Admittedly, the past year and a half has been an unusual time for tracking trends. However, one clear pattern has been emerging for quite a while now: The growing movement to low- and no-alcohol drinks. Perhaps driven by changing drinking habits, or a growing focus on health, or young people’s hesitation to overdrink because of potential social media exposure, or even because of movements like ‘Dry January’ or ‘Sober for October,’ beverage producers are quickly waking up to the market potential. According to the IWSR, a firm that analyzes world beverage trends, the low- and no-alcohol market is continuing to expand, with consumption expected to grow 31% by 2024.
As more and more beer producers have taken advantage of the trend by creating non-alcoholic versions of their products, so, too, now are spirits producers. In the past year alone, dozens of new products have popped up on the scene that either mimic the flavors and textures of staple spirits such as gin, tequila, bourbon and amari or are bringing entirely new flavor profiles to the bartender's tool kit. For savvy bar and restaurant operators, there is an enormous opportunity to better serve their guests, increase profitability, and to help shape the drinking habits of tomorrow through creative experimentation with no-alcohol spirits.
Kraig Rovensky, general manager at Life on Mars in Seattle, was initially skeptical when seeing these products hit the market a few years back.
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I initially thought they were stupid,” he said with a laugh, “which I now totally regret! It wasn't until I worked at Deep Dive in Seattle and had to use them that I changed my mind. I think the category has grown a lot. We have more and more interesting products with better flavors and textures being released all the time and I get to be creative in new ways.”
Rovensky now includes three non-alcoholic cocktails on the Life on Mars drinks list under the title “Low to No Proof.” Not only has he noticed that interest in the category has grown, but it has also become more socially acceptable for guests to order them.
“We were constantly being asked for them, so we initially put a couple on the list, and we’ve continued selling them at a decent rate,” he said. “There really is a large range of reasons why people seem to seek out the non-alcoholic options. Maybe they don't drink anymore, and this allows them to have the fun of having a drink again. Or maybe they just know they shouldn't have another drink for the night, but their friend is getting one, so they can grab a N/A that still is fun, with complex flavors and depth.”
For many years, bartenders were offering “mocktails” that were simply blends of different juices, but now with the ability to build off more classic cocktail recipes by replacing traditional spirits with their new non-alcoholic brethren, the options for tastier drinks are endless. And while there is some debate as to what to call these new drinks — mocktails, no-alcohol cocktails, N/A, Low-proof, spirit-free — the consensus is that the category has evolved to a new level.
Jeff Russell, above, founder of Bespoke Social Club, a collective of New York City bartenders and mixologists who create custom tastings, classes, and experiences for various companies, has also embraced these products.
“I feel in the last few years we've gone from ‘mocktail’ lists that were just random juices/seltzer, to well-crafted N/A cocktails,” Russell said. “And even the word ‘mocktail’ has almost become a pejorative term. They were usually tossed together by anything on hand, lacked balance, and lacked the thoughtful approach of most restaurants' cocktail lists. When you use an N/A spirit, you can gain texture and complexity that would be harder to find just using juice and standard syrups. And I’m finding that the current N/A offerings are usually tested, brainstormed with staff, and strive for the same balance any drink in a restaurant's program would have.”
Like many other new trends in the beverage world, consumers’ first interaction with non-alcoholic spirits are happening via trusted tastemakers. One such influencer is long-time New York bartender Vincent Favella, who in addition to working around the city at beloved cocktail spots, is also the bar manager at Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn and Alamo Drafthouse Manhattan. He’s broken down the various options into categories. For example, anything with gin-type botanicals or spices works well as replacements for gin and tequila, allowing bartenders to spin off low-proof variations of Martinis, Margaritas, and Gimlets.
The question at the forefront of any operator or bar manager around these products is a simple yet essential one: “What should we charge for these?” And the answer many are finding is encouraging. Because these drinks are not just made from a creative blending of juices and syrups but are instead thoughtfully created and much more complex, customers are willing to pay a bit more for them.
“The art still lies in the creation, the composition and the execution of the cocktail, so I often charge just $1 or $2 lower than the average menu cocktail price,” Favella said.
In Seattle, Rovensky, above, is approaching pricing similarly.
“I have found that as the public is becoming aware of these products, as more bars start to pick them up, as more people experiment with them, that you truly can charge almost cocktail prices for them. Which we need to: The nature of the food and beverage industry is that we run on small margins. I personally hate to bring up the business side of it, but people sitting in a seat drinking juice isn't going to pay the bills. But people sitting in a seat, enjoying a drink that was made with the same care and attention as any of the cocktails on the menu can.”
Rovensky has especially become excited about the future of the category, and, in addition to his already numerous endeavors in the industry, has taken on the role of brand ambassador for The Pathfinder, which is a fermented and distilled hemp-based spirit, akin to a non-alcoholic amaro.
“I've seen the whole gamut of non-alcoholic vodkas, gins, rums and whiskies, but I think my favorite examples so far are ones that aren't replicating a specific spirit. It's what I love about the Pathfinder; Amaro has such a wide flavor spectrum already that making a N/A makes perfect sense. Or a brand like Wilderton, which isn't trying to be a gin, it's trying to be its own thing. I want to see the industry move in this direction, where an N/A can be anything. We aren't tied down to the definitions of a spirit. So, let's get wild.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.