Teetotaling Made Trendy

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 6, 2017 4:34 pm

Sharelle Klaus says she has always been a foodie.

So she was gutted when she had to pass up an opportunity to dine at The French Laundry, the famous Napa Valley restaurant with three Michelin stars. She was pregnant at the time — and not drinking.

"What would be the point?" she says she remembers thinking.

She didn't want to travel all the way from Seattle — and be stuck drinking water while her dining companions enjoyed an array of Napa wines, carefully chosen to complement and complete each dish.

She came across this issue — lack of beverage options — pretty often throughout her four pregnancies. When she met friends for drinks or dinner, her only choices were water or some kind of sickly sweet soda.

"I felt like there were no sophisticated options out there," she says.

That was in the early 2000s. In 2005, she launched DRY Sparkling — a soda brand with flavors like lavender, juniper berry and rhubarb. Her creations are now served at some of the country's top restaurants — including The French Laundry.

Twelve years on, Klaus says the demand for sophisticated nonalcoholic beverages is higher than ever.

"We got into this early," she says. "But now it's becoming less niche."

Indeed, this summer, media from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to Bon Appetit were all touting nonalcoholic cocktails. Food 52 even has tips on how to build a nonalcoholic bar cart. Meanwhile, big-deal bartenders and foodie startups are tapping teetotalers with gourmet takes on sodas and mocktails (or their more chic counterparts "soft cocktails").

"It's a small but definitely growing segment of the market," says Duane Stanford, editor of the trade publication Beverage Digest. "It's definitely a trend."

Stanford says the growing demand for sophisticated, nonalcoholic beverages comes on the heels of a push that began a few years ago in Europe.

"The market is further along in Europe, but it's definitely been coming across the pond," he adds. "Basically, there's a growing number of consumers who are paying attention to sugar. Europe has just been further along when it comes to paying attention to sugar, paying attention to ingredients."

Industry tracker IWSR reported in June that Americans consumed less alcohol in 2016 than in 2015. And in the U.K., the proportion of Brits that drink is now at its lowest since 2005, at around 57 percent, according to government data.

Industry experts say there is not much data yet on the burgeoning industry of high-end nonalcoholic beverages. But, Klaus says, "consumers seem to be looking for something that's better for them." And they're willing to pay for it.

"I've certainly noticed around the last 14 months that bartenders and restaurants are now wanting to put more effort into their nonalcoholic beverage programs," says Ben Branson, founder of Seedlip, a London-based startup that claims to make "the world's first nonalcoholic spirits."

Like, DRY's Klaus, Branson — a nondrinker — grew tired of drinking ginger ale or soda every time he went out to a nice bar or restaurant.

"One day I was looking at this book about distillation that was written in 1651, and it piqued my curiosity," Branson says. He wondered whether any of the nonalcoholic tinctures and extracts in there might make for good cocktail ingredients. "So I bought a little copper still off the Internet and I started playing around," he says.

After months of trying to distill literally anything he could find ("I even tried distilling an old book at one point — to try to get that kind of musky smell," he says) and a bit of help from professional botanists and distillers — he ended up with two blends. Garden 108 is made from peas, hay, spearmint, rosemary and thyme, and Spice 94 from allspice, cardamom, oak, lemon and grapefruit. In the U.S., they're sold at Dean & DeLuca and other specialty food shops — in 25-ounce glass bottles that retail for about $40 each.

"Really, I think consumers are looking for elevated, grown-up drinks that just happen to have no alcohol in them," Branson says.

He might be onto something. Multinational beverage company Diageo, which owns Cîroc vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky and Tanqueray gin, seems to think so, at least: It recently bought a minority share in Seedlip.

But for Branson, the real sign of success was the interest he got from top bartenders. Bottles of Seedlip now regularly feature behind the bar at high-end restaurants around the world — including the Eleven Madison Park in New York City, Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and the bar in The Savoy in London.

"And it's really important to me that Seedlip sits in the back bar," Branson says. "So if we go to an establishment and we're not drinking — we're still going to feel like we're getting the same sort of attention as a drinking customer."

In fact, if you didn't know better — based on Seedlip's packaging, you would assume it's a high-end craft gin. Branson encourages customers to drink it with tonic or have a bartender incorporate it into alcohol-free cocktails.

For Paul Benjamin — founder of the rare tea company Benjamin & Blum — creating something special and luxurious for nondrinkers meant focusing on presentation as well as flavor. Benjamin & Blum's cold-brewed tea is sold in gilded glass bottles.

"I wanted to create a little bit of curiosity about what it is — I want people to wonder: 'Is it perfume? Is it cognac?' " he says.

What it is, Benjamin says, is a Western take on the East Asian tradition of pairing tea with nice meals. In a previous career as an international lawyer, Benjamin spent a lot of time in China and traveled extensively in East Asia.

"And everywhere you go there, you get tea with a meal," he says.

In the U.K., though, where Benjamin grew up and now lives, it's always wine with a meal, and beers after work and cocktails on a night out.

"I'm someone who loves wine and spirits," he says. "And yet there are times when I'm not drinking."

So he wondered whether he could adapt tea to fit into Western drinking culture.

"Tea goes extremely well with food," he says. "And it works well as a palate cleanser at the end of a meal."

But Benjamin's cold-brewed, rare teas are designed to be served like a white wine or a digestif — slightly chilled, in a coupe glass.

So far, he is selling Benjamin and Blum teas in Hong Kong and in the U.K. — but he has already lined up distributors in the Middle East and is looking to expand to the U.S. next.

"Where there has been a really clear demand is from the bar and restaurant trade," Benjamin says. "From their perspective, a nondrinker in a restaurant is spending a lot less. Plus they're looking for ways to really make the nondrinkers feel as welcome as the drinkers."

The latter is something bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana says he has always been passionate about. The 2015 "International Bartender of the Year" carries Seedlip at Dandelyan — one of his bars in London. This summer, he also came out with a nonalcoholic bottled cocktail — in collaboration with British juice and iced tea company Firefly — that features wormwood, kola nuts and cascara (a tea made from the dried skins of coffee berries).

"All the menus we have created have always included a booze-less part," Chetiyawardana writes in an email. "People I know who usually drink are still taking nights off from alcohol but don't want to sacrifice spending time with their friends, or having something complex, considered and delicious."

Besides, he says, doing away with the alcohol makes for a fun creative challenge: "Often people who aren't drinking for whatever reason, or don't drink, are subjected to sugary kids' drinks — which are gratuitously delicious for one drink, but don't hit the spot. We wanted to create something that felt special, suited to the occasion."

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