Behind the Bar Snap Shot

Can a Booze-Free Bar Thrive in Hard-Drinking Dublin?

Cedar Spritz, Pink Preacher and Tiki Street (from left), nonalcoholic drinks at The Virgin Mary in Dublin. Image: Franco Noonan

In an increasingly gentrified Dublin, Capel Street still has the power to surprise. Tailors, tattoo parlors, pho shacks, sex shops, one of the last of Dublin’s legendary pawnbrokers, traditional Irish pubs and Pantibar, home of Ireland’s favorite drag artist, line the street in the shadow of City Hall.

But even on Capel Street, no one was expecting The Virgin Mary. The first no-alcohol bar in a city famous for Guinness and pub culture is the brainchild of founder Vaughan Yates. Together with his business partner, Oisín Davis, and their small team, Yates opened The Virgin Mary last May. Named for the famous nonalcoholic cocktail, the bar is going strong six months after opening its minimalist black doors, and with new products, ever-changing menus and overseas expansion in mind, the team is not standing still.

“We’re on our second menu; we update every three months,” says Yates. He estimates his discerning bar manager, Anna Walsh, receives three or four new nonalcoholic products a week. “Not many make it through—she’s ruthless!”

Angus Bremner

Walsh oversees the cocktail menu and selection of beers, wines and spirits, which includes The Virgin Mary’s first homegrown product, Stop Whining. Menu highlights include classic Brooklyn nonalcoholic beers and the bar’s namesake Virgin Mary, Good Spirits, made with Three Spirit Social Elixir, strawberry, lapsang souchong and soda. All cocktails are vegan, and the bar is almost entirely plastic-free, with the exception of a few behind-the-scenes necessities. (Yates is confident Walsh will find alternatives for these, as the team is committed to sustainability.)

The interior of The Virgin Mary is subtly stylish, with hints of copper and marble against the muted color palate. On a typical Saturday night, there’s a steady stream of customers, but few linger for more than a couple of rounds. Studies show that nonalcoholic drinks are consumed at a faster rate. “One of our next products will encourage people to stay longer,” says Yates. “But that’s all I can tell you.” Some groups come in between drinking stops, to pace themselves.

Reflecting on the first half-year in business, Yates is surprised by the variety among his customers. “All of the research I looked at prior to opening very much focused around how millennials weren’t drinking as much,” he says. “But we’re getting a whole range of people from their twenties to their sixties coming in. Our demographic is typical of an Irish bar.”

Vaughan Yates. Angus Bremner

“The traditional Irish pubs will always be there, and they’ll always be busy,” says Yates, a drinker himself. “I have so much respect for those bars that have done well for hundreds of years. But I do think that formula is changing. People are looking at drinks differently than they ever have before. There’s no reason a good bar shouldn’t have the same choice we have, if they put their minds to it. And would they get more customers? I think they would.”

The traditional Irish bar may last forever, but the traditional Irish drinker is indeed changing. Almost a quarter of Irish adults don’t drink alcohol (“we haven’t seen all of them in here yet,” says Yates jokingly), and new rules introduced in 2019 ban alcohol ads near schools and playgrounds and on public transportation. Visits to the website DrinkAware, Ireland’s national alcohol awareness charity, skyrocketed by 300% in December 2018 compared to the same month the previous year. “Attitudes and behaviors are shifting,” says DrinkAware CEO Sheena Horgan.

Angus Bremner

Could The Virgin Mary work outside the hipster heart of Ireland’s capital city? Irish countryside pubs are suffering as drunk-driving limits are lowered and public transportation options remain poor. In November 2019, a member of Irish parliament (and pub owner) Danny Healy-Rae called for a permit system to allow drunk driving on designated rural roads, prompting outcry from experts. “I think a venue in the countryside should responsibly offer good choices,” says Yates.

The Virgin Mary aspires to augment rather than replace the existing drinks scene in Dublin, even running master classes for other bars. Local pub operators came to their opening night to wish the team well. “It’s a diverse and accepting community here on the street,” says Yates. “We’re a neighborhood bar, but we’re also a destination bar.”

What’s next for Dublin’s driest bar? The new winter menu and expansion abroad, with a focus on pairing food and nonalcoholic drinks, says Yates. “We’re all about building flavors,” he says. Tasting one of Walsh’s nonalcoholic cocktails, it seems a noble mission.