Stepping inside Boisson feels like entering any liquor shop. Bottles range from ornate to minimalistic and neatly adorn shelves with a near-mathematical precision. Each of them carry products of a meticulous process, as well as the promise of something singularly delicious or at the very least intriguing inside. While these products vary, they all have one thing in common: None of them contain alcohol.
Boisson’s 10 current locations—six in New York, three in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco—are solely devoted to alcohol-free expressions. These stores may have looked like quirky outliers a few years ago, when consumers and bartenders were still wrapping their heads around Seedlip’s pioneering trio of zero-proof beverages. They now feel like a necessary component of an explosive category that generated $395 million in sales between August 2021 and August 2022. While non-alcoholic beer and wine sales make up most of this number, N/A spirit sales saw a whopping 88.4% growth. Product proliferation and shifted attitudes toward alcohol consumption have continued this upward trajectory.
“We’re at the tip of a very big iceberg,” says Boisson founder Nick Bodkins. “The non-alc spirits market was already in motion, but it got kick-started during the pandemic. We’re now seeing a wide range of choices that are demonstrating just how much the category’s matured.”
Non-alcoholic spirits are clearly growing in popularity, but where do they go from here? Distillers and bartenders alike are starting to decipher and codify the non-alc space as it makes its post-pandemic transition from liquid curiosity to legitimate standalone category.
Building a Category, Building Knowledge
When Seedlip launched in 2015, billing itself as a “distilled, non-alcoholic spirit,” it provoked responses ranging from intrigue to disdain. A lot of questions arose regarding what it was and how it was supposed to be used. Though Seedlip never marketed itself as a non-alcoholic gin, its botanical ingredients caused many to initially treat it as a gin analog. Several years later, the brand has settled in quite nicely as a pioneer among its proponents, who praise it for laying an exciting foundation of possibility.
“Seedlip created this opportunity for ample creativity in a space that didn’t exist,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn, New York. “They helped create one of those things you didn’t know you wanted until you knew it was here.”
Though numerous brands have entered the market since Seedlip’s debut, offering an array of flavor profiles, this explosion comes with a caveat. There is still a lot to figure out about the non-alcoholic category, even as its staying power on retail shelves and back bars becomes increasingly obvious. Questions about its usage still exist, and can cause trepidation for some bartenders. The reason for this is due to what non-alcoholic spirits are when the veneer of labels and marketing are removed.
At their core, non-alc spirits are essentially fancy flavored water. This isn’t a slight by any means; it’s science. They don’t have the burn or the weight alcohol does. They dilute faster than their alcoholic counterparts. There are other differences to consider.
“Alcohol is an amazing palate cleanser,” says Jim Meehan, bar director of Takibi in Portland, Oregon. “Non-alcoholic spirits do not have that power.”
As such, a bartender can’t get away with making a non-alcoholic cocktail using quite the same ratios and measurements they’d use in an alcoholic drink. “Working with non-alcoholic spirits requires a different set of rules,” says Kraig Rovensky, brand ambassador for the Seattle-based non-alcoholic spirit The Pathfinder. “You just can’t throw stuff together and call it a great cocktail. The customer will know the difference.”
“I mean, come on, y’all. We’re doing sous vide and fruit dehydration without a kitchen. You can certainly learn how to use these beverages.”
—Brooke Toscano, general manager and beverage director, The Spare Room
Educating bartenders on these rules can help them overcome any reluctance they may have to play in the non-alcoholic spirit sandbox. Experimentation is also key. “There’s no excuse not to play around with non-alcoholic spirits,” says Brooke Toscano, general manager and beverage director for The Spare Room in Los Angeles. “I mean, come on, y’all. We’re doing sous vide and fruit dehydration without a kitchen. You can certainly learn how to use these beverages.”
Those that embrace the category and engage in some trial and error can plunge themselves into an enticing new world of dynamic expressions. While non-alcoholic spirits lack alcohol, they do feature unique mixes of botanicals like spices, flowers, and roots that imbue the liquid with dynamic flavor profiles that can’t necessarily be replicated in alcoholic beverages. For a bartender, these attributes can provide new avenues of inspiration, much like new hues discovered by a painter.
“Bartenders work with flavor, and non-alcoholic spirits can open them up to a whole different spectrum of flavors,” says Meehan. “They’re a great way for a bartender to show off their chops.”
These unique flavor profiles can even make non-alcoholic spirits a killer ingredient in new, inventive alcoholic beverages. It’s a concept generally endorsed by producers. “I had a bartender approach me at Portland Cocktail Week this year about how he uses our bottles,” says Brad Whiting, co-founder and CEO of the Portland, Oregon-based non-alcoholic brand Wilderton. “He said to me, ‘I used your stuff to make an alcoholic cocktail. Is that okay?’ I told him of course it was okay! It’s another flavor to work with, another tool for the bartender.”
