Somm Talk

Let's Push Non-Alcoholic Drinks to the Next Level

Where to score zero-proof beer, spirits, and wine, and why they're great for the drink industry.

By Justin Vann February 2, 2021

“Dry January” is over, but the state of non-alcoholic beverages deserves a more detailed look, especially after a year that gave us so many reasons to drink. As an alcohol salesperson, I have long considered calls for an alcohol-free start to the year an enemy, but as an aging person, I find my hardline views—and my alcohol tolerance—softening. Really, the only reason to be critical of Dry January is that the conversation surrounding non-alcoholic beverages should be a priority year-round.

The idea that everyone should enjoy alcohol all the time is at odds with a world filled with people who don’t enjoy the way alcohol makes them feel, members of a faith that forbids alcohol consumption, those who cannot partake for medical reasons, people who want to maintain a legal blood-alcohol content for the drive home, and people who are recovering from addiction. Treating people like human beings, no matter their preference, is a basic tenet of hospitality. It makes good business sense too.

The modern category of non-alcoholic beverages began its rapid expansion over the last 10 years. The entire category is anticipated to grow to $1.6 trillion by 2025, but this includes soda, juices, health drinks, and others. The categories that are most interesting to this conversation are non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic beverages: cocktails, spirits, beer, and wine.

How is a “proper” non-alcoholic cocktail different from, say, fresh-made lemonade? Lindsay Burleson, co-owner of the Midtown bar Two Headed Dog, suggests that balance and intention play a large role. “The same principles that create a classic proof cocktail should be used in a great non-alcoholic cocktail,” she says. Not just balance in an individual drink, but due diligence should apply to an entire menu that showcases different styles of non-alcoholic cocktails.

“A zero-proof menu that's full of caffeine can be off-putting, just the same as one that leans on all juice,” she says. Non-alcoholic spirits have stepped up lately, and pulling off this balance is a little easier.

Non-alcoholic spirits started with Seedlip in 2015. Now dozens are available that approximate many shades of the alcohol spectrum. Not only do these products fill a gap in terms of flavor, but they satisfy an emotional craving in drinkers looking to avoid alcohol.

“[Nonalcoholic drinkers] want to have a bottle pulled off the backbar,” Burleson notes. That can mean interacting with a bar the way they're used to but without the booze, or it can mean finally having a reason to walk into one.

Non-alcoholic spirits are not requirements for greatness in the category. Sarah Crowl began crafting meticulous non-alcoholic cocktails during her tenure at Coltivare and has brought her devotion to the subject to Rosie Cannonball and the Chalet at the Goodnight Hospitality complex. “I look for layers of interesting flavors, seasonality, and something that works as a compliment to food,” she says. Her methods frequently include infusions of fresh, locally sourced ingredients, savory elements to balance out sweetness, and elaborate garnishes.

Non-alcoholic beer has had a stronger presence in Europe than America, but both continents have left much to be desired until recently. “In my experience, European non-alcoholic beers are more functional than artful,” says Kyle White of Flood Independent Distribution. Flood distributes several modern offerings to the non-alcoholic market, including the Casamara Club’s “amaro club sodas” and Untitled Art’s N.A. beers that make bolder flavor choices than do many non-alcoholic beers. From what he has seen, White expects a cumulative expansion of the category this year in Texas.

Non-alcoholic wine has the longest way to go in terms of quality. The de-alcoholizaiton process of wine, whether through osmosis or spinning-cone technology, is pretty invasive. But there are brands that rise above the quality of bulk supermarket brands. Esteemed German Riesling producer Weingut Leitz makes a lineup of four different still and sparkling non-alcoholic wines that break the mold. Thomson & Scott’s “Noughty” sparkling chardonnay offers another upscale non-alcoholic option.

The number of bars, restaurants, and retailers taking a serious position on N.A. beverages in Houston is small but growing rapidly. A good way to ensure this is by making your needs known.

“Ask your local bar, restaurant, and/or retailer to stock and sell more good, alternative, zero-proof spirits and non-alcoholic options,” says Danny Frounfelkner of Sonic Palate consulting. He is helping design the beverage program for Cristo Mio, an upcoming restaurant that will focus exclusively on non-alcoholic wines, beers, and spirits/cocktails.

Taking non-alcoholic spirits seriously year-round should be a priority for consumers and businesses alike. Making the social act of drinking accessible to everyone is no small feat, and for those of us that do drink, it couldn’t possibly hurt to temper our consumption levels. Surely 2021 will give us plenty of reasons to reach for a bottle, but it won’t have to contain alcohol.

Non-alcoholic beers and seltzers

  • Hitachino Non-Ale
  • Karbach Free & Easy IPA
  • Untitled Art (various products)
  • Casamara Club
  • Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher

Non-alcoholic spirit brands (each brand has multiple expressions)

  • Seedlip
  • Proteau
  • Lyre’s
  • Kin Euphorics
  • Ghia

Retail spaces in Houston to buy non-alcoholic beverages

  • Heights Grocers
  • D&Q Beer Station
  • Houston Wine Merchant

Justin Vann is a sommelier who serves as wine buyer for Littlefoot/Theodore Rex and Nancy’s Hustle. His message to you: It has never been more urgent to give support to bars, restaurants, and wine shops as the food-and-beverage industry is being crushed by Covid-19. Your dollars going toward a local, independently owned business in lieu of a national chain can be the difference between life and death for that business.

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