Illustration of calendar with various cocktails on certain days that signify Dry January
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Have We Reached the End of Dry January as We Know It?

A new-normal of non-alcoholic drinking has taken hold, and its reach far exceeds a single month.

At one of my son’s recent soccer games, a former Navy man and father of the star midfielder casually recounted to me the time he had tried Dry January. Though a regular beer drinker, he said it wasn’t difficult to give up alcohol for a month. Rather, he’d actually enjoyed the challenge. In fact, he might even do it again.

The same discussion among parents at a sports game just a few decades ago seems unthinkable. The topic would more likely have centered around post-game brews, save a few recovering alcoholics. And though non-alcoholic products have always existed, the Chicago Tribune noted their “frosty” reception in 1986 when, according to the U.S. Brewers Association, the amount of no-alcohol beer shipped by domestic brewers was 0.3% of the 175.5 million total barrels shipped nationwide.

But, then again, so many things have changed in recent years.

We’re entering Dry January amid a new culture of imbibing, commonly dubbed “mindful drinking.” And that culture is in full swing: Non-alcoholic bottle shops and sober bars are stocked with delicious, complex alcohol-free beers, wines, and spirits, while cocktail luminaries regularly espouse the necessity of zero-proof drinks.

Illustration of person sitting cross-legged on pillow sipping non-alcoholic wine / Laura Sant.

If Dry January used to revolve around participants white-knuckling through a month without drinking, the experience has evolved as consumer options have greatly expanded. Instead of sitting at home sipping soda water, you might be toasting friends with a sparkling wine alternative made with heritage pears and foraged ingredients from the Swabian Alps of Germany, or a craft-brewed non-alcoholic watermelon gose. Hosting guests at home may now regularly involve a round of non-alcoholic cocktails from one of the many wonderful recent books by the country’s top bartenders, such as Natasha David’s Drink Lightly.

Notably, this culture isn’t resigned to non-drinkers alone. According to Nielsen IQ, “consumers aren’t necessarily adopting total sobriety, as 82% of non-alcoholic drink buyers are also still purchasing drinks that contain alcohol.”

As the category evolves and public perceptions shift, is the monthly trend of no- and low-alcohol drinks over? Have we entered a new phase where these drinks are, well, sort of a year-round normal?

The Cultural Progression of Non-Alcoholic Drinks

When Chris Marshall, the owner of one of the very first sober bars, Sans Bar in Houston, first participated in Dry January five years ago, non-alcoholic choices were limited. “There are definitely more drink options now,” says Marshall. “In 2017, there were just a handful of N/A beers on the market.”

One of the most notable, O’Doul’s, was long advertised as “what beer drinkers drink when they’re not drinking beer.” This claim may have been partially true, but only because the options for non-alcoholic beer have historically been slim. (Beer Advocate rates O’Doul’s as 50 out of 100, or “awful.”)

I recall an older gentleman pulling up to a stool at the bar I worked at in the early 2000s and asking for an O’Doul’s. I had never ordered a non-alcoholic beer, seen it ordered, or unloaded an order of it, but we had three bottles in a battered cardboard six-pack container tucked in the back of the reach-in fridge. Any other non-alcoholic order would be soda or juice. If you wanted a complex, sophisticated adult drink without alcohol, you were out of luck.

As the category evolves and public perceptions shift, is the monthly trend of no- and low-alcohol drinks over? Have we entered a new phase where these drinks are, well, sort of a year-round normal?

The choices have since exploded, and so has the culture that spawned them, including a deluge of new non-alcoholic bottle shops and sober bars. Laura Silverman, the founder of Zero Proof Nation and an early adopter of mindful drinking, has cataloged the growth of these bottle shops and bars. She’s chronicled nearly 50 of them, but the list is growing so quickly, she says, that she can barely keep up with them.

“When I started Zero Proof Nation in late 2019, there were no N/A bottle shops in the world,” says Silverman. “Now, there are hundreds of brick-and-mortar shops, e-commerce stores, subscription boxes, and hybrid stores that offer a healthy variety of full, low, and no-proof beverages.”

These bottle shops and sober bars are filled with a new wave of non-alcoholic beverages. Between mid-July of 2021 and 2022, “72 new non-alcoholic drink SKUs were introduced to the US market: 37 were non-alcoholic beer, 17 non-alcoholic wine, and 18 non-alcoholic spirits,” according to Nielsen IQ. And these bottles are far more sophisticated than the non-alcoholic beverages that preceded them.

Entering a New Era of Non-Alcoholic Sophistication

The non-alcoholic beer category isn’t new, but producers are increasingly positioning high-quality offerings alongside well-made craft brews. One of these brands, Athletic Brewing Co., was listed as the twenty-seventh largest craft beer producer in the country by the Brewers Association in 2022. (That list includes craft beers with alcohol.)

Producers like Athletic Brewing Co. make a full range of non-alcoholic craft beers and specialty offerings like its limited-edition Lodge Life, brewed with cinnamon, vanilla, and cacao nibs. Other breweries straddle the alcohol divide, like Untitled Art, which makes both non-alcoholic and alcoholic brews. Even larger breweries are getting in on the game. Heineken, Budweiser, Sam Adams, and Guinness all have surprisingly close analogs to their traditional alcoholic offerings, which can now be found in places as common as supermarkets and sports stadiums.

Illustration of non-alcoholic cocktail in a couple glass floating in the clouds / Laura Sant.

