When the pandemic started, Amy Howlett found herself having a cocktail party every night. Her front porch happy hour with her neighbors was “the only opportunity for social interaction,” says the New Jersey-based small-business owner. Soon, however, daily drinking began to make her lethargic.
Unwilling to give up on the ritual altogether, Howlett began experimenting with different non-alcoholic happy hour options and discovered a plethora of non-alcoholic (NA) brands.
She began selling these NA wines, beers, spirits, and cocktails to General Store Cooperative, the retail incubator she co-founded in Maplewood. Customers raved about them.
After extensive testing, research and feedback, Howlett opened The Essential Spirits in September 2021, setting up a dedicated space in the cooperative as well as an e-commerce activity. The store offers more than 150 beers, spirits, wines, and mocktails, as well as CBD and beverages with adaptogens, or plants or herbs believed to have stress-reducing properties and other health benefits. The Essential Spirits also offers craft bitters, shrubs, drink mixes and barware.
“We like to say we’re a cocktail shop with everything but the booze,” she says.
Howlett’s company is not the only one of this kind of non-alcoholic bottle shop. Demand for NA beverages grew 60% from July 2020 to 2021. And Nielsen reports that retail sales of NA beverages over the past few years have jumped billions of dollars.
In recent years, NA stores have opened across the country, from The Open Road in Pittsburgh, which opened in January 2020, to Beverage’s five stores in New York City, all of which opened in 2021. That same year, Sipple debuted. in Houston and, in 2020, Awake in Denver. Many of these stores are also bars and aim to be community centers. And, like The Essential Spirits, many also sell their bottles online.
Digital retailers like Better Rhodes, which started in 2020, and The Dry Goods Beverage Company, which launched in 2021, have also proliferated. Both ship nationwide and Better Rhodes also ships to Canada.
Laura Silverman follows these new bottle stores, online marketplaces and subscription services on Zero Proof Nation, an online community and resource for all things non-alcoholic. Silverman began exploring zero-proof brands and drinks in 2017 after a decade of sobriety. Before that, she says, “there were no sexy, wholesome booze-free options to choose from.”
She launched Zero Proof Nation in 2019 on Instagram and attributes the growth of these bottle shops to a number of factors. There is the growing popularity of the curious sober movement and months like Sober October and Dry January; more than a fifth of U.S. adult consumers participated in the latter in 2019, Nielsen also reported. She also believes the pandemic has caused many people to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol. Early studies show that alcohol consumption has increased due to Covid-19 stress.
Chris Becker, founder of Better Rhodes, finds that mindful drinkers, as well as those who abstain from alcohol for health reasons, make up a large portion of his clientele. But there are plenty of others, too, from sober people to pregnant women, to people he calls the “420s,” who “get their buzz another way,” to hosts looking to offer non-alcoholic options to their guests and Suite.
In 2020, according to drinks brand accelerator Disstill Ventures, 11 non-alcoholic brands were launched in the UK and 12 in the US. Since then, Silverman estimates that “hundreds of NA brands have formed over the past two years.”
Howlett, who took a course for aspiring alcohol-free entrepreneurs with Austin’s Sans Bar before launching The Essential Spirits, says some of his most popular products include Ghia, an alcohol-free aperitif; Zero-proof ritual spirits; Monday Gin; Vinada, a non-alcoholic wine; NA Athletic beer; Bimble and Recess CBD seltzers; CBD drinks from Vybes and Curious Elixirs, alcohol-free craft cocktails with adaptogens.
Still, she says, “there are many brands,” from local manufacturers to giants like Heineken getting into the NA game, “and it’s growing every day.”
Although some traditional liquor retailers, such as Total Wine & More and Drizly, also carry NA beverages, Silverman says non-alcoholic beverage retailers offer an important alternative. They “allow a safe space for people to navigate without the potential triggers of alcohol,” she says.
Many also offer community, acting as low-key bars or event spaces. As Covid-19 continues to present gathering challenges, Howlett, who works at a second location, says, “Having a brick and mortar connects us to a local community,” giving her space to hold tastings, book clubs and quiz nights. She also manages virtual connections like The Essential Spirits Facebook group and online events.
“It’s important that people who cut down on their alcohol use or try to quit altogether have social outlets,” Howlett says.
Better Rhodes’ Becker estimates that his online marketplace features more than 400 products from just under 100 producers (bestsellers include Luminara Wines’ Noughty Sparkling Rosé and Chardonnay). He hadn’t originally planned to have a retail space to showcase them. Since opening a showroom in September 2021, however, the store in Madison, Connecticut, has also been used for tastings, events, photography and podcasts; it’s where the company’s 20 employees taste new products and create recipes.
Brands are also finding bubbling bottle stores beneficial. Chris Boyd, co-founder of Drink Monday, which makes non-alcoholic gin and whiskey, says his Southern California-based company will always be digital native.
But Boyd and co-founder Ben Acott love seeing “all the zero-proof stores and sober bars opening up.” Their drinks are in stock at half a dozen of these retailers, and they aim to increase their presence there this year. “We know our customers want the ability to see, touch and taste,” says Boyd. “[That] cannot be done through a website or app.
19 non-alcoholic retailers, brands and bars nationwide
If you’re curious about this emerging category, check out these digital and physical NA retailers.
- No and down
- The Essential Spirits
- The open road
- Better Rhodes
- The Dry Goods Beverage Company
- Without bar
- Monday gin
- athletic shuffling
- Curious Elixirs