Defining the Parameters
There’s a difference between what is known and what is defined in the non-alcoholic spirits space.
What is known is relatively simple. That is, these are spirits that do not contain alcohol and they are increasingly popular. What is defined, on the other hand, is a convoluted, murky broth of questionable sloganeering, mixed messages, and wrong assumptions.
Even the lexicon associated with the non-alcoholic spirit and cocktail movements is a point of contention. Some in the industry find the current landscape of terms to be unruly if not insulting. “The non-alc space has a language problem that needs to be solved,” says Seth O’Malley, Wilderton’s master distiller. “The more synonyms you add, the more consumer confusion you’re going to create. Terms like ‘non-alc’ and ‘zero-proof’ work because they’re frank. A word like mocktail, on the other hand, contains the word ‘mock’ and deserves all the flak it gets.”
“’Sober-curious’ irks me,” says Mix. “I hate that term. If you’re curious about sobriety, you probably shouldn’t be drinking.”
The language issue also extends to usage of health-related terms like “nootropic” and “adaptogen.” These terms are one method that some brands and marketing strategists use to forge a link between non-alcoholic spirits and wellness. While there is a basis of truth to the notion that non-alcoholic spirits are healthier than their alcoholic counterparts—traditional spirits are delicious, slow poisons, after all—these buzzwords are often roundly met with rejection. “The right play is to focus on the flavor experience instead of the health experience,” says Mix. “The creative aspect is more interesting.”
“The non-alc space has a language problem that needs to be solved… Terms like ‘non-alc’ and ‘zero-proof’ work because they’re frank. A word like mocktail, on the other hand, contains the word ‘mock’ and deserves all the flak it gets.”
—Seth O’Malley, master distiller, Wilderton
Meehan agrees. “The range of non-alcoholic flavors should focus on flavor, not wellness,” he says. “People in the industry know cocktails aren’t healthy and they know the importance of moderation.”
Non-alcoholic distilled spirits have had to reckon with other crises of identity. Several brands in the space hint at or outright proclaim themselves to be analogs of specific alcoholic spirits. Meanwhile, brands like Wilderton and The Pathfinder market themselves as stand-alone beverages not meant to mimic anything else, although this approach can be challenging.
“We draw parallels to amari because it’s nearly impossible not to with the botanicals we use,” says Rovensky.
While this type of framework is left to the discretion of the producer, bartenders seem to have a clear preference. “Non-alc spirits that imitate [alcoholic beverages] struggle more because people are more critical,” says Toscano. “There are expectations in place, and these expectations naturally create a disconnect.” Some feel these unmet expectations may cause an organic shift in the years to come. “I think as the market continues to mature, shifting away from being analogs seems like the more logical step,” says Bodkins.
Essential Bottles for a Shifting Scene
In years past, there was an assumption that non-alcoholic spirits were primarily the domain of those that didn’t drink. The data that has emerged in and after the COVID-19 pandemic squashed this notion: Seventy to ninety percent of the people in the non-alc market still drink alcohol, depending on the industry source solicited. These numbers suggest that people are taking a more holistic approach to drinking, and hint at how non-alc spirits and cocktails can provide a similar social purpose to traditional drinks.
“Alcohol dominated how we’ve socialized,” says Rovensky. “It’s been used as a tool that allows us to be with friends. But the non-alc category has helped show that it’s the glass in the hand that does this trick, not what’s in the glass.”
This realization is an important one for the industry to embrace. With more members of Gen Z reaching legal drinking age, it may be crucial for producers to fortify their bottom line in the future. The oldest members of Gen Z will turn 26 in 2023 according to most metrics. Their reduced alcohol consumption has been widely documented, though it doesn’t necessarily mean they are refraining from recreational substances altogether, which is somewhat reflected in non-alc spirit consumption. “Non-alcoholic spirits are having a spike in popularity in spaces where marijuana and mushrooms are decriminalized,” notes Toscano.
This isn’t the first time the drinks industry has faced a generational crossroads. In the ’60s, the youth of the counterculture movement shunned drinking and turned to alternative substances, a decision that unwittingly damaged cocktail culture for decades. Gen Z’s moderation won’t return the bar industry to the dark days, but it does carry the threat of reduced bar profitability if evolving interests aren’t met. “Gen Z is creating a shift in drinking so rapidly, bartenders must change, or they will feel an impact,” says Toscano. “If they don’t, people will stop asking and stop coming.”
An Exciting Future
Non-alcoholic spirits are obviously not going anywhere. A growing demand for an ever-expanding market all but assures its permanence. At the same time, it’s a category that’s still being molded and shaped, and the only thing concrete about the landscape is that it’s bright.
“Non-alcoholic spirits are a whole new category, and it really gives the people in the industry an opportunity to really put our mark on things,” says Toscano. “We can be the ones that get to build that category and create modern classics. We get to set the tone of where the movement goes.”