Why Restaurant Operators Should Be Paying Attention to Their Non-Alcoholic Drink Options

When I was a kid, I wanted to be three things when I grew up: a firefighter, an astronaut, and a restaurant drinker. Now, nearing 30, I wonder about what motivated my interest those two vocations — as well as why I was so married to the mental image of a fiery spacewalk followed by a celebratory Manhattan. Perhaps as a kid, the idea of saving lives and gliding above the earth felt empowering. Plus I saw firefighters and astronauts on TV, but I also took cues from my parents, who seemed happy and confident when they were drinking in restaurants with other adults. When I finally turned 21 and took my seat at the grown-ups’ table, extensive and thoughtfully curated drinks menu in hand, I felt like I, too, had arrived.

The rush was not to last. In the span of a few short years drinking in restaurants (and bars, and underground clubs, and alone in my basement), it became clear that I was among the 14.5 million Americans who struggle with an alcohol use disorder. Basically, I always drank too much, and all the Michelin stars in the world couldn’t have stopped me from ending up blotto at every restaurant I patronized. So I put down my glass.

In the early days of my sobriety, I avoided eating out altogether, for fear that I might catch a whiff of rosé and salivate on the tablecloth. Eventually I got my footing and returned to public dining only to find, more often than not, that my old haunts offered nothing more exciting for me to drink than water with a lemon wedge. I felt overlooked, unseen, even chastised — as if I was being punished for my earlier excesses, sentenced to a lifetime of flavorless “refreshment” while others reveled in expertly crafted concoctions designed to enliven the senses and spark conversation.

Fortunately, that was some years ago, and the game is beginning to change for the 40% of Americans who don’t drink alcohol. All around the country, restaurateurs are getting hip to the demands of this growing demographic, and forward-thinking beverage directors are increasingly incorporating non-alcoholic offerings that tantalize the palate and boost the mood of the spirits-free crowd.

The NA revolution is afoot, and your restaurant should join (especially if you don’t want to go through the hassle of getting a liquor license). Here’s how to design, create, execute, and promote an inclusive and enlightened beverage program that, if done correctly, should more than pay for itself.

Why are so many Americans opting not to drink alcohol in restaurants?

So-called mocktails aren’t just for the bar mitzvah set anymore. Bandy Bowman is the acquisitions and product training manager for Boisson, a New York City-based non-alcoholic beverage retailer that offers “sophisticated sips for those seeking an alternative for alcohol.” She says Boisson tries to carry drinks to appeal to a range of non-drinkers, from “sober-sober” to “sober-curious,” as well as to those with religious beliefs that prohibit the use of alcohol and to people abstaining for health reasons.

“We’ve noticed that we’re a great fit for folks who are pregnant and want to be mindful of what they’re putting in their bodies,” Bowman said. “To that end, we vet to make sure we have a selection of things that are not only nonalcoholic but pregnancy-safe. Our biggest consumer base is probably just people who are generally interested in moderation and wellness. More and more people are reconsidering their relationship with booze and paying attention to their health, whether they’re looking for something with lower sugar, or fewer calories, or more holistic ingredients that don’t leave them with a hangover.”

Taken as a group, these various teetotalers represent a burgeoning market in the US as well as internationally. The drinks market analysis firm IWSR early in 2022 surveyed 10 large drink markets and found that no- and low-alcoholic drinks were a $10 billion business — up by nearly a third in just four years. The pandemic seems to have accelerated Americans’ demand for boozeless beverages, a shift we have been relatively slow to make previously. The New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook, who is on the record about his quest for a “sober buzz,” offered me a theory about why Americans have been comparatively late to the zero-proof party. Blame our ill-fated Prohibition experiment, he said. “Back then you had no choice but to drink this incredibly low-alcohol beer — it had to be less than 0.5%, and that’s seen as the predecessor of the non-alcoholic beer of today,” he said. “And it was terrible then! And of course Prohibition was a terrible failure, and when it ended, nobody wanted to drink the awful ‘near beer’ anymore. It was still associated with the punitive nature of Prohibition. Whereas in Europe, where people never had those constraints, you actually see less stigma and more innovation.”

We’re all acquainted with the “traditional” NA beer of which Seabrook speaks: the O’Doul’s and the Clausthaler, watery afterthoughts often relegated to a dusty cardboard box under the counter of your local dive bar — if you’re lucky. But today’s options are far more diverse, and include drinks for every occasion, and every taste.

What kinds of non-alcoholic drinks can you serve at bars and restaurants?

