Beverage

What makes Dry January different this year

Demographics have changed, spirit-free products are better and more plentiful, and operators are realizing that zero-proof drinks are revenue-boosters.
Iron Hill's Hop Tails
The Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant chain added six Hop Tails to its permanent bar menu, all crafted with alcohol-free Hop Water. | Photo courtesy of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant.

For more than 10 years now, the alcohol-fueled holiday season has been followed by Dry January—the annual attempt by millions of imbibers to cut back on booze.

But in the time since Alcohol Change UK started this movement in 2012, the trend has evolved.

Demographics may be the most significant change. Gen Z has reached drinking age, and this group is drinking about 20% less than the Millennials who came before them, who, in turn, are drinking less than Gen X and Boomers, according to a report from Berenberg Research.

That doesn’t mean that younger consumers are teetotalers. Many are engaging in “mindful drinking;” abstaining from alcohol some of the time, enjoying beer, wine and spirits at others. Or ordering a cocktail at the start of a night out, but opting for a zero-proof drink for the second round.

Dry January may jumpstart many Americans’ move to cut back, but the “sober curious” trend now has staying power the rest of the year—and its followers go beyond Gen Zers. In a 2023 consumer sentiment survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by NCSolutions, a market research company, 34% of respondents said they aimed to drink less alcohol throughout last year, and will continue to do so into 2024.

Companies that sell beer, wine and spirits took some time to produce quality alcohol-free alternatives, but a larger volume and greater variety are now coming out of the pipeline.

Although the nonalcoholic beverage segment makes up a fraction of the larger beverage market, sales in the U.S. have surpassed $400 million by some measures, according to McKinsey & Company’s “Mind the Gap” newsletter. That’s more than double since 2020.

Hotels, restaurants and bars are taking these products and creating impressive zero-proof drinks, especially on the craft cocktail side. And it’s not just the hip bars and dining spots that have jumped on the trend. This year, several chains have joined in.

A spirited collection of spirit-free drinks

This January, Chicago-based Uno Pizzeria & Grill introduced four non-alcoholic versions of its most popular cocktails—the Margarita, Hurricane, Old Fashioned and Peach Mule.

“We took Uno’s classic recipes and made them zero-proof,” said Edgar Cruz, beverage director for the 80-unit chain. Although Uno has offered mocktails in the past, this time the brand partnered with Ritual Zero Proof, producer of alcohol-free spirits. Cruz substituted the product in a 1:1 ratio, but in some cases, had to cut back or add more juices to achieve the same flavor profile. “We tried to make Dry January easy for customers to dip their toe into,” he added.

Uno's no-alcohol margarita

Uno Pizzeria & Grill partnered with Ritual to launch four mocktails this month, including a zero-proof margarita made with the brand's tequila alternative. | Photo courtesy of Uno Pizzeria & Grill.

Erik Frederick, CEO of Uno, said he couldn’t tell the different between the classic and zero-proof margarita. “Ritual nails the flavor profile.”

The alcohol-free versions sell for $7.99, about $2 less than their classic counterparts, but they are mixed and garnished with the same attention to detail. “It’s a win-win,” said Frederick. “We’re making more money than we would if we just gave the guest a glass of water and customers are enjoying these more. We’ve already seen an uptick in our beverage business.”  

Condado Tacos, a 39-unit chain based in Columbus, Ohio, is promoting its newest line of mocktails this month. Its drinks rely on a balance of bases like tea, lemonade or fruit juice with other ingredients from the kitchen rather than zero-proof spirit products.

The lineup includes the Nojito made with cucumber, mint, lime, agave and soda water; the Cactus Juice, blended with prickly pear, pineapple, ginger beer and lemon; and the Shooter McGavin, a mix of black tea, house lemonade and ginger beer. Prices range from $5-$7.

Condado Tacos mocktails

Condado Tacos introduced a trio of no-alcohol cocktails for Dry January, including the Nojito {l.), a booze-less version of a Mojito. | Photo courtesy of Condado Tacos.

And daytime concept Another Broken Egg, where the booze usually flows freely at brunch, introduced three hand-crafted mocktails earlier this month—a first for the Orlando-based chain.  To back up the launch, the marketing team cited a consumer study by researcher Veylinx that found demand for canned non-alcoholic cocktails surpassed the demand for their alcoholic counterparts by 13%.

Another Broken Egg gives guests the option of a Strawberry Lemonade Spritzer, Cucumber Mint Nojito and Pineapple Berry Agua Fresca. All are made with juices, fruit purees, muddled fruit and/or fresh sour mix, shaken, poured and garnished like the alcoholic versions.

The fact that 21-unit Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant has the word “brewery” in its name didn’t stop the Exton, Pa.-based chain from adding a collection of non-alcoholic beverages to its permanent menu this month.

Last year, Iron Hill debuted Hop Water, a zero-proof, zero-calorie sparkling beverage infused with a blend of six hops. This year, the chain is using the hop water in six Hop-Tails, running between $5 and $6 each. Several are crafted with artisanal ingredients, such as the Hop Lux with marasca cherries and Luxardo syrup, and the White Grape Basil with white grapes, expressed basil, lime juice, simple syrup and ginger ale. Iron Hill is riffing on a mojito with its Hop-Jito—a cocktail that seems easily adaptable as several menus are offering no-alcohol alternatives.

Mocktail can be a dirty word

While chains are newly embracing the mocktail trend and name, many hotels and independent restaurants tend to shy away from the word “mocktail,” thinking it implies drinks that are inferior to “real cocktails.” Early mocktails were also overly sweet and too fruity. Remember Shirley Temples?

When Hilton Hotels launched its new Tempo by Hilton brand last year, the first location in New York City’s Times Square opened with a hand-crafted list of “Spirited” and “Free-Spirited” cocktails. The latter deliver comparable flavor profiles, presentations and complexity but without the alcohol. The same bar selection will be a brand standard when the next Tempo opens in Nashville in February and at all locations going forward.

“Mindful consumption is the focus now, and there’s a huge demand for it,” said Kevin Quinn, director of brand food & beverage programs at Hilton. He and his team created nine wellness-directed, free-spirited cocktails to mirror the spirited side of the bar.

“It’s difficult to make high-quality spirit-forward drinks, like martinis and Manhattans, without using alcohol,” said Quinn. Instead, he goes for twists on the classics. "Black is the New Pink," for example, is a riff on the Paloma. “We use tequila and mezcal for the spirited version, but swap in Lyre’s Highland Malt and zero-proof tequila and in the free-spirited drink. The alcohol-free Highland Malt has a smoky flavor profile like mezcal.”

Paloma riff

"Black is the New Pink" is Tempo's riff on the Paloma, one of the nine drinks on the hotel's "Free-Spirited" bar menu. | Photo courtesy of Hilton. 

The drink called "For the Plot" also uses the Highland Malt, combined with cold brew coffee, Lyre’s Italian orange aperitivo for bitter notes and butterscotch-pumpkin syrup for a touch of sweetness.

The drinks are priced $1 to $2 below the spirited cocktails but are just as profitable. “There’s a real opportunity to capture some revenue here,” said Quinn.

He added that programs like Tempo’s have benefited from the product development and growth of suppliers like Lyre’s that “offer better, more ‘like for like’ options. These allow us to create full, in-depth zero-proof cocktails,” he said.

And the pipeline will really start to blow up in 2025, Quinn predicts.

 

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