F&B | For bartenders, ‘Dry January’ is the time to get weird

Dave Arnold has been called the “mad genius” of bartenders, and Existing Conditions, his latest cocktail den in New York’s Greenwich Village, doesn’t disappoint: Arnold and his two co-founders went so far as to import water from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to use in their Paloma cocktail. Then they re-carbonate the already sparkling water with carbon dioxide.

Still, the most eye-opening feature of the menu may be the list of non-alcoholic drinks, all given the same care as the boozy ones. They use such ingredients as leatherwood honey, Mt. Olympus tea, Champagne acid, and comice pear. For a drink described as a “bougie Snapple,” they mix clarified peaches, clarified lime, barley syrup, and umeboshi, or salted Japanese plums.  The clarified fruit is enhanced with glycerin, which creates an alcohol-like viscosity. It takes a full day to prep the concoction.

Arnold says he got interested in elevating the quality of no-alcohol drinks after hearing a bartender dismiss one he was making. “He described it as ‘just a mocktail,’” Arnold says. “I hope I never treat guests with that level of disrespect.”

“Dry January” has gone from punchline to mantra for bars nationwide. The move to add more than a token non-alcoholic option is fueled by year-round demands for more sophisticated drinks aimed at the “sober curious,” as well as a way to get bodies into bar seats during the slowest month of the year. “We’ve added vegan and vegetarian menus,” says Clayton van Hooijdonk, food and beverage director at the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, Calif. “It’s the same thing in beverages.”

David Ozgo, chief economist at the Distilled Spirits Council of America, says January on-premise sales in 2018 accounted for less than 7% of total annual on-premise sales. January sales that year were 20% lower than the average for the other 11 months of the year, and 30% lower than in December. “On-premise sales have traditionally been weak in January, as people get back to work after the holiday season and begin to pay down holiday bills,” he says.

The movement has also spawned a small but notable movement involving bars that are completely alcohol-free. Getaway, a Brooklyn spot identified by a “0%” sign out front, serves an upgrade on the usual seltzers and tonics inside an Instagram-ready interior. This month, Wildcrafters, a sober bar that encourages patrons to “come and get drunk on love with us,” opened its doors in Jacksonville, Fla., with kava, teas, and booze-free craft cocktails. The trend is even established in Ireland: The Virgin Mary debuted in Dublin last year.

Some bars are applying a sober-sensitive approach to decor, as well. This month, Marvel Bar in Minneapolis introduced a four-month “dry” series that will run through April. In addition to non-alcoholic drinks made with such ingredients as foraged milkweed shrub and cherry juice-steeped mushrooms, the bar is retooling its interior design. Gone are the 400 display bottles of booze; in their place are books and local foliage. “The challenge of abstaining from something you love, while having bottles front and center, can be overwhelming,” says Peder Schweigert, Marvel Bar’s general manager. “If you walk into a bar and are presented with flowers, that is a lot more welcoming.”

For bars that serve craft, no-proof drinks, the big question is how much to charge. As a rule of thumb, restaurants depend on alcohol to make up around 30% of sales. On one hand, bar owners note the labor and costs that customers aren’t aware of, including the price of premium ingredients such as fresh juices. There’s also the additional research and development that goes into creating drinks for which there are few existing recipes.

Still, the majority of customers base the value of a drink on its booze, which can be less expensive than the high-end ingredients that go into a well-balanced mocktail. A bottle of Smirnoff vodka goes for less than $15; a bottle of non-alcoholic mixer Seedlip costs $36. 

At Existing Conditions, all drinks, boozy or not, are priced at $16. Arnold says that, instead of getting complaints, customers acknowledge how carefully their alcohol-free drinks are made. “There’s always some part of those drinks that’s extremely costly or hard to source,” he says. “For us, the focus is on drinks that mimic the other characteristics of alcohol, meaning the mouthfeel, the textures, the sugar level.” That requires equipment and techniques that entail a certain level of expertise.

The Resort at Pelican Hill has three restaurants on its property in Newport Beach, Calif. Signature cocktails cost from $16 to $18; no-proof options cost up to $14. “If you present it nicely, with all the same things we do for cocktails, we get no push-back from guests,” says beverage director van Hooijdonk.

Others aim for a lower price point. Inside Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, the British-influenced Queensyard has new booze-free options that include one called Bubbles for Everyone, made with homemade non-alcoholic sparkling wine, Seedlip, and kola nut syrup. (The non-alcoholic sparkling wine is made by blending tea, apple juice, and verjus, then carbonating it.) They are priced at $9, compared to $17 for signature drinks. “I want customers to come back for this cocktail experience,” says beverage director Jeremy Le Blanche. “I want to make mocktails accessible for everyone.”

Even as the non-alcoholic movement surges, some bars keep the drinks off their menus. Any craft bar with homemade syrups, fizzy waters, and fresh juices can conceivably whip up a no-proof drink. At this point, not putting them on the menu is often a conscious business decision. But it’s less about skepticism of the trend than about bar owners reading their clientele.

In New York’s East Village, the Mister Paradise bar has a customer base that skews young and bar-hopping. Managing partner Will Wyatt says putting a lower-priced non-alcoholic drink on the menu would cause unnecessary confusion on busy nights. “People wouldn’t even look at the header,” he explains. “They would just think they were getting a cheaper cocktail.” If he gets a request, though, Wyatt will create an elegant non-alcoholic drink. “I rarely charge them,” he says, “because it’s so rare. When it does happen, it’s a nice extra thing to do for not a lot of cost to the bar.”

Nearby, Mace is lauded for its refined ingredients such as rectified pomegranate, pea soda, and chamomile honey shrub, but it has no booze-free drinks on the menu. “People talk about non-alcoholic drinks,” says owner Nico de Soto. “But they are hard work, and the demand is very small.”

Sweetwater Social, a Manhattan bar with a party reputation, has also avoided booze-free drinks. “Our customers are coming in a late-night capacity,” owner Justin Noel says. “Non-alcoholic cocktails are the least of their concerns.” Still, he notes that demand for no-alcohol drinks has recently ticked up.

Nor is there much demand for booze-free drinks at Glorietta, in Jackson Hole, Wyo. which maintains a tight, 12-drink list. “Having just one non-alcoholic drink wouldn’t suit the tastes of all the non-drinkers,” observes general manager Chuck Greenwald. “You spend all this time creating a recipe that isn’t used that often.” Joshua Duncan, general manager of Denver tiki bar Adrift, echoes that sentiment: “We don’t get a lot of requests for non-alcoholic drinks.”

Almost every place that doesn’t list no-alcohol drinks on the menu will craft one on request. That’s even true at the Grill, a landmarked bar in midtown Manhattan where the specialty is martinis. But it doesn’t happen frequently, according to a bartender. Customers, he says, “want big glasses of gin.” Elva Ramirez, Bloomberg

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