Brianda Gonzalez grew up in Avalon, a resort town on the island off the coast of Los Angeles that had 16 bars in a square mile. Her upbringing taught her about the ritual and conviviality of drinking culture, but also some of the drawbacks.
Last summer, Gonzalez, 28, opened a different kind of bar, on a trendy block in Venice, California, where her neighbors include a vegan pizza parlor and a tattoo shop.
The New Bar stocks mezcal and tequila, favorites of her own Mexican family’s parties, as well as beer, wine and a range of other spirits, all of them alcohol-free.
“As customers walk in, you just see this moment happen in their eyes, where they’re like, ‘Holy crap, it’s true,’” Gonzalez said.
Los Angeles has seen a recent flowering of zero-proof bottle shops across the city, from Silver Lake to Beverly Hills. Proprietors of the new bottle shops say they’re struggling to keep their shelves full of no-alcohol wine and spirits, with this year’s dry January only adding to an accelerating demand.
California is part of a nationwide trend, with dozens of alcohol-free bottle shops opening coast to coast since 2020, fueled in part by a growing “sober curious” movement. Even celebrities are debuting their own zero-proof drinks –like Katy Perry’s De Soi, a line of non-alcoholic apéritifs, and Bella Hadid’s Kin Euphorics – as an alternative to the ten-thousandth celebrity tequila.
US consumers now spend nearly $400m annually on non-alcoholic drinks, according to a 2022 Nielsen IQ analysis, with at least 70 new non-alcoholic products introduced in the previous year. Many products sell at a price point that’s actually higher than similar alcoholic beverages. The average non-alcoholic spirit, for instance, costs $26, according to Nielsen IQ, compared with just $12 for the alcoholic version.
Alcohol-free beverage choices used to be limited to a single brand of beer, O’Doul’s, or a fruit-juice “mocktail”. Now, there’s a zero-proof option for everything from craft brews to small-batch botanical mixers to artisanal faux whiskeys.
“We’ve come a long way,” Gonzalez says, though the quality of new products can still vary greatly.
My first zero-proof cocktail in Los Angeles was advertised as having woodsy, piney notes reminiscent of a redwood grove. It tasted like toothpaste water. Many customers come to the New Bar already having had a similar bad experience with a non-alcoholic drink, “and we regain their trust”, Gonzalez said.
The vast majority of customers at zero-proof bottle shops still drink some alcohol, according to shop owners. But they’re looking for ways to consume less, while still maintaining familiar cocktail culture rituals or habits of drinks with friends. Public health officials in Canada recently warned that even a moderate amounts of alcohol can cause serious health risks, and a growing body of research suggests that, at any level of drinking, it’s healthier to consume less.
At Soft Spirits, Los Angeles’ first non-alcoholic bottle shop, employees get a lot of the same basic questions. A viral video about the shop, which opened in mid-2021, generated dozens of dismissive comments including: “What’s the point of all that?”, “So, soda” and “That’s just overpriced juice.”
Its founder, Jillian Barkley, said her Silver Lake store, which grew out of an Instagram account, focuses on providing education and tastings, as well as making the case that non-alcoholic beverages are worth their premium price, which range as high as $50 a bottle.
“It is a craft product. It’s something that’s new and being developed, which requires a lot of research,” Barkley said. “These products have the added challenge of really making an authentic experience and having to go through trial and error. A lot of them are very, very small companies.”
Gonzalez tries encourage customers to rethink what they’re getting out of a beverage; rather than simply valuing “the psychoactive impact of the ethanol”, they should focus on “the beautiful complexity of the flavor profile, the active mixing and working with wonderful ingredients”.
Taste-testing the options
At first glance, alcohol-free bottle shops look almost identical to traditional liquor stores, with shelves and refrigerator cases subdivided into categories of wines, beers and different kinds of spirits.
Like alcohols, zero-proof drinks are produced through a variety of methods. Some products are traditional alcoholic beverages, like whiskey or wine, that have gone through an additional process to remove the alcohol, making them less than 0.5% alcoholic, about the same alcohol content as a ripe banana, as Gonzalez put it. She toasted her own recent engagement with Prima Pave, a “dealcoholized” sparkling wine from Italy.
