DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council United States) held its annual meeting in Chicago in June. A key theme that speakers kept returning to, and signage kept reminding us of, is the importance of drinking responsibly, which almost always means drinking less. Unlike the NRA, which apparently feels that every red-blooded American should have as many firearms as possible, DISCUS is promoting the idea that we should consume less of the very product they’re promoting. And as most of us would probably agree, it’s better to drink less rather than more alcohol.
At the DISCUS meeting, I caught up with Derek Brown, author of “Mindful Mixology.” Brown was one of the nation’s top bartenders—even named Bartender of the Year by Imbibe—and his bar, Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., took home a 2017 Spirited Award for “Best American Cocktail Bar.” (Columbia Room closed last year.) In an abrupt about-face, Brown is now in the no- or low-alcohol camp. Brown’s position is that “alcohol is not the biggest part of a cocktail; rather, drinking cocktails is mostly about ritual, being together with friends and enjoying life.”
Last year, I chatted with David Crooch, co-founder and CEO of Ritual Beverage Company, which makes a line of alcohol substitutes—bourbon, gin, tequila–that taste close to the real thing, but contain not a drop of alcohol. We like this product quite a lot and have given it as a gift to friends who are not drinking… And there are a lot of them. Crooch echoed a comment by Brown that “about fifty percent of drinkers are trying to drink less,” but that doesn’t mean that fifty percent of people in the United States don’t want to have a drink with friends.
“Sometimes it’s just about the ritual,” says Crooch, “and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s not about having more alcohol. Let’s say you’ve already had a couple drinks. It’s Tuesday, but you’re not quite done. You want to have another cheers. You want to have another hug. Want to have another drink with your friends and your family. And here’s a way to say yes to that—and keep the ritual going—without having just a water. Let the bartender make you a beautiful alternative that doesn’t have the alcohol or the calories.”
Lately, when Carolyn and I are out to dinner, we’ll order a spirit-free cocktail to start, and we’ll switch to a glass of wine with dinner. It is fascinating to see which restaurants put some effort into their spirit-free offerings, and which ones are still handing out a 7UP with a cherry.
On a recent visit to Vol. 39 in the Kimpton Gray Hotel, there was only one non-alcoholic beverage on the menu, a spirit-free Negroni, and it was very good, with the heft of a spirit-based cocktail and flavors that came through cleanly and not at all artificially. The Negroni used Seedlip, a very popular non-alcoholic mixer. At this particularly swank Loop bar, the demand for no-alcohol cocktails has not been great. According to Guillermo Bravo, beverage director, “I would say we get one or two guests a night asking for a non-alcoholic option. Given our location and clientele, most of them opt for an NA beer and we have a great one: Athletic Brewing Upside Dawn Golden Ale. When it comes to NA cocktails, we often resort to bartender’s choice because we have a lot of tools to play with. We list only one on the menu because we prefer having the conversation with the guest about what they’d like for an NA cocktail. We use it as a way to make the guest comfortable enough to ask us for NA cocktails that they wouldn’t think are possible, like a dirty martini (which we do with verjus, olive brine and Ritual gin).”
Vol. 39 is clearly testing the waters to see if their clientele wants spirit-free cocktails. That tentativeness is totally understandable if they get, as Bravo reports, only a few people per night requesting a beverage without booze, though I suppose the case could be made that more people would order non-alcoholic beverages if more non-alcoholic beverages were on the menu.
Atelier is going all in on spirit-free beverages, and they offer a no-alcohol beverage pairing with their regular tasting menu. We were knocked out by the complexity and thoughtfulness behind the drinks. We asked owner and general manager Tim Lacey what considerations he takes into account when developing a spirit-free cocktail. “There are two approaches I take: first, I try to construct a drink with depth of flavor and complexity by looking for combinations that aren’t obvious,” he says. “I want something different, and second, I find good ingredients and get the hell out of their way. Now that things are coming into season, I tend to go this route more often. I’ll get good produce and do as little as possible to it to let the ingredient speak for itself.”
One of the striking characteristics of the no-alcohol cocktails at Atelier is that Lacey serves them in gorgeous glassware. That may seem superficial, but the kind of glass you sip from definitely affects the kind of experience you have. “To me,” says Lacey, “a glass makes a statement about the drink that’s in it. So, a drink just feels like it belongs in a specific glass, and the glass is chosen intentionally and almost intuitively. If a drink needs to go in a rocks glass with a large ice cube, putting it instead in a coupe is anathema. It’s just fundamentally wrong.”
At the DISCUS conference, there was much discussion about at-home cocktailing. Perhaps a consequence of at-home pandemic drinking, more people are relying on either making cocktails at home or getting pre-made cocktails in a bottle or can. We asked Lacey what advice he might have for people who would like to make spirit-free cocktails in the comfort of their own home. “There’s a fantastic line of syrups I recently discovered made by Bacanha. We’ve used their grenadine and elderflower and they’re both absolutely gorgeous,” he says. “Locally, there’s Vers’eau. It’s made in St. Joseph from a base of wine grapes. There’s yuzu, rhubarb, ginger, and a ton of other things in it as well. There’s also been an explosion of non-alcoholic spirits recently. Two that I really like and use regularly are Wilfred’s and Gnista. The Wilfred’s is an aperitif (think Aperol and Campari) and the Gnista is an amaro.”
Millennials and members of Gen Z are not drinking as much alcohol as earlier generations of Americans. People are, however, definitely drinking more spirit-free cocktails. Brown tells us there are currently about 200 spirit-free products on the market—but people are also drinking more spirits. According to DISCUS, “Spirits revenue market share has grown from 28.7 percent in 2000 to 42.1 percent in 2022, surpassing beer for the first time.” And wine sales are less than half that of beer.
It may be a while before it becomes common to see a spirit-free section of the drinks menu, but there is a grassroots trend toward genuinely delicious cocktails that contain not a drop of hooch. Starting a meal with an alcohol-free cocktail before switching to wine, beer or a spirited cocktail might be the best way to dip your toe into the rising tide of no-alcohol beverages.
Brown makes the point that “there is no such thing as a ‘healthy’ amount of alcohol, but you can lead a healthy life with a little alcohol, just as you can lead a healthy life with a little ice cream.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com