Do Alcohol-Free Spirits Have Staying Power?

alcohol-free spiritsHere’s how strongly Chicago bartender Julia Momose feels about alcohol-free cocktails: She wrote a manifesto about them. Published on her blog in 2017, the treatise called upon colleagues to retire the sneer-inducing “mocktail” in favor of her preferred term, “spiritfree.”

Her passion is personal—when Momose committed to her career, she wanted to share her skills with her teetotaling parents. “With each job”—at Windy City spots, including The Aviary, GreenRiver (now closed) and Oriole—“I was working on making sure if they were to visit, there would be something for them.” This led to alcohol-free innovations including the concentrated bases that she currently concocts at Kumiko, the West Loop Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar where she’s partner with chef Noah Sandoval and his wife, Cara. Momose crafts these from teas and other ingredients, many of which she sources from Asian grocers. While she makes many ingredients from scratch, distilling would be a stretch. Which is why she turned to Seedlip, a trio of nonalcoholic distilled beverages that debuted in 2015. Unlike nondistilled bases, these “spirits” are transparent, allowing Momose to create a zero-proof cocktail that visually evokes a spirited one. Plus, the products taste good. “The fact that they have all these beautiful flavors in a clear liquid form is so incredible,” she says.

In an age of meatless Whoppers and turmeric-infused oat-milk lattes, health-conscious food and drink is big business—and the spirits industry has been taking notice. According to a study commissioned by Distill Ventures, the venture capital arm of liquor giant Diageo, 61 percent of consumers in the UK want better choices when it comes to alcohol-free drinks, while 83 percent of bar managers in Los Angeles agree “non-alcoholic drinks are part of a growing trend.” The study also specifies that 40 percent of L.A. restaurants now offer separate spirit-free drinks menus, and in London that jumps to 55 percent.

This category growth inspired Distill Ventures to invest in Seedlip in 2016, and it recently upped the ante to acquire majority ownership. Meanwhile, competitor Pernod Ricard has put its money behind CEDER’S, a similar line of nonalcoholic spirits. In the shadow of these big deals, upstarts are racing to bring low- and no-alcohol booze to the European and American markets. But with the category still in its infancy, is there a permanent place for alcohol-free spirits behind the bar? How do we use them to make delicious drinks at home? And how much should we really be paying for alcohol-free spirits?

The way Ben Branson tells it, Seedlip didn’t sprout from an entrepreneurial seed. An enthusiastic herb gardener, he was researching his hobby online when he came across The Art of Distillation, a 1651 apothecary tome with instructions on crafting healing, booze-free herbal formulas. “Out of curiosity I bought a little copper still and began experimenting in my kitchen with herbs from my garden,” Branson says.

And just like that, the company—now stocked at 7,500 bars and restaurants in 25 countries—was born. This story aligns with Seedlip’s overall branding strategy, featuring a bearded Branson front and center, tinkering in the garden in a canvas apron, unruly curls springing from his cap. He’s a perfectly suited spokesperson for the celery-juice-and-CBD crowd—many of whom are “sober curious,” meaning they haven’t sworn off alcohol but have ceased to default to the hard stuff at every social occasion. Instead, they can increasingly turn to Branson’s three herbal blends: Spice 94, an “aromatic” spirit made from allspice, berry, cardamom, bark and citrus peel; Grove 42, a “citrus” concoction with bitter orange, Mandarin, blood orange, ginger, lemongrass and Japanese sansho peppercorn; and Garden 108, an “herbal” mix of peas and “homegrown hay.” These herbaceous preparations show up everywhere from the famed American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London to Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll venue Harvard & Stone. His stated value prop (adapted as Seedlip’s tagline): “solving the dilemma of ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking.’ ”

Not surprisingly, others want a piece of this profitable pie. There’s Pernod-backed CEDER’S, a trio of “alt-gin” products boasting botanicals sourced from mountains along South Africa’s Western Cape. Ecology & Co., currently available only in New Zealand, sells two alcohol-free libations: London Dry and Asian Spice. Italy’s getting in on the game with MeMento, a “non-alcoholic distillate from the Mediterranean.” In September, a Chicago-based company introduced Ritual Zero Proof Gin Alternative and Whiskey Alternative, aimed at the cocktail crowd. And Seedlip recently announced a sister brand, Æcorn Aperitifs, that offers zero-proof pre-dinner tipples.

All of these products emulate alcohol with complex, hefty flavors that wake up the palate. But even those that brand themselves as gin alternatives aren’t truly attempting to stand in for the real thing. For its part, Seedlip “deliberately didn’t use juniper,” explains Branson, who believes including gin’s signature botanical would only invite “disappointment and a compromise” in developing a formula’s flavors.

But a host of new products aims to straight-up replace traditional spirits, mimicking everything from the aging process to that back-of-throat tickle that follows a belt of booze. Danish brand ISH Spirits—which clocks in at .5 percent, sells two such mimickers, GinISH and RumISH. The “gin,” made with botanicals including juniper berry and coriander seeds, evokes the heat of alcohol by way of capsicum extract scraped from the shells of chili seeds. Vanilla and nutmeg in RumISH replicate the flavors that develop over time in an oak barrel, and apples, slowly baked until mushy, approximate an aged rum’s signature amber hue. Stryyk, another British venture, makes Not Gin, Not Rum and even Not Vodka. (Yup—alcohol-free vodka.) Like ISH, Stryyk uses capsicum for heat, combining that with “cooling” cucumber and menthol to evoke the sensation of sipping the most neutral spirit of them all. Meanwhile, London gin distillery Surendran & Bownes has debuted a zero-proof product, Edition Zero: Labdanum. Its “deep, amber note” comes from labdanum, a brown resin traditionally used for incense, perfume and cold medicine.

