The sober-curious movement isn't just for Dry January. Many people are choosing to drink less, or not at all.
Editor’s note: Ocean Beach Cafe has closed since this story was published. We’re putting this news in the “bittersweet” category, because although we will miss the vibrant scene at the bar as described below, former owner Joshua James says the closure was his choice and will free him up to pursue what he describes in a Facebook post as “BIG projects in the NA Beverage industry.”
Walking into the lavender-colored Los Angeles building that’s home to Soft Spirits, a shop flanked by row upon row of gleaming glass bottles with a fridge in the back that beckons with canned cocktails and beer, it’s difficult to imagine there’s not a drop of alcohol here. Not in the Wilderton botanical spirit made with cardamom and pine-smoked tea. Not in the Optimist blend of lavender, jasmine, and cinnamon leaf. Not in the Sovi sparkling rosé.
The nonalcoholic outpost is the latest in a growing number of sober bars and shops that are gaining a foothold amid rising interest in zero-proof beverages—and brick-and-mortar spaces to consume them. A constellation of factors led to the proliferation, owners say, from the pandemic’s acceleration of Americans’ reckoning with alcohol—drinking at home was perhaps “not the vibe,” Soft Spirits owner Jillian Barkley says—to higher-quality spirits that allow for cocktails that are truly well crafted, not just fruit-juice-and-sugar imitations of the classics.
You can drink a multicolored King Tide cocktail with a kombucha floater at Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco. Or head to Awake Denver, an alcohol-free bar, bottle shop, and coffeehouse that offers live music and other entertainment; pull up a stool to sip an Incandescently Happy elixir made with lemon, lavender, and blue lotus tea.
“One of the biggest fears is that it’s not going to be fun. You can get rid of that thought,” says Ocean Beach Cafe owner Joshua James, who is trying to build the largest nonalcoholic selection in the country. “What it’s going to do is open up a lot more opportunities to have some genuine fun and connection—and there’s no hangover.”
Many owners stress that these spaces aren’t just for people in active sobriety. Patrons range from pregnant couples to curious millennials to folks who just want to drink less.
Multiple studies suggest some Americans’ alcohol consumption rose in response to COVID-19. Nearly a quarter of adults reported drinking more to cope with stress during the pandemic, according to an American Psychological Association survey released in March. But overall habits may be changing: This year, fewer U.S. adults reported drinking alcohol compared to 2019 and those who did drank less, according to Gallup, which has recorded U.S. consumption since 1939, though it did not record measurements in 2020 due to the shutdowns.
People are “waking up” to the fact that “we’re all craving connection,” says Christy Wynne, co-owner of Awake Denver.
“We can still have the ritual. We can still clink glasses,” Wynne continues. “We can have community, we can have connection. We’re doing all the same things, but we’re just choosing to not have the alcohol piece.”
Head down La Playa Street just a block from the sand in northwest San Francisco, and James will pour you as many nonalcoholic beverages as “comfortably” possible in a $25 hour-long tasting. The former bartender is passionate about introducing people to the possibilities, not to mention handcrafted cocktails made from spirits that have improved in quality, particularly viscosity, according to James.
“There’s a whole other demographic now that is aware that this is a choice” James says. “They’re going to grow up not having to drink.”
James decided to stop drinking alcohol last year after it took a toll personally and professionally, and got accepted into into San Francisco’s Friendship House, which bills itself as a substance abuse treatment provider for Native Americans, a month before the pandemic hit. The bartender then moved into a sober living home and decided to start reviewing nonalcoholic beverages as “Josh The Non Alcoholic” on YouTube and Instagram; four months later, James became a brand ambassador for Athletic Brewing Company, which crafts no-ABV beers.
Six months into sobriety, James walked into what’s now Ocean Beach Cafe and learned the owner was a week away from permanently closing. “I didn’t have the money but I knew I would see this one all the way through since I was finally using my new brain,” says James, who raised the necessary capital thanks to crowdfunding and an angel investor. The cafe opened in January and demand started “exponentially growing,” adds the owner, who is already thinking about opening a second location.
Ocean Beach Cafe is different from some other sober spaces in that its beverage selection is only part of the business plan. Most folks simply walk in for coffee and a sandwich, James says. Still, nonalcoholic beverages make up one-third of the overall revenue (and might hit 50% this month); two consecutive Fridays saw the drinks comprise more than half of the cafe’s sales.
“There’s never been a nonalcoholic beverage culture in America,” says James, who points increased interest thanks to a growing number of brands and increased media coverage of the market. “What’s happening is an entire multi-billion dollar, nonalcoholic beverage culture is being created in warp speed to catch up with other countries.”
The United States is currently the second largest, and “most dynamic” market for no- and low-alcohol products in the world, according to an analysis released by London-based IWSR in February that cited a 30% increase in 2020. No- to low-alcohol spirits saw the biggest sales volume increase across the board, while wines made “strong gains” in America, the analysis says.
Some of James’ most memorable interactions range from a cancer patient who didn’t drink due to treatment until discovering the cafe’s nonalcoholic wine, to a mother with three daughters—two pregnant, the other sober—who found delight in stocking up for a family party. But this market is “not necessarily for everybody,” cautions James, particularly for folks in early and significant recovery. “It’s all about the way it’s presented,” James says.
If there’s a hub for the sober-curious movement in the West, Denver makes for a very compelling case.
