Sober-curious customers are pushing bars to elevate the mocktail—and even change its name

To meet demand, skilled bartenders are tapping a wealth of new low- and zero-proof spirits and mixers to create complex, well-balanced drinks with less or no alcohol.
three mocktails
Photo courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

While consumers are eager to socialize at restaurants and bars, they’re not always ordering up beer, wine and cocktails to make the occasion merrier.

“One of the biggest disruptors on the bar side is the rise of spirit-free and low-alcohol cocktails, Dana Pellicano, VP Food + Beverage, Global Operations for Marriott International, told Restaurant Business. “People are eager to socialize again but are looking for ways to join the fun without overdoing it.”

Some are attributing this sober-curious trend to consumers’ post-COVID focus on improving their health. But there’s also a much wider and better-quality selection of low- and zero-proof spirits available. Bartenders are tapping these products to create drinks that are as well-balanced and complex as their alcoholic cousins.

Lars Dahlhaus, beverage manager for foodservice distributor Baldor Specialty Foods, sees a noticeable uptick in demand by his customers for nonalcoholic spirits, beer and wine.

The mid- to high-end restaurants he deals with are making zero-proof drinks from wellness beverages, herbal and fruit-based shrubs mixed with sparkling water, and even kombucha. But a branded alcohol-free spirt like Seedlip, which comes in variations with citrus, herbal and spice flavor profiles, creates a drink that’s very close to its boozy counterpart when mixed in the right hands.

“Restaurants can charge good money for these nonalcoholic drinks, but they have to be crafted as skillfully as cocktails,” said Dahlhaus. Combining zero-proof spirits with tonic for a teetotaling gin and tonic, or with alcohol-free ginger beer for a Moscow Mule, both work well, he said.

Dahlhaus had a chance to play around with the products and also came up with a winning formula for lower proof “light cocktails.”

“Mix one ounce of tequila, gin or vodka with one ounce of Seedlip,” he suggested. That achieves the right balance for a classic cocktail like a margarita or martini, he said.

If the price of the classic cocktail is $16, a restaurant or bar can charge $13 for a mocktail and a little more for the low-proof version, Dahlhaus added.

Operators can expect to see high-quality versions of alcohol-free champagnes and wines up next, he said. And Baldor has applied for a license to distribute CBD beverages—another category that is burgeoning.

While the sober curious trend has seen a post-pandemic surge, it is considered mainstream by some in the industry. “Every restaurant or hotel should already have a great list of non-alcoholic cocktails for customers,” said Andrew Freeman, founder of trends forecasting company AF&Co. “These beverages are getting their due just like vegan menu choices.”

But there’s a definite movement to trash the name “mocktail.” Many think it sounds like a mockery; a lesser drink. Industry pros agree that someone has to come up with a catchier, less clunky name for what many menus now simply categorize as “nonalcoholic beverages” on their lists.

Then there are those consumers in what’s called the “California sober” group. They don’t drink alcohol but are looking to socialize around cannabis-enhanced beverages, said Dahlhaus.

Restaurant and bar drinks list are destined to expand even more as legalization expands across the U.S.

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