Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How to Build a Better Non-Alcoholic Bar Program

Start with zero-proof spirit alternatives, but don’t stop there.

Bars should aim to make their spirit-free cocktails, like the Pinch Hitter from Derek Brown, just as delicious as their alcohol-containing counterparts.
Bars should aim to make their spirit-free cocktails, like the Pinch Hitter from Derek Brown, just as delicious as their alcohol-containing counterparts. Image:

Derek Brown

Nowadays, non-alcoholic options are a requisite on any cocktail menu. The best fly far above a soda, implementing just as much care and consideration as a craft cocktail. But the worst are afterthoughts, sugary sips meant as a consolation prize for non-partakers. 

Charles Joly, the co-founder of Crafthouse Cocktails, has long been an advocate for non-alcs, ever since the early days at The Aviary in Chicago. “It not only shows attention to your non-imbibing guests but makes good business sense,” he says. “These can be unique flavor profiles or classic riffs; just think beyond glorified lemonades and get creative.”      

“Like any bar program, the key is to understand your clientele,” says Derek Brown, a bartender and the owner of Columbia Room in Washington DC and the author of Mindful Mixology. He finds non-drinkers are divided into two categories: “Those who drink and are slowing down, and those who never drank. It's important to have contingencies for both,” he says. One camp may want to drink placebo cocktails, while others “might never have tried alcohol or don’t like the taste.”

Start by considering the style of (non)drinker that sidles up to your bar. “Are you looking for daytime or happy-hour guests?” asks Miranda Breedlove, the national director of bars for Hyatt Hotels. “If so, build a fun and effervescent program with spritzed and sparkling options. Hoping to cater to the craft-cocktail drinkers? Work to pull through more complex flavors and bitter ingredients that play with people's perceptions.” 

Joly recommends having “three to four options highlighted on your menu that are non-alcoholic.” The final quantity can be based on the size of your overall menu offerings, he notes.

Treat all like you would an adult drink: Don’t infantilize it just because it skips the proof. “It's a no-brainer to utilize the same refined glassware, specialty ice, and attractive garnishes to complement your non-alc cocktails,” says Joly. 

Stock the Bar

Where do you start? With smart swap-ins. “Save time and take advantage of the incredible options that already exist,” says Breedlove. She prefers stocking modifiers from Lyre’s (“their aperitifs are helpful in NA spritzes”), syrups from Liquid Alchemist, bitters from Ghia, and flavored sodas like Casamara and Hella Bitters. Brown stands by Spiritless Kentucky 74 and Wilfred's Apéritif, plus Lyre’s vermouths, particularly Apéritif Rosso and Coffee Originale. (And if none of these tickle your fancy, drinks writer Camper English has compiled a exhaustive list of all the non-alcoholic options out there.)

Stock what makes sense to your program. “If it's apothecary cocktails, then the drinks would feature herbal, plant-based, functional ingredients,” says Brown. “If it's simply a simulacrum of classic cocktails, then include non-alcoholic spirits”

Lean on spiritless booze, but not exclusively. “The bracing nature or pleasant bite of a spirit can be difficult for bartenders to see past at first,” says Joly. “Teas and spices have always been a go-to for me. You can build a flavor profile that uses your favorite gin botanicals, you can bring tannins and wood notes in through oxidized and smoked teas or introduce ethereal floral tones. I've made vermouth alternatives by spicing and aromatizing alcohol-free wines.”

Shake and Stir, Sans Proof

When conceiving alcoholic cocktails, bartenders generally start with a spirit base. But that’s not necessarily the case with non-alcoholic ones. “I’ll make a stirred whiskey drink or a shaken gin cocktail,” says Breedlove. “But when building NA drinks, I like to start with more of a concept—tropical and bright, bitter and effervescent, and such—then find the right products to make it happen.”

Brown’s favorite option is to offer a choose-your-own-adventure drink. “Build cocktails where you can offer no, low, and full-octane drinks.” He’ll offer regular-proof Old Fashioneds as well as whiskey alternatives or smoky lapsang souchong tea bases. Joly seconds the use of tea as an alt base.

With these options, “People are ordering the same cocktail from just one menu,” Brown continues. “It not only makes customers who don't want alcohol more comfortable, but it extends the offer to regular drinkers, too: They can progressively reduce the alcohol as their evening progresses.”

There are considerations that are unique to non-alcoholic cocktails. They can be overly saccharine or unbalanced. “Most people consider cocktails with alcohol as the standard,” says Brown. “In that sense, non-alcoholic cocktails should mimic some of the sensory notes alcohol cocktails do, which is hard.” He recommends running down a checklist: balance flavor, texture, piquancy, and length. 

He balances flavors by double-steeping infusions and using ancillary ingredients to boost flavors, intensifying ingredients like lapsang souchong tea and adding non-alcoholic bitters. 

Texture is another challenge. “Because there isn’t the same viscosity in non-alcoholic spirits due to the absence of ethanol, you can’t approach them with a 1-for-1 mindset,” says Danny Frounfelkner, the co-owner of no-ABV bottleshop Sipple. “Don’t do things per spec. Do them per taste.”

Brown echoes that concern, and suggests opting for thickeners like aquafaba, egg whites, syrups, salt tincture, and other ingredients that “boost the texture” of cocktails that have a base of tea or non-alcoholic spirits.

Piquancy—alcohol’s tang and heat—is perhaps “the hardest sensory quality to emulate in non-alcoholic cocktails,” says Brown. “It’s the thing that twists your face and makes you slam your fist down on the table when you take a shot of whiskey or tequila. Some use cayenne, but that can taste disjointed. I often use ginger. Vinegar and bitters work, too.”

Charge What It’s Worth

“There's often a perception that without the alcohol, a drink should cost less,” says Breedlove. “But in reality, we are still using impactful and unique ingredients that often cost more than the spirits and produce that we would use in an alcoholic drink.” She opts to price non-alcs a few dollars less than regular-proof options “to encourage more people to try them.” 

Even though the profit isn’t as pleasing, there are ways to pad it out. “We can always use the workhorse drinks on the menu to drive percentages so we can do the cool stuff in other places, like the zero-proof menus,” says Breedlove

Brown prefers to keep prices level across all cocktail categories, both spirited and not. “Non-alcoholic cocktails are not lesser, or even less expensive in many cases, than cocktails with alcohol,” he says. “I don't subscribe to the dollar-per-buzz mentality. You pay for a well-made drink, with or without alcohol.”

“Guests that are not drinking alcohol will appreciate that they aren't being treated as an afterthought,” says Joly. “Like anything you offer on your menu, if it's delicious and enticing, people will order a second one.” 

“I often ask customers what the price difference is between a Coke and a Diet Coke, and they stop and realize that there isn’t one,” says Frounfelkner.[Non-alcoholic options] should be priced the same or around what their alcoholic counterparts are. At restaurants and bars, the last thing you want to do is create a separation between the two.”