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How Do Nonalcoholic Bars Actually Work?

Meet the bars that are taking mocktails — sorry, spirits-free drinks — to the next level

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J Scott bartending at Listen Bar.
Tonje Thilesen/courtesy Listen Bar

Born out of a love for seltzer, Vena’s Fizz House in Downtown Portland, Maine is made to feel like a old-fashioned soda fountain spot. Bartenders shake up fizzy specialty mixed drinks like “The Pear Drop” (pear purée, pear shrub, lime, rosemary, and bitters) and “The Bangladesh Express” (coconut crème, blood orange, lime, ghost pepper, bitters). Downstairs, there’s a mixology shop, where owners, Johanna and Steve Corman sell homemade bitters and syrups, allowing attendees to make fun for themselves at home, too. The catch? When the bar opened in 2013, all of its drinks were zero proof.

For a while, no-alcohol bars catered to those in recovery. The Other Side, a sober bar in Crystal Lake, Illinois, was founded in 2013 because, as its founder argued, as someone who doesn’t drink, “you can only go to the movie theater and bowling alley so many times.” The Brink, a similar space in Liverpool, England, opened in 2011 and is dedicated to “recovery enterprise,” donating its profits to community organizations that fight addiction and substance abuse. These bars offered a space for people in recovery to continue to engage in a part of the “going-out” experience. “As someone who has been sober for so long, when I go out with friends, after they have a few drinks, I feel weird and leave,” says chef Kevin Sousa, who’s a recovering alcoholic. His Pittsburgh restaurant does serve alcoholic cocktails alongside no-proof drinks, but as Sousa says, “I’m really excited about this movement toward considered craftsmanship for nonalcoholic drinks.”

Bars like Vena’s are different from longer-standing sobriety bars. While once the reason to visit spaces like these was to combat substance abuse, today, they’re the latest experience coopted by the wellness movement and turned into a #lifestyle. Dirty Lemon, the charcoal lemonade for the Instagram-obsessed that’s only available for purchase by text message, opened the Drug Store to bring its prepackaged bottles off the screen and into a community. A sober rave has swept Austin, Buenos Aires, Boulder, and beyond. “Dry January” is becoming something people brag about, kava awareness is expanding, and CBD-infused drinks like Recess and Dram are just about everywhere: According to Streetbees, an agency studying consumer behavior, out of the 1,700 of-drinking-age millennials in the U.S. recently interviewed, 1 in 2 had lessened their drinking in the past year.

In response, in recent months, new zero-proof bars have been announced for Dublin and New York City (including Getaway and Listen Bar). But their beverage options don’t resemble anything like sugar-soaked virgin pina coladas, daiquiris, or Shirley Temples. They’re using shiso, fermented pineapple, kombucha, and bitters, crafted by celebrity mixologists shaking drinks, just as at any other cocktail spot covered by food media. At many, people under 21 are not allowed in, in order to ensure a bar-like atmosphere.

At Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Listen Bar, founder Lorelei Bandrovschi, a branding consultant, says its vibe is all about curating an “alternative” atmosphere. For its menu, Bandrovschi tapped mixologist Eamon Rockey (formerly of the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park and Betony, which closed at the end of 2016; in 2014, Rockey was sued by an employee over “abusive misconduct”) to create drinks like the “What’s Ur Rising Sign,” inspired by the musician Mitski, and “Me, A Houseplant,” which uses lemon, elderflower, and cucumber.

To Julia Momose, bartender and owner of Chicago’s Kumiko and the author of Spiritfree: A Manifesto, the key to these spaces’ success is semantics. “I was saddened by the number of guests who had a look of embarrassment when asking for [a mocktail at a regular bar],” she says. “I also felt like they deserved a word that had more life and luster to it, rather than a descriptive term that is defined by what the drink is not. Spirit-free is empowering: It denotes a choice, not a compromise.” Kumiko is not alcohol-free, because the intent is to “please everyone.” Nevertheless, Momose treats the spirit-free options on the menu with the same respect, and they’re almost indistinguishable in the menu’s layout.

The semantic argument extends to the practice of calling the alcohol-free spaces “bars.” “Anyone can buy a beer in a supermarket,” says Catharine Dockery, a founding partner of Vice Ventures, a venture fund that invests in “the nuance of vice, specializing in growing good companies operating in ‘bad’ industries.” According to Dockery, whose fund has invested in Listen Bar, what makes a “bar” experience is “being able to enjoy [that product] in the space, having an experience around it.” Removing the alcohol, the argument goes, can still result in an adults-only social space where it’s culturally acceptable to mingle and talk to strangers while spending your money on a “craft” experience. Not to mention, “bar” is a shorthand: It’s a good marketing tool, using a word that is already synonymous with the going-out experience.