While non-alcoholic beer still has the largest share of this category, at 75% of the global market according to the IWSR, non-alcoholic wine is also having a renaissance. Growing 23% over the past year, the category now encompasses alcohol-free sparkling and still white, rosé, and red wine alternatives that are as complex and sought-after as their alcoholic counterparts.

Some producers are creating dealcoholized wines from common wine-grape varieties like chardonnay and syrah, such as Thomson & Scott, which makes a breadth of offerings under the label Noughty. Other wineries, like Weingut Leitz in Rheingau, Germany, and Giesen Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand, make quality wines both with and without alcohol.

Still, others are augmenting wine grapes with local ingredients. Proxies turned to sommeliers André Huston Mack and Miguel de Leon to create wine alternatives that read more like cocktails and feature ingredients as diverse as marionberries, tropical fruit, green tea, and hops. Some producers are choosing to forego grapes entirely. Jörg Geiger of Schlat, Germany makes apple and pear ciders with various ingredients, some of which are foraged from local forests. Other “fine juices” include La Ferme d’Achille “Argouille” from Quebec, which is made with seabuckthorn, spring water, and maple syrup.

Though the category of non-alcoholic spirits has greatly expanded, it remains the smallest in sales. Yet, the sheer volume of new offerings is enough to fill anyone’s back bar. There are currently 161 different non-alcoholic spirits, according to drinks writer Camper English. Some of these are analog offerings—meaning they have alcoholic corollaries such as gin or bourbon—like Monday’s Zero Alcohol Gin or Lyre’s Highland Malt. Others, such as Portland, Oregon-based Wilderton, choose to defy existing categories. An archivist of teas, herbs, and spices, distiller Seth O’Malley uses a range of botanicals such as tarragon, lavender, white peppercorn, pine-smoked tea, and cardamom to create non-alcoholic distillates Lustre and Earthern.

Though the category of non-alcoholic spirits has greatly expanded, it remains the smallest in sales. Yet, the sheer volume of new offerings is enough to fill anyone’s back bar.

Mixologists are also pushing the boundaries of non-alcoholic drinks. Harrison Ginsberg, who oversees the bar program at Overstory in New York City, is creating flavorful and complex non-alcoholic cocktails that deserve a place among the top bars in the world. His Sim Simma combines ginger, hoja santa, banana, lime, and soda, while his Chrysanthemum Sour highlights snow chrysanthemum, yellow apple, and celery.

Recently, on the new Netflix show Drink Masters, bartenders Lauren “LP” Paylor and Kate Gerwin made a non-alcoholic cocktail called The Placebo Effect, with non-alcoholic gin and cucumber soda. Drink Masters judge and cocktail innovator, Julie Reiner, commented on the growing expectancy for non-alcoholic drinks in beverage programs: “You have to have really great drinks that have no alcohol in them at the bar.”

Is Mindful Drinking Here to Stay?

Illustration of calendar pages with non-alcoholic cocktails on each / Laura Sant.

It’s possible in all this excitement that we’ve exaggerated the effect Dry January has had. Despite data that 1 in 5 adults say they are participating in Dry January, drinking alcohol during January is still much more common than not. “[We may be] in this little bubble of no/low and think everyone knows about non-alcoholic beverages,” says Silverman. “[The] fact is, most laypeople either don’t know or are only just learning about this vast world.”

Select soccer dads aside, there are many more people who have yet to encounter mindful drinking and aren’t familiar with the vast range of non-alcoholic choices that exist. Non-alcoholic drinking may be more socially acceptable than in years past, but it’s not necessarily the norm, as Julia Bainbridge, author of alcohol-free cocktail book Good Drinks, laments. “In a way, I wish [Dry January] didn’t exist, and that drinking this way—or, not drinking, rather, for whatever length of time—were completely normalized practices in our culture,” she says.

Over the holidays, more than a few friends and family confessed that they were struggling with alcohol, not from the perspective of Alcohol Use Disorder, but from a place of, “What do I do during parties, gatherings, and outings when alcohol is served and I don’t want to tell my life story to turn down a drink?"

Bainbridge wants to address our relationship with alcohol, which is often challenging. She suggests that many of us have encountered “even subtle negative consequences of drinking, such as difficulty sleeping or a hangover.”

That was certainly the case for me, and that is the case for many people I know. Over the holidays, I was lucky to spend time with friends and family. More than a few confessed that they were struggling with alcohol, not from the perspective of AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder, more colloquially called “alcoholism”) but from a place of, “What do I do during parties, gatherings, and outings when alcohol is served and I don’t want to tell my life story to turn down a drink?”

There can be a tremendous amount of pressure placed on people to drink alcohol at social gatherings and, though it’s possible one in five have tried Dry January, there are still four out of five following the same old script. Maybe we still need Dry January, after all? We may not have reached the point yet where alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are traded off intermittently, depending on how each person wants to feel at each moment.

“Until we get there, though, I’m happy Dry January is here,” says Bainbridge. “And if the interest in it is increasing, great. It lowers the barrier to entry into reflecting on one’s relationship to alcohol.”

She’s right. But the culture around non-alcoholic drinks has definitely progressed beyond the days of a few N/A brews in the back of a beer fridge or slapdash mocktails made from an array of sugary juices. It is, in fact, the end of Dry January as we have known it. And as such, there’s a lot to celebrate.