The city became home to a nonalcoholic festival, Sundown, this fall, created by the same couple who started a roving, booze-free rave Secret Dance Addiction. Meanwhile, just a few miles west of the RiNo District, Awake Denver offers an expansive menu at its sober bar, bottle shop, and coffeehouse.
Billy and Christy Wynne opened Awake’s coffee service last year and the full bar in May, after they decided to quit drinking and noticed a cultural shift toward embracing alcohol-free living. But they couldn’t find nonalcoholic products around town. Despite the fact that the market was taking off amid the COVID-related shutdowns, “I was driving from liquor store to liquor store,” says Christy, a physician’s assistant. “Nobody had anything.” (The fact that she had to go into liquor stores for alcohol-free products is a “whole other story,” Christy says.)
Upon opening the bar, they found themselves “completely overwhelmed both by the volume of people, and also just the sentiment of excitement and gratitude we were getting from our community,” recalls Billy, who also serves as the founder and chairman of the health policy consulting firm Wynne Health Group. The couple is now working on a franchise program and hopes to launch in the first quarter of 2022.
At the bar, you can expect zero-proof Manhattans and margaritas alongside daiquiris made with activated charcoal and a “Heat of the Night” cocktail with ginger-turmeric bitters. That’s par for the course in this rapidly evolving market, where two types of beverages emerge: Drinks meant to mimic old favorites with nonalcoholic substitutes for spirits like gin or tequila; and entirely new beverages, often made with botanical spirits, that are “their own beautiful thing,” as Christy describes.
It’s getting more and more difficult now to keep up with the number of new products on the market, say the Wynnes, who personally taste and approve anything offered at Awake. While it felt “reasonable” to try everything on the market last summer, Billy says, by the time dry January rolled around earlier this year, “it was apparent that we were not going to be able to try everything.”
But that’s a good thing, the couple says. More options mean more choices, and for all ages, too. A prom-going group of high school students once walked into Awake, for example. “These kids all have access to alcohol,” says Christy, who is interested in the rich discussion about providing “alternatives for kids who don’t want to choose the alcohol but also don’t really know how to navigate it.”
Questions loom for the market. First, for its ability to expand into the mainstream. “It’s so simple for [restaurants] to put one or two special things on the menu for people who don’t want to drink,” says Christy. “They’re really selling themselves short, too, by not doing it. They could so easily sell a $12 alcohol-free margarita, and instead someone’s going to choose water.”
The sustainability of this recent popularity spike also remains to be seen. While the lifelong recovery crowd is “much bigger than people think because they often have not been going out much, if at all,” Billy says, sober-curious patrons (or those who want to moderate or pause their drinking) make up a much bigger market—and “the biggest growth opportunity for a company like ours.”
“Is it a fad?” Billy asks. “I don’t think it will be, because quitting drinking alcohol or drinking less is good for you.”
Portland may soon be home to the West Coast’s next sober bar.
Andy McMillan, an events producer who is behind the city’s XOXO festival, has been working on his concept Suckerpunch for more than two years. The goal is to offer highly crafted nonalcoholic beverages that are as good, if not better than, alcoholic cocktails— and do so in the southeast part of Portland. Now all his team needs is a window of opportunity that is currently dependent on the Omicron COVID variant sweeping the U.S.
The pandemic already put a pause on Suckerpunch’s early success, when the soft launch of its pop-up series drew a “gangbusters” response last January, McMillan recalls. Press coverage and word-of-mouth reviews led to 2,500 people on the waiting list for a planned first week of public service in March, he says. But “then the world ended,” McMillan adds, and they canceled all reservations.
It’s a shame, because the recipes for Suckerpunch beverages read like garden-to-glass perfumes. Straight from the Fire, for example, is made with roasted corn tea and smoked pecan wood maple syrup, not to mention cooked grape must, fresh sage, and bitters from another Portland maker, The Bitter Housewife. Bar director Matt Mount, a prolific Portland mixologist, crafts innovative drinks using house-made syrups, kombucha, and malleable teas.
The team doesn’t want each cocktail to “just be a pale comparison” to alcoholic equivalents, McMillan says. “We can’t be too reliant on sugar and fruit juices,” the founder adds. “I really want to blow people away.” Suckerpunch’s nonalcoholic cocktails, McMillan says, should demand to be savored in the new space.
While they wait to resume the pop-up series, the Suckerpunch team released DIY cocktails kits for folks to try their hand at making their own booze-free drinks at home. The components in each box are a who’s-who of high-quality producers in the nonalcoholic market: A recent kit, for example, features a standout citrus concoction from Wilderton, a line of botanical spirits made by two veteran Portland distillers.
McMillan, who immigrated from Ireland and has been sober for six years, hopes to launch the Suckerpunch pop-up as early as next month; meanwhile, he’s also working to find a permanent brick-and-mortar space and developing a line of ready-to-drink cocktails.
Though he finds it “odd” that sober-curious spaces didn’t open on the West Coast first—Getaway Bar and Listen Bar opened in New York two years ago, while Chris Marshall opened Sans Bar in Texas (and plans to embark on a third national pop-up tour in 2022)—the region is now producing a plethora of the category’s leading spirits and more folks like McMillan are creating spaces “for people who haven’t had a considered space for them before.”
“We are, economic sectors willing,” McMillan says, “hopefully about to see this really take off on the West Coast.”