Proof, Zero Judgement seminars are also held for restaurant, bar and event colleagues. They’re led by Laura Green, spirits educator, licensed professional counselor and founder of Healthy Pour, an industry-geared program. “The seminars are focused on destigmatizing the conversation around mental health in the service industry and highlight tools for creating a more mindful, considerate work environment,” Breedlove said.

Hyatt workers are responding positively to the zero-proof program and the company’s other initiatives. “A colleague chose to host their birthday party at the Revival Baltimore hotel’s restaurant, Topside, because of the zero-proof options,” said Breedlove, “and several sober or sober-curious colleagues have shared positive feedback and appreciation to work at a place that has a different kind of beverage menu available.” 

With more industry folks choosing to be sober, inspired alcohol-free drinks lists can forge connections between staff and customers, too. Like Josh Harris, who created the 7 X The Wagon menu at San Francisco Proper, Chris Cosentino, chef and partner in Acacia House at Hyatt’s Alila Napa Valley in St. Helena, Calif, does not drink alcohol.

“The Zero Proof, Zero Judgement program ushered in a new way for him to connect with guests and vice versa,” said Breedlove.

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