New wave of bars creates buzz without the booze

Dee-Ann Durbin
Associated Press

There’s something missing from a new wave of bars opening around the world: Alcohol.

Aimed at the growing number of people exploring sobriety, the bars pour adult drinks like craft cocktails without the booze. At 0% Non-Alcohol Experience, a futuristic bar in Tokyo, patrons can sip a mix of non-alcoholic white wine, sake and cranberries from a sugar-rimmed glass. On a recent evening at Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, customers gathered at outdoor tables, enjoying live music, bottles of alcohol-free IPA and drinks like the watermelon mockarita, which is made with a tequila alternative.

In this March 5, 2021 photo, owner Chris Marshall prepares an alcohol-free cocktail at San Bars in Austin, Texas.

Sober bars aren’t a new phenomenon. They first appeared in the 19th century as part of the temperance movement. But while previous iterations were geared toward non-drinkers or people in recovery, the newer venues welcome the sober as well as the curious.

“A lot of people just want to drink less,” said Chris Marshall, Sans Bar’s founder.

Marshall, who has been sober for 14 years, opened the bar after serving as an addiction counselor. But he estimates 75% of his customers also drink alcohol outside of his bar.

“It’s just easier,” said Sondra Prineaux, a regular customer at Sans Bar. “I don’t have to worry about leaving my car here and getting an Uber home. I’ll wake up without a headache.”

“I have the wonderful problem of too many great options,” said Douglas Watters, who opened Spirited Away, a New York shop that sells non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits, in November.

Watters said the pandemic lockdown caused him to rethink his usual pattern of ending each day with a cocktail. He started experimenting with non-alcoholic beverages, and by August he had decided to open his store. Many of his customers are sober, he said, but others are pregnant or have health issues. Some are training for marathons; others just want to cut back on alcohol.

This March 4, 2021 photo shows alcohol-free spirits for sale at Spirited Away, New York's first "booze-free bottle shop."

“There are a lot of people, this past year more than ever, thinking more critically about what they’re drinking and how it’s making them feel,” he said.

Alcohol delivery site Drizly charges $33 for a 700 ml bottle of Seedlip Spice 94, a non-alcoholic spirit. That’s slightly more than a 750 ml bottle of Aviation Gin, which sells for $30. But Wynne thinks customers are willing to pay for the craft that goes into a cocktail or a flavorful wine with or without alcohol.

He said his customers tend to be in their 30s or 40s, and the majority are women. Some tell him they’ve have waiting their whole lives for a bar like his to open.

“This type of thing, it’s not a fad,” he said. “People don’t wake up to the negative impact alcohol is having on their life and then change their mind.”