What happens when a cocktail loses its spirit? It doesn't wither away, but actually grows the bottom line.
Over the last several years, low- and no-alcohol spirits have come into the market, giving bartenders plenty of ways to create cocktails equally as complex as their boozy counterparts. The segment is expected to grow 25% from 2022 to 2026, according to IWSR, a drink marketing consultancy. Today, consumers want the choice to imbibe or not, which has fueled the growth of boozeless bars and more spirit-free menu choices. Generation Z and millennials are showing the greatest interest.
Creative booze-free drinks, however, don't need to depend on boozeless spirits. Fruit juices, from pineapple and peach to passion fruit and mango, work with and without alcohol. While alcohol boosts brunch sales, booze-free cocktails are seeing the greatest growth in the weekend segment, according to foodservice marketing and research firm Datassential.
The drinks at daytime cafe First Watch, which has more than 470 locations nationwide, exemplify the potential of the category. Its Tropical Sunrise features a colorful blend of mango, pineapple, strawberry and lime, while Kale Tonic Fresh Juice highlights kale, Fuji apple, English cucumber and lemon.
To maximize the profit potential of alcohol-free beverages, consider the following tips from bartenders whose offerings support the restaurant's menu and overall vibe.
A beverage can say special simply through the vessel, whether playful and wavy or tall and sleek. For example, the Coco Loco at Sushi Roku in Scottsdale, Arizona, features coconut water, coconut syrup, lime and pineapple juice with crushed ice mounded in a mock coconut container. Its Lost in Paradise drink is presented in a shorter glass, so that a spice blend can rim the sides to support a blend of serrano chilies, orgeat, lemon, pineapple, passion fruit and ginger ale. At Someday Bar in New York, the Optical Illusion – a nonalcoholic gin, hibiscus lemon and club soda – is poured into a coupe glass.
ADD VALUE WITH GARNISHES
The finishing touch of a cocktail is also essential, adding value and aesthetic. The signature Hula Juice with passion fruit syrup, pineapple, orange juice and cranberry juice at Hula Modern Tiki in Scottsdale is topped with a purple orchard; the Captain's Colada of coconut cream, allspice falernum syrup and pineapple juice is garnished with a large pineapple triangle and leaf. At Gatsby's Prime Seafood in Houston, part of the drink is so visually striking it could be viewed as the garnish: hibiscus tea is frozen into small ice cubes that float to the top when grapefruit juice and club soda are poured into the glass.
BUILD ON FLAVOR
Just like their chef counterparts, bartenders and mixologists develop drinks based on complementary flavors. Fermenting juices, creating shrubs or including savory ingredients help create layers of flavors – a must for all spirit-free cocktails, says Chris Marshall, founder of Sans Bar pop-up in Austin, Texas. That approach is evident on the cocktail menu at Los Angeles' Wolfsglen, where watermelon is paired with holy basil seed, rose and mint. At Philadelphia's Buddakan, the Rising Sun combines passion fruit, peach, lemon and grenadine; the Yuzu Sour features yuzu, lychee, lemon and sugar; and the Bitter Truth blends together lime agave and tonic water. In Seattle at Oddfellows Cafe, there's Palo Alto, a mix of blood orange, pineapple, honey and coconut milk.
Bartenders often reach for heat to add contrast to booze-free beverages. 1751 Sea and Bar in Atlanta pairs an orange alcohol-free spirit with grapefruit juice, honey and a ghost pepper tincture, resulting in a sweet and subtly spicy concoction. The same can be said of umami to up the flavor. Eem in Portland, Oregon, combines cola with cinnamon, maple, lemon and shoyu.
REFLECT THE CONCEPT
It makes sense that nonalcoholic beverages support the concept. The spirit-free cocktails at Galit, a Mediterranean restaurant in Chicago, are inspired by gazoz, Israeli carbonated drinks. The seasonal drinks with fresh herbs include pomegranate with cardamom rose and hibiscus and apricot with a shrub, urfa pepper and anise. Mott 32 in Las Vegas, an Asian-inspired restaurant, offers the Jasmine Cooler made with lychee, jasmine tea and orange blossom; and the Stonecutters with passion fruit, miso honey, lemon verbena and plum.
While the boom in non-booze shows no sign of slowing down, it by no means is a harbinger for the end of alcohol. The 74% of consumers who order no-alcohol drinks also order alcohol.
“I'm so excited at how far the industry has come,” says Lorelei Bandrovschi, who founded alcohol-free Listen Bar in Brooklyn, New York, in 2018. “It wasn't that long ago that people were laughing when I said I was opening a bar with no alcohol!”