‘Sober’ Drinking Is Finally Taking Off, No Thanks to Mocktails

Photo: Stocksy Cameron Whitman
When I was a kid, non-alcoholic drinks usually meant ordering "virgin" pina coladas and blended Oreo cookie drinks poolside on family vacations in Hawaii. Delicious, yes, but not exactly the healthiest choice to be drinking every single day for a week. So imagine adult-me's surprise a few years ago when I decided to cut out booze for a month—and discovered quickly that most non-alcoholic offerings at various bars were still either soda water or the super-sugary virgin cocktails from my youth. Cue Cher: As if.

Since my initial experiment a few years ago, there's now a growing interest in cutting back on alcohol—and with it, an increased demand for sophisticated, healthier drinking options that better fit the sober curious lifestyle. But you won't necessarily hear them being called mocktails or virgin drinks. "Low-ABV" and "no-ABV" (ABV meaning alcohol by volume) are the new need-to-know terms as these types of beverages get adopted in bars and restaurants around the world. According to investment firm Distill Ventures, which supports start-up spirits brands, 40 percent of restaurants in Los Angeles (and a third of NYC restaurants) already offer a non-alcoholic drinks section on their menus.

The shift to more low- and no-alcohol options is largely driven by the demands of younger drinkers, who on the whole are drinking less than generations past. "There's a tremendous trend in the marketplace right now just to drink less alcohol—particularly millennials interested in drinking less alcohol," says Todd White, founder of Dry Farms Wine. "Our number-one performing social media posts are low-alcohol right now." A 2016 global survey conducted by beer company Heineken found that 75 percent of millennials actively limit how much they drink during most nights out, while a 2018 report from research firm Berenberg Research found that people in Gen Z (who were able to first legally drink in 2017) are already projected to drink 20 percent less than millennials did at their age.

While certainly there are a lot of factors that have contributed to a decline in drinking (like cost and people preferring different options than their parents), experts say a lot of this has to do with a growing health consciousness among millennials and Gen Z-ers. The same Heineken survey found that of the millennials who limit their drinking, 59 percent say it's because they don't want to "lose control" while out in public—a surprising insight coming from the generation long associated with binge drinking behaviors. People seem to be less into how alcohol makes them feel, whether it's hangover symptoms, mood fluctuations, affected sleep, or embarrassing social interactions. Such was the case for John Wiseman, the founder of non-alcoholic beverage company Curious Elixirs. He says he started his company in part because he realized his relationship with drinking was not healthy. He recalls going out one night and having 20 drinks. "The next day, that scared the crap out of me," he says.

Reducing alcohol intake, of course, comes naturally to the wellness set. People willingly cut out alcohol on Whole30 or keto, for example, or participate in "Dry January" to take a break from booze after the holidays. But even then, health-minded people have still struggled to find good alternatives to satisfy their sober curiosity that aren't just seltzer. One issue, argues Wiseman, is that many of us still see alcohol and socializing as one and the same. "I think that the problem is really with the larger social construct of, 'If I'm going to hang out with someone, then I need to be drinking alcohol'. That's the knee-jerk reaction," he says. Reducing or abstaining from alcohol consumption, therefore, often used to require a tradeoff with a fulfilling social life—or involve fielding lots of nosy questions about why you aren't drinking.

"The evidence that globally people are consuming less alcohol has been widely documented and this, coupled with the steep decline of sugary fizzy drinks, a younger generation shunning alcohol altogether, and the focus on health and wellness all point towards a long positive future for this movement." —Ben Branson, founder and CEO of Seedlip

The other issue with the traditional non-alcoholic experience: OG mocktails often were high in sugar (hello, fruit juice and soda!) and were the opposite of sophisticated, both taste and experience-wise. Heidi Otto, portfolio director of Distill Ventures, tells me that she practices hot yoga, and if she does a class in the evening she doesn't really want to have an alcoholic beverage. "But I still kind of want to come home and like, downshift my day… And it's kind of nice to have something in a glass even if you don't really want alcohol, right? You have this awesome thing that you're like, 'Oh, I'm cooking dinner, and I feel like I'm still an adult with this nice drink.'" Previously, there was nothing to fill that gap...until now.

The latest crop of brands aim to solve for both problems by cutting back on the sugar and alcohol, using natural ingredients, and creating sophisticated products that still function and taste like popular spirits and aperitifs—providing a healthier option you'd be happy to drink in public. Seedlip, the first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, is made with various good-for-you botanicals to mimic the taste of alcohol without actually being alcoholic. Kin Euphorics, another emerging non-alcoholic brand, offers beverages infused with buzzy adaptogens, nootropics, and botanicals to help de-stress and relax you while you sip. "We're taking what [the traditional alcohol industry] has done well, and starting a new way to facilitate feeling, rooted in consciousness and creativity," says Jen Batchelor, the brand's founder. Similarly, Curious Elixirs uses organic ingredients like fruit juices, spices, and herbs in all of its drinks.

In the low-ABV space, we have Haus, which combines society's enduring love for summery spritzes while also cutting back on the sugar and alcohol content. Its signature drink (which launched with a wait list, it was in such demand) is made with natural ingredients and has 15 percent alcohol by volume—a tad more than the 11.5 percent in Aperol and way less than the 30 to 40 percent range of most spirits—while promising less sugar than European aperitifs. And at Dry Farms Wines, which emphasizes low-ABV, natural wines, the company goes the extra mile by lab-testing all of the wines they sell for sugar and alcohol content.

Even big companies are getting into the low-ABV/no-ABV game. Coca-Cola started testing a non-alcoholic drink line called Bar None in Atlanta earlier this year, which bottles up booze-free versions of sangria and Moscow mules. Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Budweiser, says it intends to grow its non-alcoholic drink sales to 25 percent of the business by 2025 (up from 10 percent in 2018). Otto says that 25 percent of Distill Ventures's entire portfolio is no-ABV. And as of August of this year, global spirits company Diageo holds a majority stake in Seedlip.

There are of course still some barriers to accessing these next-level offerings. While LA and London are growing markets in the no-ABV/low-ABV drinks space, places like New York have been a bit slower to adapt—and that doesn't account for the many, many towns and cities in between. And when you can find these options at a bar or restaurant, they tend to cost cost roughly the same as an alcoholic beverage; this is because it's actually quite difficult to make a cocktail that tastes elegant without using alcohol. (It's also important to note that "sober curiosity," is not the same as sobriety and is not a recovery method for alcoholics.)

Yet despite these hurtles, Ben Branson, founder and CEO of Seedlip, only sees this movement getting bigger. "The evidence that globally people are consuming less volume of alcohol has been widely documented and this coupled with the steep decline of sugary fizzy drinks, a younger generation shunning alcohol altogether and the focus on health and wellness all point towards a long positive future for this movement." Otto agrees. "I think it's that demand for choice is a really big element that is driving this forward," she says—the more people ask for more diverse alcohol-adjacent options, the better those options will become.

"It's the time that we're in, we live in the age of the spectrum, not in the age of the binary. And that's what people are figuring out with their food choices, their drink choices, their wellness choices, all of these things, and that's why I think it's exciting," Wiseman adds.

To wit, I was recently sitting at the bar in a trendy Mexican restaurant in Venice, California, and noticed a bottle of Seedlip nestled among the artisanal tequilas at the bar. It looked right at home with all of the other spirits. If you didn't know it was non-alcoholic, you'd probably never guess. And that's the whole point.

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