Booze-free drinks and shops for Dry January – and the rest of the year

Two mocktail options at the Gibson: Anything But Holy and Quid Pro Quo, Clarice. (Maansi Srivastava for The Washington Post)

The first time I took a break from drinking alcohol, back in 2009, the experience wasn’t just dry — it was barren. I write about nightlife for living, so I still had to go out to review new bars, but if I asked a bartender for a nonalcoholic drink, I usually got a tumbler of club soda with lime. Maybe a glass of the house soda at a cocktail bar, if I was lucky.

That was before Dry January began, 10 years ago, as a charity fundraiser in Britain with just 4,000 participants. Interest in cutting out or cutting back on booze has only grown since. A 2020 YouGov poll of almost 15,000 American adults who drink alcohol found that nearly a quarter planned to participate in Dry January the following year.

Laura Silverman, who lives in North Bethesda, is the founder of Zero Proof Nation and Booze Free in D.C., two websites that track new nonalcoholic beverages and where to buy and consume them. She stopped drinking in 2007, but it’s really only since the pandemic, Silverman says, that bars and liquor stores have been noticing, if not catering to, customers who are sober, or the burgeoning “sober curious” movement — people who are examining their relationship with alcohol, cutting back to only weekends, or mixing wellness and socializing.

“We’re seeing this wide sobriety spectrum of anyone from the sober serious, which can include the abstainers for medical or religious reasons or those in recovery, but also people who are abstaining for a certain amount of time, like a Dry January or a pregnancy,” Silverman says. “They’re training for a marathon. They have a big meeting in the morning. They’re doing their mindful drinking. There are just so many different reasons why someone might not drink for the night, or a month, or longer. And those people deserve options, too.”

Increasingly, they have them, for Dry January and beyond.

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The national increase in interest in nonalcoholic options has been mirrored in the D.C. area. In the past few months alone, we’ve seen the debut of the Mindful Drinking Fest, a celebration of nonalcoholic spirits, beer and wine; the opening of Umbrella Dry Drinks, an Alexandria shop selling alcohol-free drinks, mixers and wine; and the release of Port City Brewing’s nonalcoholic Hopwell, a seltzer flavored with the hops used in its award-winning beers. We’re also waiting for the debut of Binge Bar, the city’s first completely alcohol-free bar, which planned to open last year but has fallen victim to construction delays.

Whether you’re avoiding alcohol this month, you’re choosing to limit your intake or you just want to enjoy happy hour without worrying about hangovers, there have never been more options.

The Mindful Drinking Fest doubles in size

The Mindful Drinking Fest, first held in November at the Craft Beer Cellar on H Street NE, combined an afternoon of tasting zero-proof whiskeys and canned cocktails, wines and beers with cocktail demonstrations and fitness talks. It returns Jan. 21 at the Selina hotel near Union Market.

Erika Goedrich, the owner of the popular craft beer shop, created the event in collaboration with spirits expert Derek Brown, the former owner of the Columbia Room, who has become a leading voice in the field of low- and no-alcohol cocktails. Goedrich had been rapidly expanding the number of nonalcoholic products in her store during the pandemic but found that many were unfamiliar to customers. “People are wondering, ‘Is it something that’s worth buying?’ And particularly with spirits and wine that are more expensive, they’re like, ‘Should I invest in a bottle or not?’”

Brown says, “People are a little bit hesitant because they want to try them, they want to incorporate them into the way they drink. But at the same time, they’re not always sure of, A, what’s good and, B, how to use them.”

Goedrich announced the Mindful Drinking Fest on social media in mid-October. Within two weeks, all 125 tickets were sold, and there was a waiting list with another 125 names on it. “Derek was already talking about the second festival before we had the first,” Goedrich says, laughing, but it was obvious that the interest was there. “That day, the best feeling for me was people saying, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ ‘Finally, somebody thought about us.’”

Brown promises the second iteration will be bigger, with double the capacity, up to 250 people, and 25 vendors offering samples. After three hours of tasting and sampling, and mixology classes with Brown, the event shifts to a party, with a cocktail competition, DJs and dancing. The focus, Brown says, is on the community aspect, to show that abstaining from or cutting back on alcohol doesn’t mean sitting home and binge-watching TV. “It’s not about not doing something — it’s about doing something different. It’s about having fun and being part of a community,” Brown says.

Mindful Drinking Fest at Selina D.C.: Jan. 21. Tasting from 3 to 6 p.m.; cocktail contest and after-party from 7:30 p.m. to midnight. 411 New York Ave. NE. Tasting $35; party $75; joint ticket $95.

Port City goes alcohol-free

Alexandria’s Port City Brewing is home to the Monday night Joggers and Lagers running club, Tuesday’s Beer Yoga sessions, and the monthly Pedals and Pints cycling group. In December, it hosted a fitness class called Burpees and Brews. It’s no surprise, then, that customers at one of the region’s most decorated breweries are conscious about what they’re consuming.