Other beverages mimic the taste of a particular alcohol, without ever being alcoholic in the first place – such as a growing segment of botanical drinks that riff on the flavors of gin. A third category of zero-proof beverages focuses on totally new flavors and often offers alternative “active” ingredients, like CBD or herbal supplements.
There are now at least 750 different “adult non-alcoholic beverages for the evening social occasion”, said Douglas Watters, whose own Manhattan bottle shop, Spirited Away, marketed itself as the first in the US when it opened in the summer of 2020. Zero-proof spirit companies are launching everywhere from South Africa to Singapore, and Watters launched the Dry Atlas, a consumer review site, as a way to keep track of them all.
Some of the new zero-proof beverages are designed to be drunk straight out of the bottle or can. Others are emphatically not. Barkley laughed when asked if anyone would want to take shots of Ritual-brand peppery, non-alcoholic tequila. “I’m not sure the purpose of taking a shot of a zero-proof spirit,” she said. “These are designed to be cocktail ingredients.”
Against this advice, I sampled one prominent “reverse-distilled” bourbon, Spiritless’s Kentucky 74, without any mixers. The award-winning drink tasted like slightly smoky sugar water. A Guardian colleague who sampled it said it reminded her of a flat Diet Coke that had been left out in the sun.
Red wine and dark spirits like whiskey and bourbon have been the most challenging drinks to replicate, Watters, the New York bottle shop founder, said. Gin, with its complex botanical flavors, has proven an easier liquor to experiment with, with dozens of non-alcoholic options on the market in a wide range of flavors.
Free Spirits’ the Spirit of Gin, a ginger-heavy drink that tries to use the spice to mimic the burn of alcohol, didn’t quite work for me. Even mixed with tonic water, it tasted more like a gingery dark & stormy than a gin. But a Los Angeles company, Optimist Botanicals, offered a more appealing, herby gin replacement, flavored with cilantro, oregano and habanero, as well as juniper and lime. Optimist Fresh might not have the bite of actual gin, but once Gonzalez, the New Bar owner, mixed it into a spicy gimlet garnished with arugula, I could barely tell the difference.
Some of the gin-adjacent drinks wander into strange territory, including Pentire’s Adrift, which tastes like the ocean, or rather the idea of the ocean distilled by a very high-end scientist. I found it mesmerizing and quite drinkable, though it is, in essence, a half-pint of saltwater that retails for $30.
My colleagues and I found it easier to embrace the non-alcoholic drinks that did not attempt to mimic the taste of the real thing. Instead of a faux-Campari, like Wilfred’s, we preferred the all-new aperitif Ghia, an elegant, bitter-citrus drink that sells “like wildfire”, Barkley said. Sipped alone, or mixed with seltzer, Ghia has a summery taste and a clean grapefruit finish, like a posher, more flavorful alternative to the beloved pamplemousse LaCroix.
New Bar staff preferred a similar apertivo, Figlia’s Fiore, flavored with rose, citrus, and clove. “It’s refreshing enough to have in the summer, but it has that warmth you crave in the winter,” Gonzalez said. Mixed with ginger beer and grapefruit, Figlia made an ideal brunch cocktail – more delicious than a mimosa, and without the resulting cheap fizz headache.
One of Barkley’s favorite apertifs, Melati, is from Singapore, made with goji berry, hibiscus, and cacao. Melati was delicious on its own – rich, layered, and not at all like juice. On its own, Melati delivered some of the complexity of sipping a glass of whiskey, though without alcohol’s kick and buzz. It cost $50 a bottle.
While many non-alcoholic spirits make the case for their price tags with sophisticated flavors alone, some of the most popular new non-alcoholic beverages also come with “adaptogens”, such as mushrooms or other herbal supplements, which promise some kind of gentle mood enhancement.
