In many ways, drinking alcohol became emblematic of the pandemic. Alcohol sales surged at the start of lockdown — with online purchases in April jumping 477% compared to the same time last year, according to Nielsen.
It became easier to get alcohol from restaurants delivering DIY cocktail kits, and new alcohol delivery services brought everything you would need for your virtual happy hours right to your doorstep.
With the bar industry at a standstill, bartenders went viral on TikTok, showing how to make classic drinks at home. Even “mechanical bartenders” became a thing, with the popularity of high-tech cocktail machines allowing you to easily mix up drinks on demand with the push of a button.
Yet all these innovations and services may have come at a cost. The increased time spent at home due to the pandemic — combined with increased stress and anxiety — have contributed to the rise in binge drinking, according to a study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. A report in JAMA Network Open found that people were drinking 14% more during the pandemic compared to last year.
The Sober-Curious Movement
Yet, there are signs this is turning around and a countermovement is afoot. Nielsen shows a slowing of alcohol sales, and the booze-free segment is exploding. With the phrase “nonalcoholic cocktails” up 170% in online searches, it does appear the sober-curious crowd is getting bigger.
You know it’s a big trend when Grant Achatz, one of the country’s most celebrated chefs and owner of the acclaimed cocktail bar The Aviary in Chicago, is turning his attention to alcohol alternatives. His latest cookbook is “Zero,” which features 100 recipes for nonalcoholic drinks.
It also speaks to how complex and flavor-forward booze-free beverages are becoming.
So perhaps the spike in alcohol consumption was temporary, and concerns about health, including motivations to keep the immune system strong and reverse quarantine weight gain, are behind the growth of alcohol avoiders.
If you’re looking to join the annual celebration of Dry January, it’s easier than ever with the dramatic growth of nonalcoholic options.
Just don’t call them mocktails, says John Wiseman, founder of Curious Elixirs, a line of bottled “shaken, not slurred” alcohol-free craft cocktails made in New York’s Hudson River Valley. A self-described “cocktail nerd,” Wiseman says we should think of these as new adult drinks inspired by classic cocktails.
“Our mission is to help normalize what it means not to drink alcohol or to drink less,” he says. Something must be working; their business is up 600% since the pandemic.
Like many of the newer alcohol-free cocktails, Curious Elixirs contain adaptogens — herbs and botanicals that are marketed as ingredients that help the body resist stressors. The drinks replicate the complex flavors and experience of a cocktail, while offering benefits to help you unwind without alcohol, Wiseman says.
How to Go Alcohol Free
Carolyn O’Neil, a registered dietitian and food journalist in Atlanta, recently went alcohol free due to hip replacement surgery. Under doctor’s orders not to drink while healing at home and on medications, she explored multiple options to replace that 5 o’clock cocktail.
Now fully recovered, O’Neil is sticking with her nonalcoholic routine on most nights. Here are her tips for adjusting to less alcohol:
— Find a new ritual.
— Upgrade your mixer.
— Restock your bar.
Find a new ritual.
If you’re in the habit of marking the end of the day by mixing a cocktail, keep your evening ritual but crack open the tonic water, pour over ice in a pretty highball glass and add a big slice of fresh citrus, she says. “Now, I love a G and T without the G! It helps me signal the end of the day, and the sophisticated slightly bitter taste of tonic is so incredibly refreshing and satisfying that I don’t miss the gin.”
Upgrade your mixer.
The mixer is now the star of the show when forgoing alcohol, so pay more attention to what you’re buying. O’Neil discovered a new player in the mixer section — light tonic waters, such as Fever-Tree.
The light tonics have the distinctive bitter taste of quinine in traditional tonics but with less sugar, so they have fewer calories yet do not contain the artificial sweeteners found in diet tonics. She’ll have on its own, garnished with a twist of lime or lemon, or will mix with upgraded flavored sparking waters. One favorite is S.Pellegrino Essenza Blood Orange and Black Raspberry.
Restock your bar.
Fruit juices add color and flavor to nonalcoholic drinks.
“A splash or two of pomegranate juice is especially pretty and adds a sweet-tart boost to beverages,” says O’Neil, who mixes the juice with sparkling water. “Discover the wonderful world of fruity drinking vinegars called shrubs — ideal for adding pizzazz to alcohol-free cocktails.”
A pineapple habanero shrub is one of her favorites. Also consider bitters, which do contain alcohol, but since you only use a teaspoon or less, the drink is considered low ABV (alcohol by volume). Tart rhubarb bitters are a terrific addition to slightly sweet tonic water.
Here’s a guide to some of the new options for going alcohol free for Dry January and beyond.
These bottled craft cocktails are inspired by classic drinks without the booze:
— Curious Elixirs: A flavorful line of premixed cocktails that combine organic juices, spices, herbs, roots, barks and botanicals.
— Ferm Fatale: Shrub-Bucha probiotic drinks — combining shrubs (drinking vinegars) and kombucha in flavors inspired by margaritas, mules and other classic cocktails.
— For Bitter for Worse: Complex cocktails described as being “made with love, not alcohol.” Ingredients range from succulent figs to foraged Douglas fir tips.
— Kin Euphorics: Ready-to-sip drinks that contain adaptogens, nootropics (L-theanine, GABA and other purported brain-benefit ingredients) and botanics.
— Perfectly Cordial: Made with seasonally fresh fruit, spices and herbs — such as Jalapeno Mint Sour, with four types of citrus fruit, jalapeno and mint. Great mixed with tonic or seltzer for a nonalcoholic sour cocktail.
Zero-proof spirits include alcohol-free gin, bourbon, tequila, whiskey and other spirits to use in nonalcoholic cocktails:
— Monday Gin: A full flavored dry London-style gin with zero alcohol.
— Seedlip Drinks: Three different distilled nonalcoholic spirits — citrus, herbal and aromatic.
— Lyre’s Spirit Co: A range of nonalcoholic spirits for making a Negroni, martini, Manhattan, mai tai and other classics without the booze.
— Ritual Zero Proof: Offering the taste of gin, whiskey and tequila without the alcohol or calories.
— Free Spirits: Nonalcoholic versions of bourbon, gin and tequila.
Nonalcoholic beers have significantly improved in recent years and the pace of growth is predicted to triple by 2024, reaching 2% of beer sales, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.
— Athletic Brewing Company: Nonalcoholic beers in various styles: golden, IPA, lager, pale and stout.
— Budweiser Zero: An alcohol-free brew with the taste of Budweiser with only 50 calories per 12 fluid ounces.
— Heineken 0.0: Brewed and fermented similar to regular Heineken with the alcohol removed with vacuum distillation.
— Busch NA: A nonalcoholic version of Busch that contains 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces.
— Hop Wtr: Not technically a nonalcoholic beer, it provides the hop flavor of beer. The sparkling water is brewed with adaptogens and nootropics (substances that claim to improve cognitive function) for a “more balanced buzz without the booze.”
Unfortunately, many of the new booze-free cocktails and spirits are only available online. Maybe that will change. I’d sure love to see more of them in the liquor section of a supermarket or on the shelves of a liquor store next to their alcoholic counterparts to make a nonalcoholic option a more viable choice.
If you find you’re drinking more during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are multiple resources, including the Sober Mom Squad. A group of five women created this virtual support group for moms who want to explore an alcohol-free lifestyle or need help in maintaining their sobriety during the pandemic. For more information, visit sobermomsquad.com.
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