After Ren Kedem proposed to their girlfriend Ilana Maurer, the Fishtown-based couple went for a celebratory dinner at Zahav. The server offered Champagne, but since Kedem doesn’t drink, a flute of sparkling sumac lemonade was served instead.
“I felt included,” Kedem says. “It was special, they really thought it through.”
Zahav added a “zero proof” section of the drinks menu in 2020, after the restaurant reopened for outdoor dining. It’s one of dozens of bars and restaurants in the city rethinking their offerings for people who aren’t drinking.
Among the reasons drinkers are increasingly reaching for buzz-free options is an evolving understanding of the relationship between alcohol and health.
“Ten years ago, there was this idea that drinking — wine especially — was part of a healthy lifestyle,” says Joy Manning, Philadelphia-based author, podcast host, and founder of Better without Booze. “There’s a growing awareness that it’s really not.” Remember the breathless media discourse in the early 2000s around resveratrol, a naturally occurring chemical in grape skin, and its purported anti-inflammatory contributions to red wine? The New York Times even went so far to describe resveratrol’s benefits as “life-extending.”
“If you care about hospitality, you should be catering to non-drinkers too.”
Manning points to more recent studies like the one from August 2018 in the Lancet that indicate that the safest level of drinking is none.
“It’s not to say people shouldn’t drink, there’s just no longer such a health halo,” she says. “It’s become more like fried food — we know it isn’t good for us, and that creates a demand for other options.”
The pandemic has thrown the issue into stark relief. Nearly one in four respondents to an American Psychological Association survey conducted in February reported drinking more to manage stress. A 2020 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network found that adults over 30 increased their alcohol consumption by 14% compared to one year earlier.
Overindulging during lockdown may have prompted drinkers to pause drinking, if not stopping completely. It’s in the same vein as “Sober October” or “Dry January”— a way to rest and reset. Sande Friedman, wine buyer at DiBruno Bros., noticed a flood of customers taking a break from alcohol this past spring.
“We brought in a lot of fun stuff like Recess, Dram, and Heywell, and those flew, noticeably [bought by] people who also frequently shopped our stores for wine,” she says.
Another reason drinkers may be abstaining: They’re already buzzed. Marijuana use has become more widely accepted — a recent Gallup poll found 68% of Americans support legalization — and users don’t always need or want to drink.
“People are switching their vices,” muses Resa Mueller, bartender at R&D. “If you want to smoke, but you still want to hang out with your friends, you can come have a nice N/A (nonalcoholic) cocktail and still enjoy that going out experience.”
That going-out experience is a key reason this category of drinks exists. Kelsey Bush, chef and co-owner of Bloomsday Cafe, says she and her friends occasionally take breaks from alcohol, and when they dine out during these stints, they choose the restaurant based solely on nonalcoholic beverage options. “We don’t need alcohol to have a good time, but we do still want an interesting beverage in order to have a complete dining experience,” she says.
Around 2017, groundbreaking nonalcoholic distilled spirit Seedlip launched in the U.S., and was soon found behind the bars of rarefied places like New York’s Eleven Madison Park and The Nomad. Laurel and ITV were the first spots in Philly to carry the botanically-infused bottles. Chef and owner Nicholas Elmi was prompted to stock the spirit after he made the decision to stop drinking and realized there weren’t many appealing options on the market.
“We challenged ourselves to come up with a fun program at ITV, because standing around with water while everyone has cocktails feels weird to me,” he says. The program included drinks like Just Beet It, made with beet juice, lemon, ginger, and a little yogurt. Besides making abstaining guests feel more welcome, it sent a signal to other bars and restaurants in the city: If you care about hospitality, you should be catering to nondrinkers, too.
For years, the only nonalcoholic cocktails that most bartenders were sending out, according to Mike Haggerty, beverage director at The Refectory in Villanova, were versions of lemonade and fruit syrup. But Haggerty, a 10-year industry vet, reimagined his offerings when he encountered a regular who made the decision to stop drinking.
“A spark of inspiration lit in me, to spend time creating drinks without alcohol with the same amount of time and effort as I had been spending on our regular cocktail menu,” he says.
He’s not alone. As recently as a few years ago, the city only had a handful of bars and restaurants with dedicated nonalcoholic cocktail menus. Nowadays, established spots like Friday Saturday Sunday, Charlie Was a Sinner, Spice Finch, and Abe Fisher or newly-opened restaurants like LMNO and Rex at the Royal consider all drinkers.