For a truly well-rounded NA beverage menu, consider incorporating drinks that mirror your alcoholic offerings: wines, beers, ciders, spirits, and cocktails. “Alcohol-free wines are our top sellers,” Bowman said of Boisson. “Folks are really looking to maintain the ritual around wine-drinking, especially with food. I seek products that fill that need, and not just as a wine alternative, but as a real glass of wine, with flavor and complexity, and ability to pair with food.” Boisson sells red, white, and sparkling wines, and even touts the health benefits of such offerings, if customers aren’t sold on the psychological value of keeping pace with a regular wine-drinker.

On the beer front, you’d do well to consider any of the many craft options now available for the discerning nephalist. Athletic Brewing Company stands out among the brands competing for a corner of the NA market. Started by Bill Shufelt, a fitness fanatic tired of the grogginess associated with alcohol but sick of the NA swill then on offer, ABC focuses on creating healthful and delicious non-alcoholic brews. Standouts include their Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn Golden Ale. Any trend-conscious bartender should look into stocking them, to keep up with the competition. “In Brooklyn, I could probably get an Athletic anywhere now,” said Bowman. “They’re becoming ubiquitous, which is awesome.” 

Zero-proof spirits can be divided into two categories: those that seek to replicate the experience of a particular alcoholic staple — non-alcoholic gin, non-alcoholic whiskey, even non-alcoholic tequila — and those which shine as entirely new creations. This latter category is especially attractive to those recovering alcoholics who may find traditional tastes too triggering, but who yearn for a sophisticated, complex beverage with a zing. Seedlip, which bills itself as “the first non-alcoholic spirit” (citing its proprietary distillation process as the reason for this distinction), is cropping up on more and more menus, often paired with Fever-Tree Ginger Ale.

Seedlip and its competitors — including Curious Elixirs, Three Spirit, and Kin Euphorics — all incorporate herbs and spices (and, occasionally, peels and bark) in their beverages, which, I can attest, make the drinker feel privy to some very ancient plant magic. It’s a sensation of lucid wonderment and discovery, and it beats being blitzed. A word to the wise, though: Many of these products contain adaptogens and nootropics. Though appealing to many in the wellness community, these are controversial in certain recovery circles and can also interact with particular medications. As with all menu items, your bartenders and servers should be knowledgeable about the ingredients in your NA libations.

The above-mentioned spirits can be enjoyed alone, or as mixed drinks. Here, bartenders are getting creative. Take it from Brian Evans, beverage director at the New York-based Sunday Hospitality group, whose holdings include New American favorite Sunday in Brooklyn, Japanese-inspired Rule of Thirds, and the Lobby Bar at the storied Hotel Chelsea — all of which feature NA cocktails on their menus.

“Across all of our locations, the cocktail programs are characterized by a more whimsical approach to flavor and presentation, and that definitely extends to our zero-proof offerings,” Evans told me. “At the Hotel Chelsea Lobby Bar, we have a spirit-free cocktail that’s actually the most prep-intensive cocktail on the entire menu. We start with an NA aperitivo and infuse it with cacao butter, and we add a strawberry spirit and a house-carbonated lemon verbena sparkling ‘wine,’ so it has a lot of layers to it. When people drink it, they’re pretty smitten by it.”

How to build a lucrative non-alcoholic beverage program at your establishment

Many of the early adopters of the NA movement are restaurants that are serious about their beverage program in general. That’s not to say you have to be a high-end cocktail bar or run your own wine club to take an interest in elevating this style of drink. But it’s an intricate enough field that you should be prepared to dedicate some real attention to it. “A lot of restaurants put a lot of thought into their food, and then they just kind of run out of steam when it comes to the beverages,” Bowman said. “The restaurants that end up partnering with us tend to be the ones who are already putting a lot of care into their cocktails, having a great wine program, that kind of thing. These are the folks that realize it’s a great revenue opportunity as well as a way to be inclusive.”

Increased revenue and inclusivity certainly go hand in hand, as the latter drives customer loyalty. Just take it from Seabrook, who strongly prefers to patronize businesses with interesting NA options. “The first thing I do when I eat at a new restaurant is check the menu for non-alcoholic drinks,” he said. “If they don’t have any, I’m disappointed, and I don’t go back.”

If this non-drinker has convinced you of the merits of catering to your teetotaling customers, here are a few more things to consider before you start mixing up the virgin mojitos. For one, don’t just tack a single non-alcoholic option on your menu and call it a day. We who abstain enjoy variety just as much as the next guy. Bowman describes her experience when hunting for the next great NA fix as follows: “I really do love having a drink for every part of the meal. Upon arrival, I might try a spritz; then with dinner, I’ll have a kombucha or a proxy of some sort, and after dinner I like a digestif.” Her favorite proxy-makers include Acid League, and she recommends the hemp-based Pathfinder for postprandial consumption.

