The first “dry January” was an act against aggression, not alcohol. Today’s version of teetotalling to start the new year has blossomed into a year-round trademarked movement, as well as a way of life for those leading sober lifestyles. The restaurant industry is fully embracing it, as well.
In 1942, Finland was trapped in World War II. Facing an onslaught of Russian forces on its Eastern front and the growing power of Nazi Germany, the Scandinavian country needed to manage its resources, including alcohol. The war effort brought on “Raitis Januar,” a sobering call from the government to its citizens and troops to refrain from alcohol for the month of January. The policy was effective.
Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century and the words dry and January started to appear in combination to describe a new health-focused movement of refraining from alcohol during the first month of the year. The idea grew in modest popularity as folks looked to kick off a healthier lifestyle. In 2014, Alcohol Change UK trademarked the term, and while the movement “officially” came to the United States in 2023, many had been practicing a month-long booze break for years.
February 15, 2024, will mark seven years I have lived without alcohol. It is a pretty strange accomplishment for someone who writes a biweekly beer column and specializes in arts and leisure writing, which often takes me to boozy functions, winery tours and all sorts of tasting events. Yes, I do a lot of awkward explaining, but I’m always quick to share a bit of knowledge about the newest alcohol-free option I may have discovered. It seems I do not get judged too harshly by my peers who sip. I still taste alcoholic beverages, plus I have a wife and cadre of friends who serve as my “designated drinkers.”
The beyond in “Dry January … and Beyond!” is forever for me. Like the well-aged Grateful Dead song, the doctor said I had “too much too fast.” And honestly, the switch has opened a whole new world of experiences for me (although I now eat much more ice cream and drink way more coffee than I had before). I stopped digesting alcohol at just the right time, when the art of distilling and curious creativity merged to produce “spirits” suitable for even the best cocktails.
It’s a New World
My first foray into the world of alcohol-free spirits came when I picked up a bottle of Seedlip Grove 42 at a bodega in Manhattan. I found the bright blend of Mediterranean orange, lemon peel, lemongrass and ginger easy to use for simple drinks like a cosmo or good enough to kick up a highball with ginger ale. I would add a garnish and boom, I was drinking at a party.
I have amassed quite a collection of alcohol-free spirits. The shelf life of most zero-proof spirits is less than one year, so a “collection” is constantly changing. One of my newest discoveries is for fans of bourbon cocktails. Kentucky 74 from Spiritless does not stand well on its own when compared to its high-test counterparts, but it mixes well for a mint julep, milk punch or old fashioned (I recommend Modica tart cherry superfood cocktail mix for this one). I also like Lyre’s American Malt as a bourbon substitute. When it comes to sipping whiskeys of the alcohol-free variety, I can be found enjoying Monday or Abstinence Epilogue X, which is an aromatic distillation of herbs, spices and malt.
When I was enjoying the buzz (and regretting the hangovers) my spirit of choice was rum. It seems rum is both an easy and a hard spirit to get correct in zero-alcohol form. I have tasted some terrible offerings, but I have also found wonderful substitutes like Ritual Zero Proof Rum Alternative – it is spicy and hot, toasted and sweet. Lyre’s Dark Cane Spirit is nice, either straight or with a splash of ginger beer.
I also like the taste of modern gins, but I have yet to find a true standout among the many alternatives focusing on herbalizing the taste rather than the heat, which I understand because chilis – which are often found as ingredients in zero spirits to imitate the burn of alcohol – should not be anywhere near gin (in my opinion). Again, Monday steps into my favorites so far. (Locally, Shot & Bottle’s beverage director, Justen Sloyer, created his own gin substitute, which can only be found as an ingredient at the bar in drinks like the Queen of the Underworld.)
Something I never really came to fully appreciate was tequila or mezcal. However, I found some great citrus-enhancing spirits for a dry Cinco de Mayo! Clean T from CleanCo is a great riff on blanco tequila with green agave and new oak aromas, which finishes dry and peppery. Sweetness prevails in sipping Tequila Alternative from the woman-owned NKD LDY. Their best product is created using tequila sourced from Mexico, but the heat gets lost in cocktails.
I must note, too, how federally legal CBD is trending in the spirits world, especially by enhancing zero-alcohol cocktails. I had the opportunity to check out Mellow Fellow’s Wellness Tinctures, which promise to add an edge to drinks. Elevate is a traditional calming CBD formula, and Momentum is a formula to maintain a clear and alert focus. Both come in mint and berry flavors, which can be added in place of bitters.
Elixir brands like Three Spirit are enabling mixologists to work with a variety of cool ingredients like lion’s mane mushroom, damiana and schisandra berry. My favorite is Three Spirit Nightcap, incorporating valerian root, terpenes and hops, which I enjoy on the rocks with an orange garnish.
Ready to Drink is Trending
If mixing, stirring, and shaking is not your thing, there are several RTD (ready to drink) zero-cocktails on the market today. Curious Elixirs’ booze-free cocktails are small-batch-bottled in New York’s Hudson River Valley and are numbered for their desired effect based on the inclusion of organic herbs and adaptogens. Do not put too much stock into their comparison to traditional cocktails, but think of them as drinks on their own – even though No. 1 labels itself as a Negroni and No. 2 a margarita. My favorite by far is No. 4, a Sicilian blood orange spritz.
The best canned alcohol-free drink I have come across is the ISH RTD Mojito made with ISH Caribbean Spiced Spirit, lime and Moroccan spearmint. Produced in Copenhagen, Denmark, ISH products may be a bit hard to find stateside, but they are worth the hunt. ISH’s sparkling white is the best de-alcoholized wine I have ever tasted; made with a blend of Pinot Blanc and Silvaner grapes, this wine scored 90 points at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2022.
I Am Not Alone
When purchased directly, most alcohol-free spirits come with product cards highlighting their production method, listing in grand detail their ingredients, and/or offering recipes with cheeky names like the Spicy Soberita or The Tastemaker. It is necessary marketing for these small companies, but it is not just new startups that are embracing zero proof. Global brand, Diageo, recently released Captain Morgan Original Spiced Gold 0.0% on the tails of successful alcohol-free versions of Tanqueray and Gordons gins.
Despite the constantly growing market inundating me with new products, I suppose I have tried 75% of what is out there. And I know I am not alone. According to IWSR, a company compiling global data on beverages, sales of low- and no-alcohol brands like those mentioned above reached $3.3 billion in 2021. That figure is projected to increase 31% by the end of 2024. The U.S. is one of 10 key global markets leading the trend, and a report by Berenberg Research found Gen Z and Millennials are drinking less alcohol per individual than Gen X and Boomers did at their ages. Bar and restaurant owners have noticed. (Alcohol-free establishments, often called sober bars, have popped up in D.C., Philly and Cleveland.)
“I’ve seen a rise in zero-proof consumption on-premise at full-service casual- and fine-dining establishments, specifically over the last few years,” says Donny Clutterbuck, board member of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Donny also serves as beverage director at four of Rochester, New York’s hottest cocktail bars. He has seen a wide range of people embracing the movement, but most customers drinking alcohol-free lean closer to the under-40 demographic. “It seems to me that providing options other than water or soda for those uninclined to drink even socially makes them feel less like they have to say ‘no’ to anything … easing the social pressure that can come from dinners and happy hours” he says.
Virgin Gin Fizz at Proof
The newest addition to the Proof line of alcohol-free cocktails is the Virgin Gin Fizz. It is so new, as of press time lead bartender Joe Pennington was not sure what he would call the drink. He wanted to create a zero-alcohol spin on a classic cocktail, the gin fizz, which started in New Orleans and took the world by storm in the ’30s and ’40s. This version uses Monday Gin, Fentimans Rose Lemonade and an egg. Proof’s New Old Fashioned is really good, too.
Proof – 30 N. Queen St. (lower level). Prooflancaster.com
You Have No Faith in Medicine at the Horse Inn
Yoel Orroyo shakes up a cocktail inspired by a Campari sour using a bittersweet blood orange aperitif from the South African distillers Abstinence. You Have No Faith in Medicine combines freshly made Demerara syrup, lemon juice and an egg white for texture with the alcohol-free spirit. It’s served in a rocks glass garnished with freshly grated cinnamon and lemon peel. Horse Inn general manager, Bryce Kephart (above left), likes to create zero-proof renditions of classic cocktails and reports the staff enjoys experimenting with cordials, juices and quality-crafted ingredients.
Horse Inn – 540 E. Fulton St. Horseinnlancaster.com
Cucumber Refresher at Decades
Lancaster City native and bartender, Weston Fetterolf, created the Cucumber Refresher with a secret ingredient – a rimmer of Tajin classico seasoning (a blend of chili peppers, lime and sea salt) – giving this year-round menu item a bit of heat. As for the drink, muddled cuke and lime join with a habanero tincture over ice with seltzer and lemonade in a tall glass. Decades partner, Jonathan Yeager, says customers of all ages and from all walks of life enjoy selections from the bar’s “morning person” section of the cocktail menu.
Decades – 438 N. Queen St. Decadeslancaster.com
The Author’s Soapbox
Nix mocktails: Although the word play is cute, good alcohol-free cocktails are creations in their own right. Implied mimicry is not flattery in this case. No one really likes to be mocked.
Change the negative: Non is negative. Alcoholic carries negative connotations. Let’s make our vocabulary more positive and eliminate non-alcoholic and call our beers, wines and spirits by better descriptors like zero-proof, alcohol-free (as in Europe), or low-alcohol.
Understand ABV (alcohol by volume): A low-alcohol drink, like a .5 % beer, contains as much alcohol as a glass of fruit juice and much less than a hamburger bun. (1.28% ABV/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5421578/)
Beer and wine: I could write for days, but there would be little room for anything else in this publication. So, if you want a recommendation on a low-ABV beer, drop me a line on Instagram at @DrinkItWriteIt.
Inclusivity: There’s nothing worse than going to a wedding or a party and asking for an alcohol-free drink and being offered a lukewarm bottle of water or a can of no-name soda. In the case of a wedding, ask your mixologist or bartender to devise a festive, alcohol-free drink to accompany the wedding’s customized signature drink(s). I bet even those who indulge will like having that option.