First there was Dry January. Then came Sober October. Cute names aside, the trend toward less alcohol continues to advance with no signs of slowing. Indeed, it might not even be a trend at all, but rather a permanent pivot by the American drinking public — and local bars and restaurants are taking note.
An industry expert quoted in a recent USA Today article on the trend noted that the volume of low- and no-alcohol beverage sales in the United States grew by close to 30% in 2021, with continued growth forecasted for coming years. Anecdotal studies, especially of younger Gen Z drinkers, show that after an initial uptick in drinking during the start of the pandemic, drinking trends are not only returning to pre-pandemic levels, but might even be reversing themselves.
Locally, a glance at menus across Wake County gives a glimpse at the state of sobriety, with nonalcoholic offerings popping up at bars and restaurants and nonalcoholic beverage sales soaring at bottle shops.
“2019 is the first time I personally recognized a growing interest in nonalcoholic beer from customers,” recalls Johnny Belflower, owner of Tasty Beverage Co. “My personal experience is that Dry Januaries keep becoming drier, younger people are drinking less, and folks my age can’t hang like we used to.”
On the retail side of things, many breweries have started producing NA options, meaning customers have more of a choice than just O’Doul’s when they head to shops like Tasty Beverage. One such company, Athletic Brewing of Stratford, Connecticut, produces an entirely alcohol-free lineup, and its brews have become some of the nation’s most popular NA craft beers.
Sober-curious consumers can find Athletic’s offerings at Tasty Beverage, along with some others that Belflower recommends.
“We’ve had a lot of success with Partake and Untitled Art,” he said. “Myself and my staff agree that Untitled Art’s NA Italian Pils is better than several alcoholic pilsners we’ve had over the years.”
Restaurants and bars are embracing the trend, as well. In years past, a non-drinker had few options — perhaps a Coke, maybe club soda with lime, or lemonade. Now there are entire menu sections dedicated to mocktails and other nonalcoholic concoctions, most usually crafted with the same care and attention that go into their boozy counterparts.
At Crawford and Son and Jolie, alcohol-free options have been an integral part of both restaurants’ drink menus since they opened. Owner and Chef Scott Crawford has been outspoken about his own sobriety and has been a leader in the restaurant industry advocating for and assisting those who struggle with addiction. Jordan Joseph, beverage director at Crawford and Son, says a dedication to providing delicious drink options for all customers is integral to what he and his team do.
“We are a neighborhood restaurant at the end of the day,” Joseph said, serving “people of all walks, sober, not sober, et cetera. It’s a way of being hospitable, and great flavors stretch beyond just spirit-based drinks.”
Joseph crafts the restaurant’s spirit-free drinks, like the Little Johnny — made with apple cider, ginger, rosemary, and miso — with the same care as the other cocktails. “Guest reactions to these offerings are always positive,” he said. “We keep things fresh and like to change them frequently as the season moves, just like the food.”
In Cary, The Umstead Hotel and Spa and its Herons restaurant offer one of the Triangle’s most luxurious drinking and dining experiences. Bar and Lounge Manager Lori Grow is adamant about providing the same elevated touch when it comes to their nonalcoholic options.
“We like to provide a variety of flavor profiles that could pair with your lunch or dinner if you so desire, just as you might with wine or beer,” Grow explains. “It opens the door for not only conversation, but to enhance the experience and set ourselves apart from another property.”
A unique offering at The Umstead is its rotating menu of drinking vinegars. These tangy, alcohol-free sippers (also known as shrubs) have been a menu mainstay for years.
“The drinking vinegars have been very popular,” said Grow. “We have carried them for over eight years. We started out getting ones made from Oregon, but now we have an amazing culinary team that provides us with some unique flavors.”
The flavors include carrot-ginger, apple, and butternut-lemongrass. When mixed with club soda, they create a refreshing, seasonal drink that can be paired with food or enjoyed on its own.
Downtown Raleigh’s Current Wellness is unique in many ways. The center integrates physical wellness activities like yoga and dance with mental health counseling and, more recently, a 100% alcohol-free bar.
Co-owner Nathan Williams explains. “If you’re going to a bar and you’re limited to Topo Chico or a Coke, it’s not super interesting. [We had] this idea of folks being able to drop in, to create a space where regardless of whether people drink or not … folks can gather.”
With kombucha on tap from Durham’s Homebucha Brewing and creative cocktails that Williams himself whips up, the bar at Current Wellness has proven to be a popular spot for folks to hang out after they take a class or drop in during Raleigh’s monthly First Friday festivities.
One of his favorite NA cocktails to offer customers is the Billows and Thieves, from the book Good Drinks by Julia Bainbridge. The recipe calls for fresh grapefruit juice, lemon, coffee concentrate, nutmeg, and sea salt, but Williams makes it what he calls “Oaxacan style” using Oaxacan Old Fashioned Simple Syrup from Bitter Milk in Charleston, South Carolina.
“We’re so used to people talking about wellness being [just] going to the gym,” Williams said. “Hopefully, we’re defying expectations about what wellness is.”
James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen has been in the restaurant industry for decades and has taken note of the shifting trends. “There is a lot of increased sobriety in the industry, so as that happens, there is a natural increase in the creativity of the NA beverage offerings across the industry,” she said.
“This year, at Tales of the Cocktail [a renowned cocktail competition], Lyre’s Non-Alcoholic Italian Orange won for the global category of Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient,” she added. “I think that is pretty telling of the popularity and advancement of NA cocktail culture.”
Christensen herself recently went public with her struggles with alcohol addiction and her newfound sobriety. “I am new to sobriety, which I think in a lot of ways makes me the perfect test pilot for the ‘feels’ of this conversation,” she said. “As a hospitality lifer … I want folks to come in and feel welcome and considered by what we offer.”
At the end of the day, that sentiment of feeling welcome resonated with everyone we interviewed for this article. The trend toward low- and no-alcohol offerings isn’t necessarily a backlash to America’s drinking culture, but rather a concerted effort on the part of the entire hospitality industry to create spaces that are accessible to everyone.
So whether you plan on celebrating Dry January or you’re just looking to have a few more booze-free nights out, know that there is an ever-increasing list of delicious options out there — and that is certainly worth raising a glass to.
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