The Rise of Zero-Proof Drinks

Alcohol-free drinks have gone way beyond the standard Shirley Temple. Sea Wave/Shutterstock

You could say we're right in the middle of a full-fledged cocktail revival, with no sign of winding down anytime soon. These days, you can find bespoke absinthe cocktails in your neighborhood bar, small-batch mezcal sits alongside scotch in your uncle's bar cart and craft distilleries are popping up in even the smallest of towns everywhere.

That being said, this renewed appreciation for craft cocktails isn't just about alcohol. Plenty of people appreciate hand-cut ice, a mid-century lowball glass and a whimsical garnish — even if there's not a spirit swirling within. Though it might seem like drinking and all its accoutrements are skyrocketing, The Washington Post reports 30% of American don't indulge at all. Another 30% consume less than one drink per week on average.

Millennials and Gen Zers are also drinking less, thanks in part to concerns about their health and favoring marijuana over booze. There's also the cultural shift that has happened since their own parents were out socializing; now, your worst behavior can be caught on camera and disseminated to social media sites in a matter of minutes.

"Control has become a key watchword for today's younger drinkers," Jonny Forsyth, a global food-and-drink analyst, told Business Insider. "Unlike previous cohorts, their nights out are documented through photos, videos, and posts across social media where it is likely to remain for the rest of their lives."

This type of social-media surveillance is certainly one reason why people are putting down the bottle. "Over-drinking is therefore something many seek to avoid," adds Forsyth.

This doesn't mean that we've all become a nation of shut-ins, necessarily, but rather that people are seeking healthier alternatives while still being social. Enter the rise of zero-proof drinks.

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Whole Foods Market named it one of their top 10 food trends for 2020, stating, "Many of these beverages seek to re-create classic cocktail flavors using distilling methods typically reserved for alcohol, creating an alternative to liquor meant to be used with a mixer rather than a drink on its own. Think alt-gin for gin and tonics and botanical-infused faux spirits for a faux martini."

the founder of Seedlip spirit Ben Branson
Branson drew upon his family's 300-year farming history when creating his distilled herbal spirits. Seedlip

One of earliest progenitors to specifically create a distilled non-alcoholic spirit was Seedlip, founded by UK farmer-designer-entrepreneur Ben Branson. He was inspired by a 17th century book called "The Art of Distillation," in which a physician promoted recipes for distilled non-alcoholic drinks designed to ease ailments like kidney stones and epilepsy.

"I wanted to change the way the world drinks, with grown-up alternatives," Branson told NPR. "Nobody feels great drinking a Shirley Temple or a club soda when they go out. I wanted to create something without compromise, without trying to copy something else."

These well-crafted, zero-proof cocktails go way beyond the oft-mocked, sugary-sweet mocktails. These new "spirits" aren't trying to imitate tequila or vodka, rather, they stand on their own with intricate distilling processes, exotic ingredients and a distinct flavor profile.

Well-respected industry titans of the bartending world are also on board. New York bar owner John Wiseman has also created a line of bottled zero-proof cocktails called Curious Elixirs. "I still like a cocktail," Wiseman told NPR, "but if I'm hanging out with friends for four or five hours and have a couple of traditional cocktails, what am I drinking in between? Customers who don't want alcohol should be able to have something special too."

It's not just spirits and niche products that are taking out alcohol. Big brands and breweries are hopping on the wagon, too, so to speak. Anheuser-Busch has re-launched limited edition, Instagram-friendly iterations of the original non-alcoholic beer, O'Doul's, to reach a younger, more mindful audience.

a red-lit bar at night with bartenders
Noteworthy bars and bartenders are also hopping on the booze-free train. Lhcollins [CC SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Heineken launched their "0.0" beer this year because they saw “a growing trend toward health and wellness, particularly with the younger cohort.” Their chief marketing officer, Johnnie Cahill, also cited the statistics showing millennials are drinking less, but still want to be social. “In the U.S., 30'% of people between 21 and 30 haven’t had a beer in the last month,” he told Esquire. “The non-alcoholic beer market in the U.S. is relatively underdeveloped.”

An appreciation for alcoholic-free drinks goes beyond the barstool, too. Sober bars are now popping up all over the country, and not just in major metropolises, but in places like Kansas City, St. Louis and Bastrop, Texas.

They're all part of the "sober curious" movement, a term Marie Claire magazine describes as "those who drink less than they once did, or not at all, but who are not quite sober either." This sort of spectrum of sobriety allows for people to question our drinking culture, and partake only when they really want to, not just when they feel the social pressure to imbibe.

As a younger generation continues to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol and the wellness trend grows even more mainstream, expect to see more non-alcoholic beverages in the coming year. Of course, discerning drinkers will still expect a palate-pleasing cocktail, alcohol-free or not. Seedlip's Branson agrees that's the key to their success: "If you take the alcohol out, it won't just magically be the same. Ultimately, that drink has to stand on its own."