Port City founder Bill Butcher says he’s heard requests for beers that are low-alcohol, gluten-free, low-carb and low-calorie. And, more than anything, for nonalcoholic options, “whether for Dry January or throughout the year.” Last year, the team began working on its first alcohol-free offering. After nine months of R&D, including pouring works in progress on draft in the taproom to elicit customer feedback, Hopwell made its debut in cans on Jan. 2.

One surprise: The first nonalcoholic release from a brewery inside the Beltway doesn’t resemble a beer at all. Instead, Hopwell is a crystal-clear sparkling water flavored with two varieties of hop extracts. “A lot of that had to do with what the team wanted,” Butcher explains. “A lot of our co-workers are not drinking NA beers, but they are drinking hop water,” the style of hop-infused nonalcoholic seltzer made popular by Lagunitas and other craft brewers. Butcher boasts that, in addition to lacking alcohol, it contains no calories, gluten or carbs.

In your glass, Hopwell is a bright, fizzy beverage that resembles a familiar La Croix or Spindrift. What sets it apart is flavor: Instead of sweet, ripe fruit, Hopwell has tropical citrus notes in the nose, and its body is dry and grassy, with refreshing citrus highlights. Butcher says the brewers settled on a combination of Amarillo, a hop used in previous Port City beers, such as Essential Pale Ale, and Lemondrop, which was suggested by Adam Reza, the director of brewing operations. While that variety hadn’t been used in previous Port City brews, “Lemondrop just gave it that citrus bite that we were going for,” Butcher says. Hopwell is available in six-packs at the brewery ($8.99 each) and a small selection of craft beer stores, as well as delivery within a six-mile radius of the brewery. Butcher says they’re taking things slowly, making two batches — roughly 500 cases — per month, and may even try different hop combinations in the future. “We’re really happy with the quality, but we will continue to experiment and we’ll continue to try different blends and see where that takes us.”

Port City Brewing Company, 3950 Wheeler Ave., Alexandria. Open daily.

Umbrella Dry Drinks provides a taste of the spirit-free scene

On a recent Friday night, Umbrella Dry Drinks in Old Town Alexandria buzzed with activity, and with a vibe falling somewhere between a wine tasting and friends hanging out in the kitchen at a housewarming party.

A butcher block table in the middle of the store was covered with a dozen half-empty bottles of various sizes, surrounded by stacks of used plastic cups. Customers gathered around, sipping and chatting and snapping smartphone photos of the labels on the bottles.

At the center of the storm was owner Sam Kasten, greeting newcomers and asking anyone holding an empty glass, “What are you looking for?” or “What can I get you next?”

Umbrella, which opened last August in a small space off King Street, has the feel of an attractive boutique bottle shop, with leaf-print wallpaper and door-size mirrors, but what look like dozens of liquor bottles, canned cocktails, beers and bottles of champagne filling the minimalist white shelves all contain alcohol-free beverages.

“When I quit drinking four years ago, there was nothing like this,” Kasten says. Umbrella Dry Drinks began as a series of events and pop-ups before finding its current home. Her goal is to expand customers’ knowledge, which is why she has an open-bottle policy: If there’s anything you’re curious about, just ask for a sample.

It helps that Kasten is a font of knowledge about her stock. If someone asks for a gin, she pops into the back to grab another bottle, and before you know it, she’s started a tasting with three varieties. Someone asks about replicating a Negroni, and a minute later, there are spirit-free vermouths and amari going into cups. Kasten is a consummate hostess, cracking jokes and making sure no one feels left out.

When Umbrella eventually settles into a permanent home, Kasten says, she’d like to have a full bar setup where customers can purchase cocktails and other drinks to enjoy on-site. Events and tastings are planned throughout Dry January but won’t end when the calendar flips to February: Kasten told me last week that she’s agreed to a six-month extension to the shop’s lease.

Umbrella Dry Drinks, 101A S. St. Asaph St., Alexandria. Open Wednesday-Sunday.

Bars and restaurants increase zero-proof options

These favorite bars keep everyone in mind, whether you’re participating in Dry January or looking for nonalcoholic options down the road.

ChurchKey: D.C.’s best-known beer bar has expanded its alcohol-free selection since reopening in the spring of 2022, with four or five options featured. The craft-first mind-set is at the forefront here, so you’ll find Untitled Art’s hoppy Italian Pilsner and Brooklyn’s malt-forward Hoppy Amber instead of the ubiquitous Heineken 0.0. Worth noting: If a nonalcoholic beer becomes a new favorite, there’s a good chance you can take a four- or six-pack home. Open daily. 1337 14th St. NW. Beers $6-$7.

Fight Club: There are five spirit-free options on the Dry January menu at Capitol Hill’s Fight Club, as well as a weekly “Zero Proof Thursday” happy hour with tastings and specials from 5 to 7 p.m. That’s a substantial increase from the one nonalcoholic drink offered a few weeks ago. The Rusty Garden Tools, a herbaceous concoction that adds dill, mint and celery water to Seedlip’s citrus-forward Grove 42, a frequent gin alternative, would be worth keeping around long term. Open daily. 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Zero-proof drinks $7-$12.

