Zero In

Bar culture meets the sober-curious movement, and it’s not an oxymoron.

Overhead view of ice and red non-alcoholic cocktail in glass, garnished with sugared cranberries, a spring of time, and white flower blossoms.
Zero-proof cocktails are looking—and tasting—better than ever due to the emergence of the sober-curious movement. / Darian Shantay

It’s a part of the industry: the shift drink, moving to the bar next door after a stressful night of service, and maybe downing a few more before heading home. Brandon Anamier, bartender at Number Thirty Eight in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood, remembers the routine well. Picking up a post-shift drink was as comfortable for him as picking up a shaker while on the clock. “After work, you better believe I was sweeping the floor as fast as I could so I could make it to last call at Brass Tacks and get that beer and shot,” Anamier says. “And I’d see my industry brethren doing the same thing. Get off work and go to the bar—that’s how we release the tension of the shift.”

But after more than a decade of near-daily consumption—and building a career around the stuff—Anamier wasn’t happy. He’d experimented with Sober October and Dry January in the past and noticed he felt better during those times. So he decided to keep Sober October going, without a dedicated end date. That was November 1, 2019, and, outside of professional tastings, he hasn’t had a sip since. 

Anamier is far from alone. The zero-proof movement (abstaining from alcohol for any number of reasons) is growing, even amid the stressors and anxieties the pandemic has introduced. And while it may seem counterintuitive that alcohol-free drinks have a prime place in a bar setting, maybe it’s time we rethink what, exactly, a bar can and should be.

Ross Martin, chef and co-owner of the National in Telluride, chose sobriety for himself in 2014. He worked in bars and restaurants where consumption was a part of the culture his whole life, and being surrounded by people—both colleagues and customers—who overserved themselves only normalized that hard-drinking lifestyle. The combination of a crumbling marriage and recession-based career turmoil in 2008 caused him to reach the tipping point, where being a tippler no longer served him. “Nothing was working out,” he says. “I wasn’t being the father I wanted to be; I wasn’t being the worker I wanted to be. Something had to change.”

“It’s so much bigger than we realize, this movement.”

Christy Wynne, Awake

Once Martin stopped drinking, the restaurant industry got a whole lot easier for him, and he’s happy that zero proof has gained traction in Telluride, particularly among his younger customers. “I think younger people are seeing the epidemic of drug use that was out there for the last seven to eight years and seeing people fight into sobriety,” Martin says. “I think it’s shifted the mindset in that age group of what’s fun and acceptable. I wouldn’t say it’s mainstream, but it’s definitely becoming more popular. People don’t look at it and go, ‘They’re not drinking.’ It’s become more acceptable.”

Martin acknowledges Telluride’s altitude (8,750 feet) may encourage the sober curious. Especially in an outdoorsy mountain town, people don’t want to be hungover when they go out to hike, bike, or ski. But it’s not only the resort towns: “It’s just a growing movement,” says Alex Jump, head bartender at Denver’s Death & Co. “In the two and a half years we’ve been open, we’ve always offered [nonalcoholic drinks], but I would say this year in particular we’ve definitely seen a rise in people asking for them specifically, which has been awesome.”

Of course, no trend is absolute. At Denver’s Honey Elixir Bar, a health- and wellness-focused lounge that serves both full-proof and zero-proof drinks, owner Jocasta Hanson says her sales of nonalcoholic drinks, which are called potions on her menu, took a dive. Pre-pandemic, potions made up one-third of total sales. This year, they’ve fallen to about one-quarter. “I think people are more stressed out—they want to have a cocktail,” says Hanson, who’s spent many years of her life sober. “It’s still there, it’s still prevalent. It’s just not like January, February, and March of last year.”

Drink To Your Health

Making better health decisions for himself was a major catalyst in Anamier’s decision to go sober, and considering his job description is to serve that which he’s personally rejected, it’s put him in a paradox. “Personally, I don’t think alcohol really has a place in anybody’s life, and yet I make a living doing that,” he says. “I still have some conflicts, but it’s not my position to regulate what other people do…Still, I love the flavors, the combining of different liquids, the texture of wine. It’s almost like an art form, making drinks.” 

Anamier believes it’s time we redefine what a bar can be, and Denver couple Christy and Billy Wynne, who both abstain from alcohol, are betting on it. This spring the pair are opening Awake, the city’s first sober bar (see below). “It’s so much bigger than we realize, this movement,” says Christy. “It’s worldwide; it’s not just in the U.S. It’s everywhere, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s only going to get bigger.” 

Christy thinks that the pandemic will help push the zero-proof movement forward; she believes it’s shone an uncomfortable spotlight on less-than-healthy coping mechanisms. “There’s a huge contingency of people [who] sort of had an awakening around it,” she says. “We’ve had the time to be more contemplative in our lives, and I think that set [those people] off on a different trajectory. The sober-curious movement has thrived during this whole pandemic, and it might be stronger than it was before.”

Niki Sawni, who sells a line of alcohol-free beers and wines called Grüvi, says this year’s sales bear that out. While zero-proof cocktails make up most on-premise sales, Swani sees many bars starting to add n/a beers and wines to their menus as well. In fact, he’s even considering opening an alcohol-free taproom to meet what he sees as a growing demand. “We saw that jump,” he attests of his sales since the pandemic. “People are being a little more reflective on their own lives. COVID is a health-related virus; people understand how important their health is to them. [They’re thinking,] ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be drinking five drinks a night during this.’”

