Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry. But more folks are drinking less alcohol in that holiday quest.
A recent Gallup poll shows that alcohol consumption has been down in the past few years, and in fact, is on the low end of the range Gallup has recorded in the past two decades. It is a trend local businesses are seeing as well.
The Open Road, a retail shop located in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh, is the oldest retailer dedicated to the sale of adult nonalcoholic beverages in the United States. Mel Babitz began her business in January 2020 as a pop-up bar and opened the brick-and-mortar shop in March 2022. In that short time period, Babitz has noted great changes.
“Nonalcoholic offerings are so different than they were only three years ago. There are so many more offerings, and more are being introduced every day,” she said.
A few years ago, Babitz had noticed nonalcoholic bars in other states and liked the idea of having more options for those choosing to drink less or like herself, not at all. After researching and consulting with places like Sans Bar in Austin and Listen Bar in New York City, Babitz launched a pop-up bar downtown that met with success. Then COVID hit.
Like all businesses, Babitz had to pivot and offered her wares as an online retailer to sell her inventory, selling not only locally, but nationally. While Babitz now has the storefront, she still offers pop-ups, partnering with other businesses and attending events. “If I do an event, I can cater what I bring to suit the event,” she said.
Since Babitz is the only retailer of its kind not only in the region but in all of Pennsylvania, many customers intentionally seek out the shop, hoping to learn more about options and offerings.
“I like to give out samples and help educate people. I would rather give out a sample and have people know they will like what they buy, then have them get home and not like it and never try another nonalcoholic beverage,” she said.
That’s one reason Megan Gialluco frequents Open Road. “Though I’m not 100 percent alcohol-free, I love to have access to nonalcoholic beverages that still taste great,” she explained. “While beer and liquor stores are starting to carry more nonalcoholic selections, I prefer to shop at Open Road because they have a really wide selection. Also, because they specialize in NA drinks, I find that they are able to make really fantastic recommendations.”
The Big Burrito Group has expanded its nonalcoholic drink list at most of its restaurants, and all of them offer numerous options for nondrinkers, according to President and Chef Bill Fuller. “We just had a tasting on nonalcoholic wines; we are always looking for new things to try,” he said.
Customers select nonalcoholic offerings for several reasons, Fuller said, including those who never drink and those who just may not want to drink on a particular night. He also attributed the rise in the use of medical marijuana to a reduction in the consumption of alcohol. “If someone is using marijuana, they don’t want to mix it with alcohol,” he said.
While Big Burrito Group restaurants don’t yet have nonalcoholic wines at any of their locations, they have nonalcoholic beer at most locations and mocktail selections as well. Some nondrinkers shy away from drinks that may taste too much like the real thing, Fuller said, but there are always options.
Big Burrito Group’s Zero Proof Cocktails include Blood Orange Hibiscus Cosmo-Not, Island Breeze, No-Jito, Anti-Mule and Garden Tonic, just to name a few—made with juices, purees, syrups, and fruit.
“There is a broad scope of nonalcoholic liquor out there, and more is being added every day,” Fuller said, adding that the restaurant group saw an increase in demand right before the pandemic, a demand that has only grown.
Just as the restaurant group tries to accommodate dietary restrictions and needs, they are doing the same with drink requests. “We want all of our guests to be happy,” Fuller said.
Bartender Lissa Brennan, Con Alma restaurants, said that restaurants are stepping up their games when it comes to mocktails and nonalcoholic offerings.
“Most restaurants/bars with a thoughtful beverage program are making sure that they have options that are more specific and elevated than the basics listed, which people can easily drink anywhere,” she explained. “Bartenders and bar managers are crafting drinks that feel festive and special and add to the experience of having a night out even without alcohol.”
Con Alma offers a variety of mocktails in addition to the “basics”—soft drinks, iced tea and water. “I think people are ordering mocktails because they know they’re there,” Brennan said.
Like the Big Burrito Group, Con Alma has several mocktail and nonalcoholic offerings on their menus with a selection that varies.
Brennan explained that their selections fall in different categories, including house cocktails that have the flavor of spirits without alcohol using zero-proof products, so guests still get the taste of the alcohol product such as gin or rum. They also offer drinks utilizing the zero-proof spirits that were created as nonalcoholic drinks from the start.
“There are also drinks that use juices, syrups, etc., that don’t include anything that’s going to mimic the flavor of a spirit,” she said.
A few current Con Alma nonalcoholic offerings include an Old Cuban, which traditionally utilizes rum, lime, and agave, subbing a zero-proof rum; an East Side, showcasing a house-infused pink peppercorn nonalcohol gin with lime, simple syrup, lime leaves, and shiso leaves; and a Carrot Sangrita.
“We also frequently do custom mocktails based on guests’ requests—something sweet, spicy, fruity, savory, whatever,” Brennan said. “We’re always happy to create something based on individual specifications.”