Dry January is over. Long live Dry February. Also Dry March, Dry April, and all the other dry months of the year. If the cocktails lists of area bars and restaurants are a barometer, alcohol-free drinks are becoming a fixture rather than a novelty.
At Comfort Kitchen, which opened last month, about a third of the cocktails on beverage director Kyisha Davenport’s list are “free spirited,” and just as compelling as their alcoholic counterparts — made with ingredients such as baobab, smoked cherrywood, and Nepali tea. Alcohol-free riffs with names such as the Bramble Berry Spritz, Non-Americano, and Phony Negroni (bottled by St. Agrestis) appear on the menus of Italian restaurants like Bar Mezzana, Faccia a Faccia, and Tonino. Cocktail-centric bars such as Brick & Mortar, Daiquiris and Daisies, and Yvonne’s serve up complex zero-proof creations: the Jets to Arabia (a riff on the espresso martini), the Nitro Strawberry (strawberry, lemon verbena, elderflower, and champagne acid), the Cecily (salted cucumber, wasabi, lime, yuzu, and soda). For those who appreciate irony, speakeasies like Hecate and Wink & Nod offer an array of carefully composed alcohol-free drinks.
“Any new opening in the past two years is going to have to offer some thoughtful nonalcoholic drinks if they want to be relevant,” says Julia Bainbridge, who is the author of “Good Drinks,” a book of alcohol-free recipes, and a newsletter of the same name. Perhaps even more significant, she says: the many legacy bars and restaurants that are introducing alcohol-free options.
Consumption patterns have changed in the decade since the launch of Dry January, a campaign created by nonprofit Alcohol Change UK in which participants take a monthlong break from booze. The “sober curious” movement is growing, driven by younger drinkers: According to market research company NielsenIQ, 66 percent of millennials said they were making efforts to cut back on alcohol in 2019. And sales of nonalcoholic beverages in the United States went up more than 20 percent between August 2021 and August 2022, totaling $395 million in that time period. Much of that was nonalcoholic beer; the still-tiny “nonalcoholic spirits” sector — brands like Ghia, Ritual Zero Proof, and Seedlip — made up just a little more than 1 percent of the market. But over the course of that year, it grew 88 percent. (Keep an eye out for local brand Tilden, launching Feb. 16 with the fresh and herbal Lacewing and smoky, oaky Tandem.)
“It’s something we’ve been doing for quite a long time,” says Shy Bird owner Andrew Holden of the nonalcoholic drinks offered at both the Kendall Square and South Boston branches. “You do hear people commenting on Dry January, but for us it’s woven throughout the year.”
Although some customers don’t drink at all, oftentimes those ordering the nonalcoholic drinks are cutting back, seeking balance — similar to the way many people embracing plant-based diets aren’t strictly vegan or vegetarian. “You might see someone in here on a Tuesday who says, ‘I’d love something from the zero-proof section,’” he says. “You might turn around on a Saturday night and see the same person having a glass of wine.”
Shy Bird bartenders create alcohol-free cocktails using ingredients they create themselves: the Side-Eye, which brings together house-made hibiscus-rosemary syrup, orange and lemon juice, and grapefruit soda; the Cloud Nine, a combination of coconut syrup, lime juice, and club soda. They’ve tasted their way through a trove of nonalcoholic spirits, searching for their favorites; these might be served on their own, or combined with other ingredients, as in the Lexi Fleming, an alcohol-free riff on a Scotch-based Penicillin cocktail. It’s made with nonalcoholic spirit Gnista Floral Wormwood, plus a smoky house-made tea syrup, ginger beer, and lemon.
The restaurants are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, doubling as remote workspaces during the day. “At either location, you can look across the lunchroom and see someone having a Side-Eye, someone having a Ghia. Fifteen years ago, that would be a Diet Coke, an iced tea, an Arnold Palmer, or a lemonade,” Holden says. “Those are still great drinks — they’re timeless, we make all of them — but there’s more out there now.”
In Cambridge, Pagu rolled out a zero-proof cocktail list last month, using Dry January as a peg for the launch. It took off immediately, and demand hasn’t slowed in February, says bar manager Andrew Bechtol.
“When we released the nonalcoholic menu and put it on Instagram to promote it, we got absolutely crushed. I was running out of batches within the first few hours of service. I was like: This is going to take off for us,” he says. “It’s obviously here to stay.”
As interest in nonalcoholic drinks grows, new businesses are catering to it directly or baking it into their opening plans.
Rachel Trudel and chef Emily Vena run Cobble, a tiny BYOB restaurant on the second floor of the Coolidge Corner Arcade in Brookline. On the first floor, they will soon open Barlette, which they call a “BYOB bar.”
“It is a place for people to gather in a really stylish, lounge-like space. It walks and talks like a bar, but the twist is that you bring your own,” Trudel says.
In addition to a four-course menu of stylish snacks, Barlette will have three house-made mixers on tap. Customers can bring beer, wine, or spirits to shake together with the mixers — or not. “We create mixers that are alcohol-agnostic. Our mixers are designed to work with most alcohols, if not every alcohol, and also designed to work without alcohol,” Trudel says. “We think of Barlette as a sort of platform, and we want to welcome anyone to drink what they want, be that gin, an expensive bottle of wine they’ve been waiting to open, or nothing at all.
“We think it’s really important not to exclude or ignore people who aren’t drinking. No one wants to feel like an other. Big Alcohol tries very hard to make people feel like others. It’s the one substance where if you don’t partake, you get questioned.”
This is one of the driving forces behind Midnight Teas(e), a woman-, witch-, and LGBTQ+-owned teashop in Salem. It recently launched as an online store, and owners Maureen Bonsignore and Emilie Rodgers plan to spend the next year growing the business and doing events before opening a tea room and dry nightlife venue sometime in 2024. It will offer “teatails” — tea-based, alcohol-free drinks — and might host anything from burlesque and drag shows to paint nights.
“The population of people who do not drink alcohol is so anonymous in our society. Our society is so focused on and oriented toward alcohol, it’s almost taboo. You’re kind of an outcast and treated like a weirdo, even though it’s a huge demographic,” Rodgers says.
“We’ve had so much positive feedback. I can’t even believe how many people we’ve talked to who said, ‘I will be your first customer.’ People really, really want this.”