If the recent acquisition of Seedlip, a non-alcoholic “spirits” brand by booze conglomerate Diageo didn’t tip you off already, drinks with no drink in them are now a full-blown thing around the globe. Just don’t call them mocktails, please. Seedlip’s UK founder was prescient four years ago with his launch, it seems. With his flat cap, lustrous beard and bucolic wholesomeness, Ben Branson looks like he just stepped down from his 19th century farm wagon. The alcohol-free blend of allspice, oak bark and cardamom piqued the interest of barmen and curious journalists, although it left some of the lugubrious old guard spluttering into their Sazeracs. Today the last laugh is on him with Diageo’s majority ownership and mixologists who are selling Seedlip cocktails for $15 a pop.
Not so long ago the dreaded mocktail meant diabetes-inducing virgin coladas awash with cream and sugar. Now the new wave of alcohol-free spirits and cocktails continues to rise, and even a completely booze-free bar is a reality on the streets of Brooklyn and London.
But are these alternatives any good? Much like Seedlip, many come in beautiful packaging: Ecology and Co.’s fecund ferns and Aecorn aperitif’s botanically inspired labels give a pretty flourish to the back or home bar. In the same way that a gin’s ingredients now recall a medieval apothecary’s encyclopedia, these drinks are packed with roots, barks and medicinal ingredients (and claims). Aecorn and Seedlip were both inspired by The Art of Distillation, a 17th-century collection of herbal remedies. And unlike many previous booze-free options (Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, etc.) many are completely sugar free.
Their often high prices are partly to do with the manufacturing process. Seedlip, for example, goes through the same maceration, distillation, filtration and blending as alcoholic spirits—the difference is that it does not go through fermentation. Each plant is distilled in a neutral grain spirit and water before distilling the mashes in copper pot stills. The alcohol is removed and the remaining, concentrated distillates are blended together, then filtered and bottled.
Most can be made into tasty enough drinks. Try a Three Spirits over ginger beer, a Seedlip Garden 108 with pear and parsnip shrub, or an Ecology and Co. Tom Collins, with soda, sugar syrup and lemon for a hangover-free tipple.
Yet it is one thing mixing a dry cocktail on a booze free Monday or for a teetotaling friend at home, but who’d schlep across town for a completely dry cocktail bar such as Listen Bar in Brooklyn? Personally, I know that I would be nursing my orris root spritzer alone if I were to suggest a booze-free bar as a venue. A quick straw poll from friends on dry bars ranged from “Can we look forward to food-free restaurants next?” to “I don’t mind paying high prices for alcohol-free cocktails. It’s just as expensive for the barmen to make the booze-free cocktail and requires the same skill. And there’s less aggro in these bars probably.” Many of them are pop-ups, which begs the question: Are they actually economically viable? You might save on a liquor license (around $4,500 in NYC), but can you really get the tushes on seats?
“An entirely booze-free bar is an interesting concept, although logistically I wouldn’t be able to see it working,” says Bobby Hiddleston from Bar Swift in London. “Financially it would be much harder to keep a business like that afloat, as the spend per head would be drastically reduced. It would have to operate similar to the ‘bubble tea’ approach of business—fast in, fast out—to generate enough business, but then would that be defined as a bar? To keep people in the building, it would need a significant ‘other’ offering—live music, games, etc.—otherwise people wouldn’t stay.”
So while most committed drinkers I know cannot see the point of spending money on a dry version, teetotaling friends or those who drink very rarely seem to genuinely embrace these well-crafted and photogenic offerings, and want adult drinks that taste sophisticated but don’t give you a sore head the next day. It also means that you can spend the evening at a party or bar with a drink that looks like a regular cocktail, that is healthier than sugary sodas and less dull than soda water.
Although one word of warning from drinks supplier the Whisky Exchange: “The value of sales of non-alcoholic spirits at The Whisky Exchange has soared by 150 percent in the last year,” says buyer Dawn Davies. “Sadly there have also been a lot of imitators making poor products that are either very acidic or just water with some botanicals added. The industry needs to be very careful not to focus on expanding the non-alcoholic category for the sake of volume. Taste is crucial and substandard product will simply damage this very promising category.”
So the conclusion? There is a lot to be said for booze-free spirits, many of which are sophisticated and interesting enough to be drunk on their own (although, in general you have to favor more of a herbal taste profile).
As for dry bars? Give me a few non-sugary dry options on the menu at a fun speakeasy or a glamorous hotel bar any day, so that there is choice. But as for a totally alcohol-free bar? It’s enough to make me reach for my triple-distilled, ice-cold vodka.