Three Spirits’ Nightcap, a non-alcoholic drink to wind down the evening, is a popular option. When I saw that the first two ingredients on the label were water and maple syrup, I had my doubts. But a sip of Three Spirits produced a surprisingly pleasant burn, and a sweet, spicy aftertaste. Its “active” ingredient, valerian, has been touted as a sleep aid for millennia.
Who’s drinking zero-proof spirits?
While non-alcoholic drink sales are strongest on the US west coast and north-east, there are now at least 25 non-alcoholic bottle shops across the US, including in Boston, Salt Lake City, Dallas and Racine, Wisconsin, according to Laura Silverman, who tracks nationwide trends on Zero Proof Nation.
Restaurants and bars are still lagging behind retail shops in terms of offering consumers a wide variety of alcohol-free options, Watters, the Spirited Away founder, said. That makes bottle shops some of the only places customers can sample these new beverages, as well as get some help sorting through the explosion of new non-alcoholic options.
The rapid growth of zero-proof bottle shops has already attracted corporate investment, with Boisson, a non-alcoholic bottle shop chain, announcing it had raised $12m in 2022 and was expanding its multiple storefronts with three new shops in some of the wealthier neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The rise of a corporate bottle shop chain can make indie shop owners like Barkley anxious, but so far, she said, the proliferation of competitors had only brought rising sales and increased customer interest.
Bottle shops, and the larger “sober curious” movement, have a complicated relationship with people who are sober, and with the organizations that help people in recovery for alcoholism, bottle shop owners said. For some customers who do not drink at all, the stores’ products can be a good resource. For others, drinks that taste like alcohol or mimic cocktails might be triggering, or inhibit their recovery.
While Gen Z and millennials may be most enthusiastic in embracing the non-alcoholic beverage market, they’re not alone in wanting to change their drinking habits.
Gonzalez, the New Bar founder, said she had first become interested in non-alcoholic spirits a few years ago when her father, Martín, a longtime bartender she’s nicknamed “Martini”, developed an autoimmune disease that prevented him from drinking alcohol.
One of their favorite drinks, Monday Mezcal, was a way to help him continue the experience of drinking without the dangerous effects, she said.
While many young people were embracing these kinds of beverages, Martín Gonzalez said, in an interview conducted in Spanish, he had also seen an increase in older restaurant customers ordering alcohol-free drinks with their meals. Gonzalez, 52, who has worked for 18 years in the bar and restaurant industry, said that many restaurant menus still hadn’t caught up to the growing demand for non-alcoholic cocktails.
Some of his family members were initially skeptical – “why would you want to drink alcohol that doesn’t get you drunk?” one asked – but the value of these beveraages had grown on them, he said. At one recent family dinner, he brought alcohol-free mezcal and said his relatives had only praise for the drink, and the way they felt after drinking it.
He laughed when asked what he would have thought a few years ago if someone had told him his daughter would open an alcohol-free liquor store.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed something like this could exist,” he said.
Three non-alcoholic cocktail recipes, from the New Bar, Optimist Fresh and Figlia
Fresher optimist gimlet
2oz Optimist Fresh
1/2 oz lime juice
1/4 oz lemon juice
Handful of arugula
1/2 oz apricot jam
1/2 jalapeño syrup
Muddle arugula in a shaker or jar, then add ice and all other ingredients.
Shake briefly and strain into rocks glass, over ice (ideally a large cube), and garnish with arugula.
1.5oz Figlia Fiore
1.5oz ginger beer
0.5oz fresh grapefruit juice
Fill a glass with ice and add 1.5oz Figlia and 1.5oz ginger beer. Give mixture a stir and top with sparkling water. Add squeeze of fresh grapefruit juice amounting to 0.5oz. Garnish with slice of grapefruit.
1oz Monday zero-alcohol gin
1oz Wilfred’s bittersweet aperitif
1oz Lyre’s Apéritif Rosso
2 full droppers All the Bitter Orange bitters
2 full droppers All the Bitter Aromatic bitters
Orange twist garnish
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into an old-fashioned glass with one big ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel, expressing the oils over the drink.
Kari Paul contributed reporting