Zero-proof spirits are more of a novelty in the U.S. than other countries.
Gone are the days of twee mocktails and Shirley Temples. In recent years, zero-proof spirits and cocktails have put a grown-up spin on nonalcoholic libations—and started garnering a strong consumer base.
“There are very interesting cocktails that you can make without the use of alcohol. You have to explore the flavors and use what you have in house and improve the selection,” says William Perbellini, head mixologist at newly opened Nella Kitchen & Bar in Los Olivos, California. “It’s a very good sales strategy because instead of offering sugary sparkling sodas for a cheap price, you can actually charge $7, $8, $10.”
Perbellini developed three signature zero-proof cocktails for the restaurant’s soft opening: Passion Rose with hibiscus tea, passionfruit, and lemonade; Green Mile with cucumber, ginger, and limeade; and Pink Sunset, made of watermelon, Thai basil, and lemon. Though the components change, Perbellini follows a general blueprint that combines fresh juice, aromatic flavors, and carbonation.
The final product is largely influenced by what ingredients are on hand—a strategy that reduces both costs and waste. Perbellini enjoys the challenge of building complex beverages from the ground up; plus, it adds an interactive element. Every night, at least a few guests have asked Perbellini to add their choice of spirit to one of the zero-proof cocktails.
“For me, it’s so much fun because they get the chance to build their own flavor profile, and you add three more options to the menu without even knowing it,” he says. “If you have 10 [alcoholic] drinks and you have three nonalcoholic ones, all of a sudden you have 13 options that you can mix and match.”
The initial trio didn’t incorporate nonalcoholic spirits, but Perbellini is not opposed to adding them in the future. He says zero-proof spirits can be handy to have, although what they bring to the mixture—aromatic flavor—can be achieved by housemade concoctions like syrups and bitters. Not to mention, the price of these spirits can rival their alcoholic counterparts, thus whittling away the savings of zero-proof options.
“It is a great product, and they’re very popular. I just don’t want to see a zero-proof menu section where Seedlip or other brands are constantly replacing the spirit of choice,” he says.
Listen Bar founder Lorelei Bandrovschi took a combined approach to her menu. She was eager to showcase high-quality zero-proof spirits but also adamant that the beverages go beyond simple substitutions.
Founded in late 2018, Listen Bar started as a series of pop-ups at various bars across New York City. Past menus featured nonalcoholic libations like She Pretty—strawberry, rosewater, egg white, and edible flowers—and Actual Sunshine, with two zero-proof spirits, Seedlip Grove and Kin Euphorics, as well as turmeric kombucha and mango.
“One of the things that is really important is bartender training, because a lot of times guests may have heard of a certain brand or they might be excited to try it, but they won’t have the same kind of familiarity and brand loyalty that someone might to a spirit,” Bandrovschi says. “It really requires the bartenders to do a lot more educating in terms of what to expect from the different drinks.”
Indeed, zero-proof spirits are more of a novelty in the U.S. than other countries. Many of the leading nonalcoholic spirits that have emerged in the past decade hail from abroad: Seedlip, Three Spirit, and Borrago from the U.K.; Lyre’s from Australia; Ceder’s from Sweden; Abstinence from South Africa; and more. Italy’s storied San Pellegrino brand has long produced Sanbitter soda, which shares the bitter flavor and ruby color of Campari.
But now American entrepreneurs are entering the arena, too, with brands like Ritual Zero Proof, Kin Euphorics, and Proteau. In October, newcomer Spiritless began fulfilling orders of its Kentucky 74, a nonalcoholic bourbon. For the founders, the impetus was two-fold: On a personal level, they craved a cleaner cocktail without the unwanted side effects of imbibing. As professional consultants with F&B experience, they also recognized a gap in the marketplace.
Nevertheless, Spiritless faced its share of skeptics, especially in the early days. As far as spirits go, bourbon is especially revered, and many hold traditional distilling methods as an immutable gold standard.
“The first layer of skepticism started when we were talking brass tacks about how we wanted to distill. There’s a whole lot of folklore that comes into distilling, and there’s also a lot of tradition in the sense that this is the way that everyone’s been doing it for 100 years. So the idea that it would be different was hard for people to wrap their brains around,” says cofounder and CEO Lauren Chitwood. “I think that more people are seeing a spot for a spiritless product in their lives. Because again, we’re not taking anything away; we’re here to meet the consumer exactly where they are, and most of them are looking for alternatives.”
Despite the coronavirus knocking things like on-premises cocktail menus down the totem pole of priorities, Spiritless had already been approached by at least one national distribution retailer as of press time.
What gives the nonalcoholic movement staying power might have less to do with proof and more to do with how it redefines the dining- (and drinking-) out experience. Past Listen Bar pop-ups featured a special theme or event, from karaoke and astrology readings to dominatrix lessons and speed dating. During the pandemic, the business expanded to include virtual happy hours and a six-week online program called Night Shift.
When restaurants and bars finally open up again at full capacity, Bandrovschi says the concepts that go beyond nonalcoholic lip service will be the ones that win with patrons.
“I would advise anyone who’s looking at incorporating [nonalcoholic drinks] into their menu and their business model to really look at the entire experience,” she says. “There will be a huge windfall of people who are excited to be out for anything, but soon it will become quite competitive. … I think that places are going to have to be more creative in how they package the experience.”