Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Why to Stock Zero-ABV Beer and Wine Proxies at Your Bar

A new wave of non-alcoholic wines and brews is stamping out the stigma of N/A drinking.

wine illustration / Laura Sant

As the no-alcohol movement continues to solidify its place in the cocktail world, carrying alternative-ABV options (think Seedlip and Proteau) has become essential for every bar that wants to serve all of its customers. But while alcohol-free cocktail options are becoming standard on bar menus, it’s taking zero-proof wines and beers a bit longer to establish their place behind the bar. A number of bartenders and somms, however, believe it’s time to give them a spot.

“Having a selection of spirit-free options is the same as offering accommodations for allergies and dietary restrictions,” says Heather McDougall, a sommelier at Grand Cru Deli in Toronto. “We’re creating experiences where everyone is included. It’s the least we can do.”

Miguel de Leon, a sommelier at Pinch Chinese in New York City who earned the Michelin Guide NY sommelier award in 2021, agrees. “With these products, no one is left out. For the restaurant, it's an immediate revenue boost that we can feel good about,” he says.

They and other industry pros are making a case for stocking zero-ABV proxies on every bar’s shelves. 

A Shift Toward Sobriety

A decade ago, non-drinkers were relegated to saccharine sodas, juices, or at the worst of it, water. But the booze-free landscape has changed significantly over the last few years, and especially very recently.

“The pandemic has been an important discovery phase for my guests for alcohol-free beers,” says New York City bartender Mimi Burnham. “I've found that folks will happily pay $10 to $15 for complex, alcohol-free drinks.”

“Over lockdown, we saw people turning to alcohol,” says Kyle Shelgren, the bar manager at Roger's Liquid Oasis in Denver. “As we return to normal, people are starting to realize how much they are drinking and the effects of it. They’re looking for N/A options to enjoy while still being able to go out and socialize.”

This increased interest has also spurred a wave of new and exciting brands. “Not long ago, O'Douls and St. Pauli Girl were the only non-alcoholic options, and those aren’t great” says cocktail expert Erin Petrey. “With the advent of breweries like Athletic, Rightside, and so many others focusing on delivering the flavor, texture, and feel of regular beer but sans-alc, the entire landscape has been revolutionized. You can now get not just a lager, but IPAs, wheat beers, and more all in N/A expressions.” On the wine side, brands like Acid League, Gruvi, Flying Embers, and Ghia are making above-par below-proof options. 

“I think the expectation has changed as well. Grenadine and soda aren’t going to cut it anymore,” says Andy Printy, the bar manager at Juniper in Saint Louis, Missouri. “Stocking N/A options is a great opportunity for businesses that want to take advantage of an aggressively growing market.”

Why Stock Non-Alc?

Offering non-alcoholic products is an amazing way to start a conversation and perhaps expose someone to an option they didn't know existed,” says McDougall. “For the last several years, all of my beverage programs have included spirit-free options, and I have no intention of not doing so moving forward.” She was “an early stockist of Seedlip” and also leans into Partake beers and Acid League’s wine proxies. 

By offering these, “We broaden the scope of not just what's on the table, but who can come to it,” says De Leon. “It’s people interested in training their palates for wine, people in sobriety, pregnant people—everyone is welcome to partake in something. That can feel very special.”

“The only hurdle I have come across is finding a consistent stock of great ones,'' says McDougall. As De Leon notes, “Shelf space is an issue. That's the only downside.”

Keep it Fresh

Just like regular-alcohol options, there are learning curves to N/A options. “I find that once opened, they evolve in a way very similar to wine,” says McDougall, referencing Acid League’s wine substitutions. “Their structure softens, and after several days open they start to lose their vibrancy. That said, I usually have a bottle open in my wine fridge at all times and it has yet to last long enough to be undrinkable.”  

“In theory, N/A wine can keep for about a week.” says de Leon. But we've never had the problem to know, since we go through it quickly enough at the restaurant. Most people who are keeping N/A tend to drink a glass at a time and explore options, but it's not outside the realm of possibility to see folks do bottles of N/A beverages with their meal.”

On the Menu

But where does a non-alcoholic drink sit on the menu? “One of our pages on the wine list is a non-alcoholic section that drills down on specifics,” says De Leon. “For someone who is not partaking, we always make sure they're not left out of the mix by also not making them feel like the party is the other direction.”

“We serve all of our N/A beverages in wine glasses as a specific marker that these are just as complex and just as worth it,” he says. 

Printy ensures that all non-alcoholic options are served the same as their counterparts, down to the glass and pour. “Just because there is no ABV doesn’t mean serving sizes need to be altered,” he says. “Price and value have always needed to walk hand-in-hand; it’s no different for your N/A programs.”

De Leon will go as far as including N/A beverages in menu pairings. “It’s a lot of fun opening up guests’ eyes to a world that is not just juice and tea. For our staff, we treat the products just as we would wine, speaking about complexity, bringing it to our food tastings, and always offering it as an option to our guests.”

Burnham also loves pairing non-alcoholic options with food. “I’ve found non-alcoholic beers also go well with food, which is a good way to upsell them in food-focused on-premise accounts,” she says. She names Suntory’s All-Free as her beer of choice. “It uses Tennensui spring water, which is typical in the production of Japanese whisky. Non-alcoholic beer is very versatile, and I know I can add citrus, syrups, craft sodas, and bitters to create unique drinks that guests will truly enjoy.”

Talking the Talk

One of the biggest hurdles surrounding non-alc is the stigma—the feeling of drinking a sub-par or party-free drink. 

"All beverage programs are part of the standard training path, and having the team be able to speak to the different options is essential,” says McDougall. We taste all products together and discuss how to describe them and how to sell them. Incorporating this training as part of the expected product knowledge normalizes the category and removes some of the judgment around guests that don't drink alcohol.”

“When someone comes in looking for a non-alcoholic option, we simply treat it as if someone was looking for any old beer or cocktail,” says Shelgren. “We simply ask what they're in the mood for and provide the options as we see fit. At staff training, we treat it like a normal menu launch, where everyone sits down and tastes through the options as we discuss how it's made and what the flavor profile is.” 

There are additional benefits of N/A beverages for bar staff, too. “It’s important to stay hydrated behind the bar, so non-alcoholic beers are great for this,” says Burnham. “Especially if a beloved regular insists on buying me a drink. Enjoy a cold one with zero regrets!”