Evans said his experience creating delectable alcohol-free concoctions has involved “a lot of trial and error.” Turns out you can’t just swap your favorite alcoholic base for an NA spirit. The best drinks rely on complex interplay of chemicals, and subtracting EtOH gives drinks different composition and behavior. “When implementing a non-alcoholic spirit into a cocktail build, you definitely have to rejigger your ratios for the perception of sour, sweet, and body,” he said. “The common issue that bartenders run into with NA spirits is that they don’t have that signature alcohol burn, and that they lack a lot of the body. An experienced bartender making a sour cocktail will instinctively want to do three-quarter ounces of lemon or lime juice, three-quarter ounce simple syrup. With a non-alcoholic cocktail, I would dial down the citrus by a quarter ounce, because the lack of body from the NA spirit heightens the citrus flavor, and you end up with something really tart.”

You can’t just plug and play these spirits into a normal cocktail build, in other words — same as when you optimize your cocktails to be carried out. Instead, approach it as a scientist, and be ready to tweak your recipes according to your results.

Here are a few more tips from Evans:

  • Club soda is your best friend. “The carbonation naturally enhances the perception of all things in the glass,” he said. “At Rule of Thirds, highballs are a key element to the cocktail program, so that’s a fun way to emphasize those NA spirits.” To that end, Evans pointed out that, while the alchemy of an NA build might differ from that of a traditional cocktail, most bartenders already have the tools they need on hand. “You’re already prepping your syrups and mixers for your alcoholic cocktails,” he said. “There’s no reason you can’t incorporate those into your non-alcoholic offerings as well.”

  • Please, refrain from shaking it like a Polaroid picture. “When you shake a sour-style cocktail, you typically fill your shaker full of ice, and shake it for 10 to 13 seconds. With an NA spirit, you only want to shake for about six to eight seconds, with maybe six ice cubes.” The reason, again, comes down to chemical properties. “Because the NA spirits lack body, they over-dilute really quickly. Believe it or not, they’ll freeze in your cocktail shaker if you don’t reduce your ice proportion and shake time.” 

  • Keep it cool, baby. “It’s important to keep your NA spirits in the fridge between every use. The cooling effect actually expands the molecules of the liquid and thickens it, which helps create the perception of weight.” Evans hastened to add that you should always keep a dummy bottle on the back bar for visibility: “The brands don’t like it when you hide their product away, and you want people to see it, too, especially since they might not be expecting it.” 

Once you’ve got your offerings on lock, how should you price them? “Spirit-free bottles cost almost as much as some liquor bottles, so we have to charge accordingly,” Evans said. Spirit-free cocktails at the Sunday group’s locations are priced between $13 and $16 — typical prices in New York for a thoughtfully mixed NA drink. The cost of NA wines and beers closely resembles that of its alcoholic forebears because production is so labor-intensive. (Seabrook’s account of the brewing process at Athletic Brewing Company serves as a useful introduction to the acrobatics of de-alcoholization.)

Bolstering consumer confidence in these products can be a challenge. Many of your customers aren’t used to shelling out double-digit amounts for a drink that won’t get them lit. But it’s easier than you might think, Evans has found. “We’ve never really had any issues with ticket shock,” he said. “Oftentimes, people will come in and say, ‘Hey, can you make me a mocktail?’ And we say, ‘Actually, we have a zero-proof cocktail menu. Do any of these options sound like they wet your whistle?’ And they’re usually taken aback to find that we’ve put so much energy into that, and they’re grateful for it, so they go for it.” 

Bowman sees the classy NA drink’s price point as a potential boon for operators. “If you can charge $15 for a cocktail with no alcohol in it to a person who would have otherwise gotten a free glass of water, why wouldn’t you?” she said. “It’s a win-win, really. You turn a profit, and your guest gets to feel like they’re enjoying the whole experience.” 

So should you call non-alcoholic beverages ‘mocktails’ or …?

For as far as these drinks have come, their terminology remains a bit ticklish. The hospitality industry is moving away from the word “mocktail,” for what it’s worth, but hasn’t settled on a unifying replacement yet. “We feel like there’s a condescending association to it,” Evans said of the term. This is the prevailing sentiment among trend-conscious operators and bartenders, who opt instead for terms like “zero-proof,” “spirit-free,” “alcohol-free,” or simply “NA.”

Bowman says the old moniker still has a place in this discussion. “Boisson tends to avoid the word ‘mocktail’ in our advertising, because it does make it sound like the drinks are less-than,” she said. “But we also know that, for a long time, that was universally how people saw these types of drinks. We don’t want to eliminate it from the vernacular, because that’s how people find us sometimes — they’re looking for a mocktail. Once we have them in the fold, then we can steer them away from that word.”

Personally, I don’t much care what you call them. I’m just happy to see these drinks cropping up on more menus. Finally I can enjoy a sophisticated beverage in the company of other adults. I no longer equate getting sloshed with empowerment. I’m never going to the moon, and I’m okay with that. I’m just happy to have a seat at the table.

[Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash]