The Boisson store in New York City’s Upper West Side, NYC / Photo by Walter Wall
When the pandemic began, Amy Howlett found herself having a cocktail every night. Her porch happy hour with neighbors was “the only avenue for social interaction,” says the New Jersey-based small business owner. Soon, though, imbibing daily started to make her feel sluggish.
Not wanting to give up the ritual completely, Howlett started experimenting with different alcohol-free happy hour options, and discovered a plethora of non-alcoholic (NA) brands.
She started selling these NA wines, beers, spirits and cocktails at General Store Cooperative, the retail incubator space she co-owns in Maplewood. Customers snapped them up.
After a lot of testing, research and feedback, Howlett opened The Essential Spirits in September 2021, setting up a dedicated space in the cooperative as well as an ecommerce business. The shop carries more than 150 alcohol-free beers, spirits, wines and cocktails, plus CBD and beverages with adaptogens, or plants or herbs purported to have stress-reduction properties and other health benefits. The Essential Spirits also carries artisanal bitters, shrubs, drink mixes and barware.
“We like to say we’re a cocktail shop with everything but the booze,” she says.
Howlett’s business is not the only such bottle-shop-sans-booze. The demand for NA beverages was up 60% from July 2020 to 2021. And Nielsen reports retail sales of NA beverages over recent years has surged by billions of dollars.
In the last few years, NA stores have been opening all over the country, from The Open Road in Pittsburgh, which started in January 2020, to Boisson’s five New York City locations, all of which opened in 2021. That same year, Sipple debuted in Houston and Awake in Denver. Many of these shops are also bars and aim to be community hubs. And, like The Essential Spirits, many sell their bottles online, too.
Digital retailers like Better Rhodes, which started in 2020, and The Dry Goods Beverage Company, which launched in 2021, have also proliferated. Both ship nationally and Better Rhodes also ships to Canada.
Laura Silverman keeps track of these new bottle shops, online marketplaces and subscription services on Zero Proof Nation, an online community and resource for all things non-alcoholic. Silverman started to explore zero-proof brands and beverages in 2017 after a decade of sobriety. Before that, she says, “there were no sexy, healthy non-alcoholic options to choose from.”
She started Zero Proof Nation in 2019 on Instagram, and credits the growth of these bottle shops to a number of factors. There’s the rising popularity of the sober curious movement and months like Sober October and Dry January; over a fifth of U.S. adult consumers participated in the latter in 2019, Nielsen also reported. She also thinks the pandemic caused many to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol. Early studies do show alcohol consumption increased related to Covid-19 stress.
Chris Becker, founder of Better Rhodes, does find that mindful drinkers, as well as those abstaining from alcohol for health reasons, make up a large portion of his customer base. But there are many others, too, from those who are sober, to pregnant people, to the folks he calls ‘420s,’ who “get their buzz in other ways,” to hosts looking to have non-alcoholic options for their guests and more.
In 2020, according to drinks brand accelerator Distill Ventures, 11 non-alcoholic brands launched in the U.K. and 12 in the U.S. Since then, Silverman estimates that “hundreds of NA brands formed in the last two years.”
Howlett, who took a course for aspiring booze-free entrepreneurs with Austin’s Sans Bar prior to launching The Essential Spirits, says some of her most popular products include Ghia, a non-alcoholic aperitif; Ritual, zero-proof spirits; Monday Gin; Vinada, a non-alcoholic wine; NA beer Athletic; CBD seltzers Bimble and Recess; CBD beverages from Vybes and Curious Elixirs, non-alcoholic craft cocktails made with adaptogens.
Still, she says, “there are lots of brands out there,” from local makers to giants like Heineken getting into the NA game, “and it’s growing every day.”
Though some traditional liquor retailers, such as Total Wine & More and Drizly, also carry NA beverages, Silverman says that retailers devoted to non-alcoholic beverages provide an important alternative. They “allow a safe space for people to browse without the potential triggers of alcohol,” she says.