It's everywhere you look these days: #SoberCurious, #SoberIsSexy, #SoberLife and #SoberSaturday. There are sober nightclubs, sober early-morning dance parties, Instagram influencers who anchor their online identities with an eschewal of alcohol. The number of alcohol drinkers in the world has decreased by nearly 5% since 2000, according to the World Health Organization. The Beverage Information Group reports beer sales have slumped for five years in a row.
Alcohol brands are paying attention: Diageo (the world's second largest distiller and parent of Guinness, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker) recently funded a nonalcoholic spirits company called Seedlip. In cities like New York and Los Angeles it is routine for restaurants to have separate nonalcoholic drink lists, online searches with the word "mocktail" are up significantly, and online magazines like the Temper have debuted to defiantly tout the benefits of a sober lifestyle.
This is not a fad buoyed by addiction and recovery stories. The millennial- and Gen Z-driven trend is seen as part of a burgeoning wellness movement, a desire to have social gatherings less focused on alcohol (and the next mornings less fuzzed by aftereffects), as well a shift toward abstemiousness more generally.
But it's not cheap. Consumers will still spend $10 to $12 a pop for a mocktail, a refreshing quaff they might suck down in two minutes. Bars and restaurants may spend more because of the food waste associated with short-lived fresh juices, "shrubs" and tinctures with fancy extracts and infusions. And there are ongoing ripples among distilleries and breweries as the industry figures out whether this is a blip or a movement with staying power.
Mixologist Dean Hurst recently designed the bar program for Lucky Cricket, the controversial Chinese restaurant created by Andrew Zimmern in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
"I did four nonalcoholic drinks for Lucky Cricket. They did well, but the profit wasn't as high because by the time you get impactful flavor combinations without the strong flavors of alcohol, it ends up being really expensive. When we costed it out, it was $10 or $12 per cocktail. And that's not even factoring in the waste of throwing away rancid fruit or juice," he said.
Sharelle Klaus, founder of DRY, was among the early adopters, launching the company in 2005 after abstinence during four pregnancies left her feeling excluded at restaurants and on special occasions.
She first introduced her line of nonalcoholic beverages with "culinary-inspired flavors" in restaurants in Seattle. Sommeliers were initially snobby, relegating DRY to the category of soda, but chefs were receptive. The drinks are now sold nationally in major grocery chains in 10 flavors and retail for $4.99 to $5.99 for a 750 ml bottle, a 12-ounce glass bottle four-pack for $5.99 to $6.99 and four-packs of slim cans for about the same price.
She says half of American drinkers say they'd like to drink less alcohol, and that goes up to two-thirds for millennial drinkers.
"Mental health is becoming a much bigger discussion point; it's about keeping that edge and that clarity," Klaus says. She argues nonalcoholic social drinking can help combat the distancing effects of cellphones and social media.
"It's about being a bit more present with your friends. Connection, people really want connection."
Nonalcoholic beer, which chugged along with modest performers for years, has seen a resurgence, from craft brewers to Heineken, which in January launched a nonalcoholic malt beverage called 0.0.
It's far more costly to produce a nonalcoholic beer by removing alcohol from a beer, or by keeping a nonalcoholic beer from turning into an alcoholic beer, said Philip Brandes, the founder and head brewer at Bravus Brewing Co. in Costa Mesa, California, said to brew the first nonalcoholic craft beer.
"Initially we tried six-packs of 12-ounce cans priced comparably with other alcoholic craft beer at around $12.99," Brandes said. "What we found is that since the category is still nascent and people weren't aware a great-tasting nonalcoholic craft beer existed, they were hesitant to pay that much to try the product. We then moved to a four-pack of 12 oz. cans at around $8.50 and product began to fly. Same price per can, but a lower price point equated to a lower risk to the customer."
Right now, no-alcohol brews account for just 5% of the beer market. But Brandes, citing market research that it could be a $7 billion worldwide market in about 5 years, says sales growth has outpaced alcoholic beer 5 to 1 over the past six years.
Jeff Stevens of WellBeing Brewing, whose soon-to-be launched Victory Citrus Wheat with natural electrolytes is somewhere between a beer and a sports drink, notes significant growth in Europe and Asia.
"Along with the 'Dry January/Sober Curious/Mindful Drinking' movements, I believe this market is just getting started and poised for growth," Stevens said.
Distill Ventures, an investment company focused on entrepreneurs creating drink brands, launched a nonalcoholic drinks program in 2017, saying they believed "Non-Alc had the potential to be the most exciting category within drinks." Many at the launch luncheon were skeptical.
Today, of the more than 15 founder-led drink brands in their portfolio, a quarter are nonalcoholic.
This article was written by Laura Reiley, a reporter for The Washington Post.