The Rise of Dry Cocktails Is Changing Drinking Culture for All

“It’s about time alcohol-free beverages got their due.”

Getaway | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Getaway | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

In Minneapolis, there is a very good cocktail bar called Marvel Bar. Open for eight years, it not only helped usher in the cocktail revolution in Minnesota, but continues to push itself, changing the focus of the bar three times a year. Last year, there was a gin focus, and another on foraging, and one on brandy. This year, as of Wednesday, January 8 the concept is called Dry. For the next four months, the focus of one of the best cocktail bars in America is cocktails without alcohol. And the response, Marvel Bar’s general manager and spirits director Peder Schweigert told me, has “been incredible.”

Welcome, friends, to the cocktail world in 2020.

"It's about time alcohol-free beverages got their due."

The rise of non-alcoholic cocktail culture to today’s prominence speaks to the intersection of a few trends. An American focus on wellness is certainly one, both for people with addiction issues and those sober curious or interested in abstaining from alcohol for other reasons. Dry January currently has the same sort of favorability rating "Movember" had in 2012 (so much so that folks are now also doing "Sober October"). Within the bar industry specifically, the toll alcohol takes is discussed more openly, and bartenders who no longer drink or seldom drink are more and more the norm rather than outliers.

On top of that, the last few years have seen a general movement towards lower ABV, or “sessionable” drinks all around. Craft beer started looking to compete in the space where macro-lagers dominated and spritzes and other less alcohol-dominant drinks have become more popular. So, an argument could be made that the rise of non-alcoholic cocktails is the logical ending point of a broad push from alcohol, to low alcohol, to no alcohol.

Journalist Julia Bainbridge, the author of the forthcoming book about non-alcoholic cocktails Good Drinks, makes the point that, if taken as part of the overall culinary shift in America over the past fifteen years, “It's the last piece of the puzzle. Every other portion of the menu, down to bread programs, has been obsessed over. It's about time alcohol-free beverages got their due."

And to that point, as beautifully coiffed NYC cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons owner Joaquin Simo put it, "It's never been a better time to be a non-drinker." Non-alcoholic beer is better than ever. Bainbridge gave the example of both Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Special Effects, and Athletic Brewing Company's entire line of beers, which started to work when owner Bill Shufelt and "brewer John Walker played with newly discovered yeast strains that produce limited amounts of alcohol, ending up with a fully fermented beer that's under 0.5% ABV." Marvel Bar's Schweigert told me they're currently carrying four non-alcoholic beers all of which "are excellent."

But in terms of cocktails, non-alcoholic distillates like Seedlip (which distills grain spirits, water, and herbs, and removes alcohol before bottling), alcohol-free bottled cocktails Curious Elixirs, adaptogen and nootropic-infused Kin Euphorics, kombucha, and other more complicated and nuanced booze-free bases (or low ABV aperitifs like Haus and Forthave) are giving bartenders a healthy range of interesting ways to make creative cocktails without falling back into what Simo calls "the lazy world of faux-ijitos."

At Pouring Ribbons, they've long had a non-alcoholic cocktail section of their menus, and the bartenders are very conscious that there be no distinguishing visual factor that separates an alcoholic drink from a non-alcoholic one. "It's incredibly important to us that there's no stigma," said Simo.

Perhaps people will connect better if low/no alcohol socializing becomes the norm

But what does it all mean for us? The rise of the non-alcoholic cocktail seems to suggest that the parameters for which we’ve normally judged a bar are changing. It’s not just about how they deliver alcohol and whether the daiquiri or Negroni they make is true. It’s about drinks in general. Do you, as a bar, make -- to steal Bainbridge's book title -- good freaking drinks? Whether they have alcohol, or CBD (another increasingly popular non-alcoholic option), or just a shit ton of rosemary in them, are they balanced and interesting and, gasp, worth paying the same amount of money as you would for something booze-based? 

Most of the folks I talked to believe that ultimately, as with most things, cost will be a true test. "The hardest hurdle, I think," said Schweigert, "is getting people over the misconception that the correct way to gauge the best bang for your buck is how lit you get, and not how excellent and interesting a drink is." 

At least partially, the culture we've created around drinking in America is to blame for this. Since the early days of the American experiment, Europeans have been horrified by how much booze we consumed and how quickly we did it. And yet, as part of our special twisted psyche, we also managed to simultaneously demonize alcohol and tightly restrict it from the youths, thereby all but ensuring that it became this exotic, forbidden fruit that had to be sought out and consumed quickly and in large quantities in secret (thus many modern high school parties took place in the woods, or under bridges, or while sitting on someone's mother's basement steps while she went out to dinner).

The Up & Up
The Up & Up, New York | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Somehow, this tendency bled into America's legal drinking happy hour culture, which Simo defined as "trying to get as messed up as fast as possible with as little money as possible." But maybe this is changing. For one thing, younger generations seem less wrapped up in the speed and quantity idea of drinking culture. Bainbridge put it like this: “They're not afraid to question the ways in which we've been doing things, and they're determined to avoid their predecessors' mistakes. Laughing about how f***ed up you got last night? Thinking of it as a badge of honor? Okay, Boomer.” 

Perhaps with the rise of non-alcoholic and low-ABV cocktails and beer, legalized cannabis emerging as the recreational mood-altering substance of choice, and newer generations disrupting drinking norms, we are witnessing a turning point. Maybe America is moving on from "happy hour" drinking culture into something more like Europe's aperitivo culture, which is less focused on quantity, and more around smaller amounts of better alcohol, served as a way to whet your appetite before a meal. 

Also, and maybe I’m being needlessly optimistic here, but perhaps people will connect better if low/no alcohol socializing becomes the norm. Simo thinks that within five years, every major city will have at least a couple of non-alcoholic bars, which will double as coffee shops during the day, and serve more as social hubs than anything else. 
Bainbridge, for her part, believes that, when it comes to non-alcoholic cocktails, this is only the beginning. "Just as vegetarian dishes served in non-vegetarian restaurants have evolved from platters comprised of whatever sides went with the meat entrees, then to mimicking meat, and, finally, to being treated as their own things, people will come to embrace fully the idea of these drinks being nonalcoholic," she said. "I imagine, too, that some forward-thinking bartenders will develop non-alcoholic classics or some kind of templates for other bars and restaurants--ones that might not have the resources to experiment themselves -- to follow."  

On that note, Simo gives credit to Julia Momose at Kumiko in Chicago for helping popularize non-alcoholic cocktails, and push this conversation forward. Momose began creating spirit-free cocktails while at Oriole in 2017, and has "likely done more in that space than any other bartender in America," he said.

Getaway | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

But now, with actual non-alcoholic bars like Getaway in Brooklyn open, and places like Marvel Bar doing Dry, more and more torches are being passed. Speaking of Marvel Bar, when I talked to Schweigert, it'd only been open less than a week, but he was already thinking about how this might fundamentally impact the bar going forward. He mentioned perhaps creating another menu of highly tweaked takes on traditional non-alcoholic bar drinks, like a cranberry juice and seltzer, or a Shirley Temple. Or keeping an extensive non-alcoholic cocktail list even after they changed the concept.

"Whatever it is," Schweigert said, "I'm proud we're playing a part in it. It feels new. It feels like things are changing."

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End is out now from Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.