Christy agrees that a focus on health is key to driving the movement. “It’s sort of what’s happened with tobacco and smoking,” she says. “We just know as a fact that smoking is terrible for you, and there’s no way around it. We’re getting to that point with alcohol.”

All this is making alcohol abstinence less awkward for guests. Former Bon Appétit editor Julia Bainbridge hit the nail on the head with the subtitle for her 2020 zero-proof cocktail recipe book, Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason. There are a plethora of reasons someone may not reach for a boozy beverage, and the stigma associated with choosing n/a—in a bar, restaurant, Zoom happy hour, or wherever—is waning. “The whole world of nondrinking culture is so much more advanced than it ever has been before,” Anamier says. “It used to be seen as a weird thing, but now it’s more accepted.”

The “M” Words: Mocktails and Money

We prefer not to use that term,” Death & Co.’s Jump says of the “mocktail” label. “We respect what it is—we’re not mocking anything. We use ‘nonalcoholic cocktail.’ Creating them has really given our team the opportunity to be creative in a realm of drink-making that’s often been overlooked.”

Regardless of nomenclature, these concoctions take some tinkering to compete with the balance and complexity of traditional cocktails. At Death & Co., bartenders employ tricks like including syrups and egg whites to add texture, over-steeping black tea to add tannins, and experimenting with nonalcoholic spirits (Jump is the Denver brand ambassador for Seedlip) to make zero-proof cocktails that live up to their booze-infused counterparts. At Hooch in Aspen, general manager Lindze Letherman says that Seedlip recreates alcohol’s taste and texture, but the spirit’s high cost (not to mention its limited shelf life) keeps the bar from using it. Instead, she mixes a thick, viscous n/a orange syrup that mimics the weight of alcohol. “It helps with that mouthfeel,” Letherman says. “But it’s a very labor-intensive process.”

Anamier agrees that n/a cocktails can be more difficult to make, mainly because the body, weight, and mouthfeel of alcohol are so hard to replicate. Number Thirty Eight doesn’t have any n/a drinks on its menu, but Anamier says he still gets a good number of requests for them each night. He’ll start with a mixture of something sweet and something more acidic for balance. Then he’ll add a jolt of flavor, like bitters (if the customer is open to them; most bitters contain small amounts of alcohol). He’ll finish the drink with a splash of tonic water. “It gives your mouth the illusion that you’re drinking something that’s not just lemonade.”

Likewise, Martin’s mission is to make sure the three nonalcoholic drinks on the National’s menu are far from afterthoughts. The bar staff uses infused syrups, craft ginger beer and seltzers, and sophisticated garnishes like candied grapefruit and pomegranate sugar for their mixologist-style drinks. “There’s nothing worse than going in and saying, ‘I’ll have a water or Sprite or lemonade,’ and everyone looks at you and asks, ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’” he says. “The whole movement of craft cocktails, that doesn’t have to exclude zero-proof cocktails.” 

“The potions are a labor of love. I do it because I want to. It’s important to me, so it’s worth the investment.”

Jocasta Hanson, Honey Elixir Bar

Martin also believes the margins of n/a and traditional drinks can be very similar. “So long as there’s creativity and you’re sourcing the right ingredients, there’s no reason why [a n/a beverage] can’t cost $9,” he says. “It’s about the craft. If you want to eat well-prepared, well-sourced food, it costs more. If you want the same with a cocktail or a mocktail, it’s going to cost a little bit more.”

At Honey, Hanson stresses her potions aren’t cocktail knockoffs. She uses natural herbs, plants, and honeys—rather than alcohol-free spirits—to create them. As for her margins, expensive ingredients and labor-intensive processes make them slimmer than on conventional alcoholic drinks. “It’s so much more time intensive and intentional than cocktails,” Hanson says. “The potions are a labor of love. I do it because I want to. It’s important to me, so it’s worth the investment.” Jump, Martin, and Letherman say they try to keep the margins between their alcoholic and no-ABV options equivalent. Their bars charge about $4 to $5 less for zero-proof drinks, which puts them between $7 to $11 (depending on the bar). “It’s still a tough sell to get people to pay $14 to $15 for a nonalcoholic drink,” Letherman says.

As 2021 unfolds and we attempt to put COVID in our collective rearview mirror, many believe that the zero-proof movement will continue to build steam. If 2020 gave us tumult, sadness, and disruption, 2021 will be our comeback, which could involve cutting out alcohol for many. “I think 2021 is going to be a healing year, a recovery year,” Hanson says. “After all of us going through this crazy experience, we’ll be reacclimating to life. There will be some diving really deep into health and wellness, sobriety, and all that.”

Anamier is excited for the change, and believes bars and restaurants shouldn’t fear the zero-proof movement cutting into their alcohol profits, but should instead capitalize on its potential to drive the industry forward. “It just opens the door to what we all in hospitality say we’re trying to do—give everyone the opportunity to sit down and relax and have something they enjoy,” he says.

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