The “Whats Ur Rising Sign” spiritfree cocktail at Listen Bar.
Shannon Sturgis/courtesy Listen Bar

“One of the words we don’t use is ‘sober,’” says Bandrovschi, who, for what it’s worth, drinks regularly. “We’re not making the assumption that people are sober in their lifestyle. We’re not saying there’s a right or wrong way to be, and we’re definitely not condemning anyone.” In doing surveys for her pop-up, she identified two-thirds of her customers were people who drank on a regular basis and were looking for a cool new place to hang out, with clear talking points for meeting new people. Listen Bar’s name is a double entendre — the bartenders are all musicians and play sets there — but it also refers to notion that when alcohol is taken away, what you have left is the conversation.

But whether they’ll be patrons at Listen Bar after the hype wears off remains to be seen. Other alcohol-free bars have struggled: Michigan’s Brillig’s Dry Bar, a no-alcohol pop-up, garnered a lot of press when it opened in 2014, but it’s since closed. While the original Drug Store was a pop-up that was entirely alcohol-free, the new, permanent locations will list mixed drinks with “suggested alcohol pairings” to boost profits. (They’ll also hold book publishing parties and DJ sets.)

For some, creating an alcohol-free space has been an uphill battle. “When we launched five years ago, we started making all of these crafted nonalcoholic drinks, sourcing unusual, healthy ingredients. People loved it,” Corman says. But Vena’s later added some spirits to its menu when “we started noticing alcohol nip bottles in our trash and it was a ding, ding, ding [moment]”: Patrons were surreptitiously bringing in alcohol to the establishment, presumably to add it to their no-proof drinks.

Today, the bar menu caters to both groups, but 25 percent of sales come from the nonalcoholic ones. “Having both [menus] means you can’t tell who is or isn’t drinking. It’s at everyone’s own discretion,” Corman says. A mixology shop downstairs, where Corman and her husband sell all the ingredients they use in the bar, offsets costs.

From a business owner’s standpoint, alcohol-free bars might have better margins, if they’re successful in convincing their customers to shell out the money for craftsmanship (not to mention they can be visited in the daytime, too, as an alternative to a coffee date). Nonalcoholic bars don’t have to pay liquor license fees or apply for intensive liquor license applications: In New York state, for example, a two-year Alcohol Beverage Control license costs a bar owner around $4,500.

But even without the alcohol, the drinks at specialty bars are not much cheaper than their booze-filled counterparts (at Listen, drinks range from $10 to $13, and under $10 for unmixed drinks like Club Mate, nonalcoholic beer, or Pilot Kombucha). “It’s the same idea around vegan or vegetarian food, where people argue the expense is just the meat,” says Bandrovschi. “Alcohol is the simplest thing to create a drink around. In order to make a [nonalcoholic] drink that’s exciting and complex, it requires more work.” Bandrovschi also hired a nutritionist to help make the drinks “healthyish.” Her offerings use ingredients like matcha, turmeric, and bee pollen, all favorites among wellness elite. Whether or not they have any actual health benefits, Listen Bar’s drinks have natural sources of sugar and no soda mixers premade in factories.

For the proprietors of no-proof bars, there’s still a large potential audience to capture. Some see them as safer spaces for first dates or meeting strangers for the first time, arguing that removing alcohol from the equation makes for a more equitable nightlife scene for women. For others, alcohol defines a going-out experience, emboldening one to make unusual decisions and giving them the confidence to try risky moves. It might be a hard sell to convince patrons otherwise.

“Portland has a refugee community, and that’s something we’ve seen increasing in the last year: Muslims, Indians and Somalians, coming in with their whole families or on dates,” says Corman. “It’s great to be able to create a safe space for all types of experiences side by side.” And while she’s not Mormon herself, she’s also seriously considering opening a second location of Vena’s Fizz House in Utah, because many tourists have come in saying nothing like it exists for the Mormon community there.

“When we started Vena’s, people laughed at us. Look at us now!” says Corman. Whatever you do, just don’t say mocktail.

Emma Orlow is a writer focused on food as it interacts with design.
Editor: Erin DeJesus