“Like the craft brewing renaissance, the craft distilling explosion in America has greatly transformed the entire spirits industry,” says Steven Grasse, Philly-based spirits industry pioneer responsible for Hendrick’s Gin and Tamworth Distilling. “People now expect transparency, provenance, whole ingredients, and flavor.”
Grasse predicts that these expectations also apply to nonalcoholic spirits and canned cocktails, especially as the category continues to grow.
Grasse notes that many early offerings were just “fancier versions of flavored bottled water” or something he calls “Beyond Meat” non-alcohol, referring to the rise of plant-based faux meat, “the ones that just simply try to replicate gin, whiskey, or tequila, but usually to pretty lame effect.” He’s betting on the category with The Pathfinder, a nonalcoholic distilled spirit he recently cofounded. While many N/A brands have focused on what’s left out of their spirits (i.e., the alcohol), Grasse’s $35 bottle is a considered and complex blend of fermented hemp, roots, and spices that add up to a herbaceous, slightly bitter, and fully unique spirit that tastes unlike anything else currently on the market.
“It’s a really nice challenge to work on presenting drinks that drink like a cocktail. They have just as much time, care and effort and balance.”
Just as restaurants were starting to embrace nonalcoholic menus, the pandemic hit pause. Most were focused on staying afloat and had to shrink menus or reprioritize when faced with dwindling staff and supply chain issues.
“When it comes to to-go cocktails, no one is getting a nonalcoholic drink to go,” says Manning, underscoring Kelsey Bush’s point: “[These drinks are] really more part of the experience of dining out.”
Enter, then, retail shops selling a growing list of impressive options. Herman’s in South Philly sells what Manning calls a “staggeringly awesome selection” of zero-proof canned cocktails, wine, and beer. Owner Mat Falco started stocking them in January 2021 and was surprised by how quickly they took off. He was also surprised by how much he enjoyed them. “Some of the alcohol-removed wines are shockingly good,” he says. Herman’s now carries roughly 100 alcohol-free options.
At DiBruno Bros. Friedman heeded her customers, and now sells over a dozen different options for nondrinkers. One is Acid League Wine Proxies, i.e. “the most texturally fascinating N/A wine option on the market,” she says. “These taste like every adjective I use to describe wine, and are actually inspired by grape profiles, but with layers of juice and spices and vinegar.”
She also sells Ghia, which she calls “a fantastic Mediterranean-inspired botanical aperitif” with regular repeat purchasers.
At her Queen Village boutique Yowie, Shannon Maldonado sells Ghia, too, as well as another direct-to-consumer brand, Figlia. She made the decision to carry nonalcoholic drinks after reading that the category is set to grow 35% by 2023, and also after noticing friends and colleagues taking a break after drinking too much during lockdown. But, she says, “they can still have the ritual of an after-work cocktail.” She realized that the new formulas of ready-to-drink no-booze beverages taste and drink more like traditional cocktails, which in turn can make drinkers feel more part of the moment.
As restaurants and bars reopened to diners hungry for a resumed social life, but maybe one with a little less booze, the zero-proof cocktail menus are reemerging, too.
One reason bartenders are able to take the category more seriously is that there are growing — and more inspiring — ingredients list to work with. Mueller taps glycerin-based bitters, a favorite line of nonalcoholic spirits unfortunately called Abstinence, and plenty of house-made ingredients. The Virgin Colada, mixed with fresh pineapple and coconut cream they make in-house, and sprinkled with fresh grated nutmeg, is one of R&D’s most popular nonalcoholic drinks.
“It’s a really nice challenge to work on presenting drinks that drink like a cocktail. They have just as much time, care and effort and balance,” she says.
Nonalcoholic drinks also offer an added revenue stream to bars and restaurants still struggling post-pandemic. Why sell diners a $2 soda water if you can sell a thoughtful, complex $7 cocktail like Rex and the Royal’s Sorrel Loser made with sorrel, clove, allspice, lime, and ginger?
“It helps the check average when everyone gets a drink,” says Bloomsday’s Kelsey Bush. “The customer feels seen and the restaurant has the sale. It’s a win/win for both parties.”
Elmi agrees that it’s a “pretty decent revenue stream,” and goes further, asserting that not offering more than Diet Coke and seltzer sends diners a message.
“It’s marked a line of delineation between restaurants and bar programs that take hospitality seriously and those who do not,” he says. “If you aren’t offering an N/A program, or just doing streamed soda, it comes off as lazy.”
Just four years after Seedlip hit the market and Laurel and ITV were leading the way with a more inclusive drinks menu, the dining and drinking scene is cheerfully awash in nonalcoholic options.
“Bar culture is a thing,” says Mueller. “It just doesn’t necessarily need to be alcohol-soaked.”