The Gibson: A dimly lit place for dates or just hanging out, the trailblazing bar near 14th and U has long been a reliable spot for creative mixology — with or without booze. The current menu features a pair of options, both of which are siblings to full-proof cocktails. The Quid Pro Quo, Clarice is built on a malty tea syrup but gets its herbaceous depth from flavors including star anise, cardamom and grapefruit pith. Strict teetotalers should be aware that the Gibson uses bitters that contain alcohol, though it flags this prominently. Open Monday-Saturday. 2009 14th St. NW. Spirit-free cocktails $7.

The Green Zone: The Middle Eastern-inspired cocktail bar has had nonalcoholic drinks on its menu since Day 1, from traditional jallab to Turkish coffee. The tangy, housemade Mint Lemonade is a popular choice, though take a cue from the Green Zone’s social media and ask for the Sparkling Rose Lemonade, which is sweetened with rose water and served over crushed ice with rosebuds. It’s as tasty as it is attractive. Open Tuesday-Sunday. 2226 18th St. NW. Nonalcoholic cocktails $9.

Jane Jane: Classic cocktails are the order of the day at this popular, if compact, date spot. The Sherry Spritz is made with sherry vinegar, not fortified wine, and the complex, nutty flavors combine well with citrus and the sweetness of grenadine. The fizzy sparkling water makes drinking it feel more festive. Open daily. 1705 14th St. NW. Nonalcoholic cocktails $8.

Moon Rabbit: Airy and sumptuous, Moon Rabbit rightfully draws attention for the quality of Kevin Tien’s Vietnamese cuisine. But don’t overlook what’s being served at the marble-topped bar, especially in the prominent “Free-Spirited” section of the menu. Our bartender described the Marble Mountains as “like a dirty martini,” which is all the sales pitch we needed. Made with Bare’s zero-proof gin, the cocktail contrasts sour verjus and a light brine. The “umami tincture” adds depth and harmony with some of the pickle flavors. After I ordered my second round — the very agreeable Oh Buoi, which tasted like a paloma, with a fuller body and hit of citrus from a grapefruit-chai oleo, the bartender asked if I was doing Dry January. I said yes, and she steered me in the direction of the wine list, which contains alcohol-free wines by the glass and bottle, and offered to bring tastes of anything we were curious about. With a choice of four cocktails, five wines by the glass, and four beers in cans and bottle, this is a destination that will please everyone who’s avoiding the hard stuff. Open daily. 801 Wharf St. SW. Cocktails $11-$14; wine $12-$14; beer $8.

Serenata: The spacious central bar at La Cosecha’s Latin American food hall is one of the best places to enjoy cocktails in the city, and it’s also welcoming to all. “¿Sin alcohol? No hay problema,” announces the third page of the cocktail menu, which features some house favorites, such as the Toronja, which gets heat from a grapefruit-serrano pepper syrup and dryness from grapefruit soda, as well as rotating features. The star right now is the Bare Best Ever Margarita, which uses Bare’s zero-proof tequila, although you might swear it’s the real thing. (“This tastes like a real margarita” is a line from my notes.) Unlike in many nonalcoholic cocktails, the texture and viscosity aren’t absent. It just feels right. Open daily. 1280 Fourth St. NE. Drinks $13-$15.

Service Bar: U Street’s neighborhood cocktail spot snagged No. 18 on the most recent list of “North America’s 50 Best Bars” — an annual ranking based on the votes of bartenders, writers and other industry members — thanks to creative drinks and an unpretentious vibe. The Zero Proof section of the menu features a Citrus Cooler that rotates seasonally. The current combo includes sharp cranberries balanced by citrus-forward Seedlip, the vegetal taste of freshly shocked mint and the aroma of charred lemon. If you told me this was a refreshing summer gin drink, I’d probably believe you. Open Tuesday-Sunday. 926 U St. NW. Zero-proof drinks $7-$9.

Tiki on 18th: Too many nonalcoholic tiki drinks wind up tasting like overly sweet Five Alive. That’s not the case at Tiki on 18th, the Adams Morgan cocktail spot above the Game, where bar director Rico Wisner adapts classic tiki ingredients for use in his booze-free cocktails. Wisner makes his own Fassionola, a sweet, nutty and gently passionfruit-flavored syrup, for use in drinks like the Hurricane, and it finds its way into the easy-sipping Tiki-Totaler with nothing else but citrus and club soda. Likewise, the Coco-Loco is a rich house syrup containing coconut milk and coconut water, but it makes an excellent base for the creamy Zero Proof Piña Colada. It’s a sweet, simple drink: Imagine a piña colada made entirely with Malibu. Open daily. 2411 18th St. NW. Nonalcoholic cocktails $7-$8.