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The pandemic triggered a boom in alcohol consumption and sales. According to medical journal JAMA Network Open, American adults reported drinking 14 percent more often than usual at the beginning of the world health crisis. Brick-and-mortar sales of alcohol were up 21 percent nationwide, according to Nielsen; online alcohol sales jumped up 234 percent.
It may come as a surprise, then, that growth in the non-alcoholic drink world is going blow-for-blow with its boozy ringmate. According to Nielsen, the non-alcoholic beverage category has seen a 506 percent increase since 2015. Driven by a wealth of new options, better choices and easier access, Million Insights reports the non-alcoholic drink market could hit $1.6 trillion by 2025.
“We thought long and hard about holding the launch and waiting for the pandemic to subside, but ultimately are happy we made the decision to move forward and give people the ritual of a better drink at home,” says Melanie Masarin, founder of Ghia, a ruby-hued non-alcoholic aperitif that launched in 2020.
Masarin and her team are driven, in part, by a desire to destigmatize sobriety. "My hope is that the community we are creating can not only be a support system during times like this but also contribute to destigmatizing sobriety,” she says. “The goal is to shift from actual consumption of alcohol to instead enjoying the ritual of drinking itself — making yourself a drink and allowing yourself to press pause on the day and enjoy."
Masarin isn't alone. Other startups want sobriety to be a choice instead of an invitation for questions. A TotalJobs report in 2019 about workplace drinking culture found that U.K. workers are increasingly choosing to drink less. Millennials are leading this reduction, with 66 percent of participants reporting they’ve reduced their drinking over the past two years.
Launched in 2015, Ben Branson's Seedlip has been on the non-alcoholic wagon longer than most, and Branson cites the lack of a “truly sophisticated alternative option to alcohol" as his reason for getting into it. Options were rare, he says. Tasty options even rarer.
Each of Seedlip’s varieties is meant to answer the question of what to drink when you’re not drinking. Branson sees a shift coming in how drinks play into everyday life, with healthy living as the top priority. Thanks to Seedlip and other non-alcoholic options, Branson hopes that people can learn that moderation is attainable.
The options are growing, and not just through distilled spirits and aperitifs. Market research company IRI found sales of nonalcoholic beer were up 38 percent in 2020 — a dramatic increase in an older and dustier corner of the alcohol-free booze world.
Bill Shufelt founded Athletic Brewing after he gave up drinking for health reasons, with the goal to “take nonalcoholic beer out of the penalty box,” he says. Through offerings like Upside Dawn, a golden ale, and Run Wild IPA, the brewery is making booze-free alternatives for steadfast beer drinkers.
Hallowed beer makers, like those at Brooklyn Brewery, are cutting alcohol from new beers, too. Brooklyn Brewery now offers two nonalcoholic options, a hoppy lager and an IPA, both available at stores around the country. “At the outset of our approach to nonalcoholic beer, I was not a fan of the category,” says Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery's James Beard Award-winning brewmaster. “Well, once we had Special Effects in hand, it really changed my mind. Now I’m definitely a believer.”
Of course, it's one thing for high-quality nonalcoholic options to exist. It's another to get them into the hands of consumers. Fortunately, because the drinks are booze-free, they're not beholden to the same distribution woes of their alcoholic brethren. Manufacturers are free to sell their offerings online, directly to consumers. And for those people who don't know where to begin, there are now e-retailers like Better Rhodes, which carries over 200 sober options for newcomers to discover.
With more options, more accessibility and more quality, the final hurdle — that is, the FOMO associated with living booze-free — will work itself out in time, says David Fudge, founder of the hemp-based spirit Aplós.
“I think in five to ten years from now, we’ll walk in a bar and there will be a large selection of alcohol alternatives,” Fudge says. “Eventually asking a friend to ‘have a drink’ won’t just mean drinking alcohol. It seems crazy, but a few years from now we’ll look back and all think it was obvious.”
Five to Try
Amass is known for being a botanicals-first brand, which made it the right brand to make a gin and a flavored vodka. With Riverine, Amass made an alcohol-free spirit with delicious hints of citrus, thyme and sumac.
Price: $35 (750ml)
The hemp-infused Aplós offers a buzz without the alcohol. It’s sweet and herbaceous, with a flavor profile that works on the rocks or mixed into a number of zero-alcohol cocktails.
Price: $48 (500ml)
You may have to do a double check when you take a sip of Run Wild, just to make sure you didn’t accidentally drink a regular IPA.
Price: $13 (6-pack)
Everything you want in an aperitif can be found in Ghia. It’s sweet and floral on the front, then dissipates into a subtle bitterness that begs for another sip.
Spice 94 takes its name seriously. The spirit is heavy on spices, such as allspice and cardamom, and offset by bright citrus flavors.
Price: $32 (700ml)