Most alcohol-free spirits have yet to debut in the United States, so it’s too soon to say whether college students in Cabo will be engaging in Not Vodka body shots next spring. But if the enclaves of cool kids in Austin, L.A. and New York are any indicator—and they typically are—that idea may not seem so preposterous in the near future. Austin has Sans Bar, Chris Marshall’s zero-proof lounge with a mission to “provide a safe, sober environment for adults to celebrate life while promoting personal and social wellness.” Increasingly popular “sober social clubs” in Los Angeles explore alcohol-free drinks at bars like Harvard & Stone—renowned for cocktails and spirit-free drinks alike. And in New York City, Lorelei Bandrovschi has built a veritable movement with Listen Bar, an alcohol-free bar that currently pops up one night a month.

Bandrovschi’s breakthrough came after a month-long alcohol break, during which she discovered an affinity for navigating nightlife minus the blur of booze. At Listen, local musicians sling NA beers, and the zero-proof drinks menu features original recipes from top bartenders, including Momose, Aaron Polsky (former bar manager at Harvard & Stone) and Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry. The effect is a sceney bar without the alcohol. And it’s proven so popular that Bandrovschi has been raising funds for a permanent space. “Everyone would expect, when I say I’m opening an alcohol-free bar, for the majority of our crowd to be sober, but that’s not the case,” says Bandrovschi.

Unlike Sans Bar, Bandrovschi’s project doesn’t advocate for sobriety per se; it’s asking people to experiment with an idea: Can we experience a bar scene—the music, the dancing, the socializing—without the influence of alcohol? “When you walk into Listen Bar, there’s no expectation that you’re sober. Some people might be on that page, some people might be taking the night off and some people might be pregaming for a boozy night with a booze-free warm-up.”

Momose sees a similar mix at Kumiko. “A lot of people really enjoy a cocktail and want to have a Martini or an Old Fashioned or a Daiquiri, but at the same time they know the effects of alcohol,” she says. “People who drink alcohol want nonalcoholic options, too.”

There’s even a place for nonalcoholic spirits at hard-rocking bars like Harvard & Stone, says Polsky, who recently left to develop his own line of canned cocktails. With Joey Ramone hair and a penchant for shirts unsnapped to the waist, Polsky looks the part of a rock ‘n’ bartender, but his drinks have gained attention for serious technique and creativity. And like Momose, he was an early adopter to the NA movement, tinkering with ways to make spirit-free drinks as appealing as their spirited counterparts. This is news to the older record executives who sometimes flood the brick-lined bar to scout talent. Some have stopped drinking, Polsky says, and assume there’s nothing for them amid the glinting bottles behind the bar. Alerted to the many NA offerings, they invariably react with appreciative surprise. Meanwhile, younger patrons who opt not to drink look for products like Seedlip as an indicator that they’re in a space where they’ll feel welcome. “Those are people who often don’t feel seen,” Polsky says. Alcohol-free options serve as a clear symbol that they’re both welcome and included.

For bartenders looking to serve such guests, alcohol-free spirits also solve a technical problem. “With nonalcoholic drinks, a lot of bartenders will just double the amount of citrus and sugar once they take the spirit out,” says Jack McGarry, co-owner of Dead Rabbit and BlackTail in New York and an outspoken mental health advocate who went public with his sobriety three years ago. “That type of drink is extremely intense in terms of citrus, and very rich, and you’re not going to be able to drink it throughout the course of a night.” Adding a zero-proof spirit means bartenders can maintain the same amount of sugar and acid as they would for a sessionable libation like a Collins, he says, resulting in a much more easy-to-drink concoction.

It also makes it far easier for home bartenders to mix drinks for abstaining guests. While Julia Momose may revel in inventing drinks made with adzuki beans and teas steeped at two different temperatures, such formulations are likely a bit advanced for at-home mixing. Filling a glass with ice, then pouring in a couple ounces of Seedlip with a gentle tonic or ginger ale (Branson recommends Fever-Tree), is a far simpler proposition but will still go a long way in making nondrinking guests feel satisfied. Just keep in mind that the formulas are far more delicate than gin or vodka, cautions Momose, and can disappear when used as substitutes at a 1:1 ratio.

Another important suggestion when serving nondrinkers: Ask first. Some recovery programs advise against nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits. In other words, a zero-proof drink that emulates a real cocktail may be a salve for one person but a trigger for another. If you’re offering such a product to a teetotaling guest or host, just inquire as to whether it’ll work for them.

And then there’s the question of price. “A lot of these products are coming in between $30 to $40 a bottle,” says McGarry, who worked with his bartenders to determine a clear system for pricing spirit-free cocktails which, in addition to the “spirits,” might also include hand-squeezed juices and other time-consuming, expensive ingredients. There’s no denying that for hosts looking to stock alcohol-free options—or guests seeking host and hostess gifts around the holidays—the price might be steep. But for abstainers looking to settle into a boozy social situation, a well-made drink can have a value all its own.


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