Non-Alcoholic Bottle Shops Are Helping Mindful Drinkers Thrive
Hosting classes and events to bring non-drinkers together, these stores are on the rise.
Between opting in to Sober October and observing Dry January, there are more opportunities than ever to stow away your wine collection in favor of 30-ish days without drinking. But at a growing number of shops across the country, there's no need to swear off stocking your bar cart for these months—because everything on the shelves is non-alcoholic.
Spirit-free bottle shops are on the rise and it’s not just big cities that are seeing dedicated spaces open their doors. New stores across the country are harnessing the interest in mindful drinking and creating spaces to explore the bevy of options in the non-alcoholic beverage world during the months dedicated to nixing booze and beyond.
Shane Anderson decided to dedicate a corner of his coffee shop in Dayton, Ohio to non-alcoholic spirits and officially opened Ghostlight Coffee and Bottle Shop in December 2021. Anderson said he was compelled to open the shop because there are very few spaces in Dayton that cater to people who don’t drink alcohol, despite the growing number of people who choose to abstain.
“It's a growing lifestyle change,” Anderson says. “And it’s important for people to have the option to have a social beverage without the effects of alcohol.”
Whether through ads on Instagram or word of mouth, most people have at least heard of non-alcoholic spirits today, but that wasn’t the case when Douglas Watters opened one of the first shops in the country dedicated to teetotallers in New York City at the start of 2020. When his store, Spirited Away, first opened its doors with “no alcohol sold here” scrolled across in metallic letters and shelves lined with a few non-alcoholic options, he said, “a lot of people didn’t really know what we were doing.”
But as word got out, more people started visiting the shop with relationships to alcohol as different as the products available on the shelf. Watters decided to cut back on the amount of alcohol he was consuming year-round, and while some of the store’s visitors were in that same camp, others stopped by the shop because they were part of the 1 in 5 adults participating in Dry January this year and some had completely erased alcohol from their lives.
“It became clear that I wasn’t alone in wanting better options for non-alcoholic drinks and a better place in which to browse them,” Watters says.
He was far from alone. The demand for non-alcoholic beverages has been steadily growing for years, but skyrocketed in 2021, when off-premise sales of no- and low-alcoholic beverages reached $3.1 billion, up from just $291 million the year before, according to data from Nielson.
In early 2020, Mel Babitz had the idea to open a non-alcoholic bar in the heart of Pittsburgh. She’s never been a big drinker but hasn’t cut out the substance altogether, so she wanted to create a space for people like her that could serve the same purpose as a standard bar—a gathering place meant to catch up with friends, get to know colleagues, and, hey, maybe even flirt with a stranger—without the booze. But the pandemic had other plans, so Babitz shifted her idea to a non-alcoholic online store called The Open Road.
At first, the number of products available at her shop could be counted on one hand, maybe two. But after nearly two years in business, she’s expanded to stock 230 products from about 75 different brands—and her options span alcohol-removed wines, non-alcoholic beer, spirit alternatives, ready-to-drink cocktails, and “functional beverages,” a growing category in the industry that includes CBD, adaptogens, and other additives that have some effect on the mind or body.
The number of options is dizzying these days. And major brands are getting in on the action, too. In the beer world, brands from domestic powerhouses like Budweiser and Stella Artois to smaller craft brewers across the country seem to be bottling up ABV-free brews, and WhistlePig recently released a non-alcoholic rye.
“Pretty much everyone's reaction is, ‘Wow, I had no idea there was so much variety available,’” Babitz says. Because there are so many options out there, she pours samples in the shop to help steer people toward a drink they’ll love. “I would so much rather offer samples and help them find something that they love rather than have them buy something … take it home, open it, and hate it. And then they're like, ‘well, all alcohol-free spirits are trash and I'm done with this.’ Because there really is something out there for everyone.”
Most people just need a little help finding it, and that’s exactly where the value of bottle shops comes into play. Like Babitz, education is a key reason why Danny Frounfelkner decided to open Sipple, the spirit-free shop he co-owns with his wife in Houston.
“For a while, a lot of people didn't understand what a non-alcoholic spirit even was and they definitely didn't understand how to drink them,” Frounfelkner says. “And we're still in that time when people are starting to discover these drinks, but I think you really need someone to talk to and learn from.”
Now he’s flexing his beverage knowledge from more than 20 years in the industry to pour samples and teach people about NA options that provide a good replacement for their favorite spirit, cocktail, beer, or wine varietal.
"Pretty much everyone's reaction is, ‘Wow, I had no idea there was so much variety available.'"
His wife, Helenita, has taken the education piece of their business a step further by creating QR codes that employees give out with each bottle purchase. That way, when customers get home the education continues, and a quick scan of the code reveals additional information about the non-alcoholic beverage and recipes to try at home with that particular bottle.
At the start of 2022, the duo hosted their first pop-up bar at a booze-serving establishment in the city. They set up shop at a local bar with a full menu of non-alcoholic cocktails, and they plan to continue hosting these events throughout the year to meet people where they are and teach more folks about all the spirit-free category has to offer.
“It’s booming, and it's gonna keep booming for a very, very long time,” Frounfelkner says. “This is not a wave. It's not a trend. This is here to stay, and it's just really the beginning.”