In 2020, even Georgetown’s quintessential college bar feels like it has to have a fancy booze-free drink on its cocktail menu.
The beginning of the new year brings the return of Dry January, when people around the world voluntarily abstain from alcohol for a month. But as millennials and drinkers of other generations embrace the “sober-curious” or “mindful drinking” movements, cutting back on booze while still wanting to be social, more mixologists and owners are reshaping the bar scene to make sobriety more accessible and delicious. Out: club soda or sweet mocktails with muddled fruit. In: something you actually want to drink.
Twice each year, bartenders from the Clyde’s Restaurant group, which includes the Tombs and Old Ebbitt Grill, get together to develop cocktails that can be served at all of its locations. Last spring, Clyde’s food and beverage director Bart Farrell made a request: Could there be two nonalcoholic options among the 14 new selections?
“I’d been reading up on the growth of nonalcoholic drinks and how it was no longer a Shirley Temple or Roy Rogers — they’re very seriously done,” says Farrell, who’s been with Clyde’s for 25 years. The bartenders duly came up with the Pomegranate-Ginger Fauxjito and the innocuous-sounding Strawberry Basil Lemonade.
It was important, Farrell says, that these spirit-free cocktails “were not just placeholders. We wanted something that would seriously sell.” There was “blowback” from some veteran managers about featuring two nonalcoholic cocktails, and Farrell admits he “honestly thought they’d be the 13th and 14th best-selling drinks on the menu.”
The spring/summer cocktail lists hit bars on April 1. Six months later, when it was time for a seasonal revamp, the Strawberry Basil Lemonade was the No. 6 seller across all properties, with more than 8,000 served, while the Fauxjito was No. 11. Two different nonalcoholic drinks joined the rotation on Oct. 1, including the Citrus Grove, and Farrell says they’re seeing similar success. “The excitement about nonalcoholic drinks has grown,” he says. “Our customers have changed, and it’s not your father’s saloon anymore.”
As Dry January has grown in popularity in recent years, some local restaurants and bars have embraced the trend: The Dabney and All-Purpose Pizzeria are two of the wide variety of D.C. establishments that offered special menus of alcohol-free cocktails throughout January 2019, and on some nights at All-Purpose the nonalcoholic drinks almost outsold the “regular” drinks.
But as “sober-curious” joined other wellness movements in the public conversation last year, spirit-free drinks moved from seasonal curiosities to full-on experiences.
Sans Bar, an alcohol-free bar in Austin, sponsored a nationwide tour of pop-up alcohol-free events, including one in the District in May, with nonalcoholic beverage tastings, a DJ and tarot readings. A 2020 edition, co-sponsored by the sparkling soda company Dry, stops at Epic Yoga in Dupont Circle on Jan. 25. Sharelle Klaus, who founded Dry, says visiting Sans Bar was “transformative” for her. “It’s an incredible experience of being sober and very present,” she says. “It’s a place where people can come in and connect” without drinking.
Klaus, who’s in the midst of a 90-day alcohol-free challenge, still enjoys glasses of wine, though she says she wants to be able to do so mindfully — “choose when I’m going to drink, and when I’m not going drink,” and have options. “I’d love to be able to see people walk into a bar, order a cocktail, and the bartender says, ‘With alcohol or without?’ The main goal, overall, is that you’d be able to go into any bar and feel included,” no matter what’s in your glass.
The appeal is obvious: For a sober person used to finding token nonalcoholic drinks on a bar menu, visiting the Sans Bar pop-up, or a spirit-free bar such as the Getaway or Listen in New York City, is like stepping through the looking glass. Those who still drink, however, might be put off by some terminology that seems more suited for an AA meeting; last May’s Sans Bar pop-up in D.C. included a sponsored “recovery lounge.”
One of the most popular ingredients in alcohol-free cocktails has been Seedlip, an English “nonalcoholic spirit” developed as a substitute for gin. When it debuted in the District a few years ago, higher-end cocktail spots such as the Columbia Room and Barmini were the only places starring the botanical-heavy elixir in their zero-proof cocktails, but Seedlip has gone to a much wider audience, from hotel bars to neighborhood cocktail spots. (Global liquor giant Diageo, whose portfolio includes Ciroc vodka, Captain Morgan rum and Guinness beer, purchased “a significant majority stake” in Seedlip in August.)
Dos Mamis, which launched in Petworth this summer, prominently features a “Sobrio” section of nonalcoholic drinks, which is also offered at co-owner Carlie Steiner’s nearby restaurant Pom Pom. When Steiner started bartending and putting together cocktail menus, she remembers co-workers saying “Don’t worry about nonalcoholic drinks. Just give them juice.” But now she says, “We’re providing representation for sober people. To me, it’s important that we have everyone’s backs.”
(Besides, Steiner says, it’s also something she looks for when she’s not at her bar: “I consider myself a drinker, but there are times when I don’t want to go out and drink four cocktails. I’ll have two or three cocktails and then nonalcoholic drinks.”)
Seedlip is the main ingredient in three of the four drinks on Dos Mamis’ current menu, including the Nahhhgroni, a surprisingly good copy of the traditionally boozy Negroni. No wonder Steiner says that on some weeknights, drinks without booze outsell those their higher-proof cousins.
For those who prefer to drink beer, however, it’s been more difficult to participate in this nonalcoholic revival. It’s not because there aren’t any hitting the market: The last few years have seen nonalcoholic beer releases from a succession of big-name nonalcoholic brands — Heineken’s 0.0, Pabst Blue Ribbon Non-Alc, Guinness Pure Brew (still only available in Ireland), and Leffe Blonde 0,0 — and a growing section of craft nonalcoholic IPAs from producers as diverse as Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing and California’s Bravus. (Both call themselves breweries, but neither makes any beer with alcohol in it.)
Despite all these new choices, nonalcoholic options still seem neglected in bars. There might be hundreds of beers on tap and in cans at your local Pizzeria Paradiso, but only one, Germany’s Bitburger Drive, is alcohol-free. At ChurchKey, which boasts about its 555 choices, there are two: Bitburger and Erdinger Weissbier Alkoholfrei.
Part of the problem could be that most American nonalcoholic beers have traditionally been terrible — note the prevalence of German brands at better beer bars — so those who aren’t familiar with new craft options might be hesitant to try them.
Bill Shufelt, the founder of Athletic Brewing, thinks it’s only a matter of time before that changes. In New York City, he says, Athletic is featured at beer bars, barbecue joints and the Michelin-starred Danish restaurant Agern. “Velocity is super-high during the week,” he says, especially at work dinners and among health-conscious millennials, though he’s found that placement matters: “As long as our beers are on the menu, people order with comfort,” he says, but people tend not to order nonalcoholic beers if they’re “hidden” away from the rest of the beers.
If nonalcoholic spirits continue on their upward trajectory, they won’t be hidden much longer — even in the places where you might not expect to find them.