Why Tales of the Cocktail Looked a Lot Less Boozy This Year

The shift in programming and parties marks a significant sea change in the industry.

It’s a sweaty midsummer Friday afternoon in New Orleans, and in a bar just a half-block from Bourbon Street, there’s a lively jazz trio playing in the corner as a steady line of patrons steps across the threshold to find a friend, a drink, or both.

Today, the French Quarter bar The Will & The Way is being taken over during one of the final events of this year’s Tales of The Cocktail, the annual drink and spirits conference that offers a glance at current trends in the industry as bartenders from around the world descend on New Orleans. The event, which went virtual in 2020 and 2021, returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary in live format this summer and, with it, the five days of educational seminars, over-the-top tastings, and outrageous parties.

But here, bartenders are stirring and shaking each drink with Seedlip, a line of nonalcoholic spirits distilled from botanicals. The vibe is mellow but cheerful, and at the bar, a trio of bartenders each mix up one of three cocktails in a steady rhythm one man boasts that he’s been able to make it through the conference without ever waking up hungover.

It is a sea change for the conference, where a nonalcoholic spirit brand not only served as a premier sponsor this year, but events focused on low- and no-proof cocktails were among the most interesting on the schedule. It also marks a turning point for the entire industry.

“Folks are not as hesitant to speak up for themselves and advocate for themselves and others,” says Lauren Paylor, the co-founder, owner, and COO of Focus on Health, who also served as a bartender during the event, shaking Seedlip Grove 42 and Seedlip Garden 108 with hibiscus tea, berry oleo, lemon, and Fever Tree ginger beer. “We also are really trying to find ways to live lives that are sustainable. We want to be here for 50 more years, and we have to take better care of ourselves.”

Lauren Paylor serving Seedlip drinks at The Will & The Way
Lauren Paylor serving Seedlip drinks at The Will & The Way | Hospitality 201

Because the conference typically attracts industry experts, bar owners, bartenders, brand reps, and media, it’s a place where you can easily see the cutting edge of new trends. In 2019, organizers began focusing heavily on health and wellness, incorporating events like yoga and conversations about sobriety through its “Beyond the Bar” programming. Even still, if you were looking for a low-ABV option, your only choice was likely a spritz, and if you were looking for no-ABV, you were bound to be drinking water.

“I was dipping into coolers and grabbing a La Croix, if it was available,” recalls Josh Gandee, who hosts the No Proof Podcast, is a Focus on Health contributor, and co-founded Historic Revelry, which provides branding and content creation for spirits brands. “I don’t want to be sequestered to the water-cooler at the back of the room, which is real.”

In the past three years, interest in low- and no-ABV drinks has soared. For many, the coronavirus pandemic catalyzed a new focus on health, and alcohol consumption trends had already been starting to shift.

2018 survey found that Gen Z was drinking more than 20 percent less than Millennials did at the same age. The same report also stated that 64% of Gen Z survey respondents said they expected to drink less frequently than their older counterparts as they aged, and in a 2021 Nielsen survey, 22 percent of American consumers reported that they were looking to cut back on their alcohol consumption.

But there are many flavors of interest in low- and no-ABV, and opting out of alcohol can happen for a single round, a single night, or a longer period of time.

“There’s nothing worse than being out with friends and everyone is taking their Instagram photo and you're stuck holding a glass of Coca-Cola,” said Adam Fournier, a Los Angeles bartender who landed on the Imbibe 75 list for his non-alcoholic cocktails. “The amount of times I’ve had people say, ‘My wife isn’t drinking because she might be pregnant, but we don’t want our friends to know,’ or had someone who’s dealing with the stigma of not drinking, or you’re the designated driver. You still would like something to sip on.”

For most, that “something” has long been water or, at best, picking a drink off a section of the menu usually tucked into the back like an afterthought. But that, too, is changing.

“We’ve gone miles away from the mocktail,” says Gandee, who became sober in 2017. “When you hear people not wanting to use that, it’s because for a lot of us, we knew mocktail as mimicry. We knew it as something that didn't hold substance, didn’t necessarily hold creativity. It was just for someone who was looking for something to hold onto.”

In the nearly 10 years since Seedlip creator Ben Branson began experimenting in the no-ABV market, he considers just how much has changed in the industry.

“It’s a long way from where it was...maybe a few NA beers that tasted like cardboard and grape juice-tasting NA wines,” he says on a Zoom call from the United Kingdom. “And there’s now this supply of really amazing, delicious, grown-up, sophisticated options that don’t contain alcohol, and that takes the form of over 250 non-alcoholic spirit brands and 100 different non-alcoholic beers. It’s a multibillion-dollar category, globally, which is epic.”

Non-alcoholic brands typically take one of two paths: Create a replacement, a spirit that tastes, feels, and acts as close to its alcoholic counterpart, or create a new flavor altogether, something that offers a wholly new experience.

The latter is what Branson did with Seedlip, but the former is the strategy for Australian brand Lyre’s, which won the conference’s Spirited Award for Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient.

On the second day of Tales, midday tasting rooms had just opened, and Lyre’s brand reps walked the conference hallway with backpacks full of slim cans—each with a G&T, Amalfi Spritz, or Classico, a bright, appley sparkling drink that tastes immediately more complex and satisfying than a typical sparkling water.

Thirsty conference attendees eagerly grabbed the cans as they were passed out, many choosing to head further into the Lyre’s tasting room, where bartenders busily poured highballs and spritzes with the brand's non-alcoholic spirits, which are takes on white and dark rum, tequila, whiskey and absinthe.

Like other non-alcoholic spirit brands, many of Lyre’s options aren’t intended to be sipped by themselves, but instead mixed with other ingredients to accomplish what a traditional cocktail does—offer a familiar flavor and experience when toasting a new success, complement a meal, or simply create a sophisticated excuse to take time for yourself.

“You’re not paying any kind of social tax,” says Lyre’s chief marketing officer Paul Gloster. “You’re actually part of the crowd, part of the group. It’s inclusive, And that’s one of the things that we love in the hospitality industry—it should be about inclusivity.”

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Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, where she formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist. She prefers her adult beverages in go-cups because she’s rarely home and, despite her husband’s best efforts, has a tendency to adopt dogs while on assignment.