By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz • Chicago Tribune


Sarah Jankowski has nothing against booze. But after a wine-filled Italian dinner with friends on a recent rainy Sunday, she wanted a festive beverage that would allow her to keep the night going without feeling lousy the next day.

Perched at the bar at Young American in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, Jankowski sipped, from a coupe cocktail glass, a pretty pink drink containing, according to the menu, “golden oat milk, strawberry, lemon, mint (swizzled)” — not for a moment missing the alcohol that wasn’t in the $7 libation.

“Sometimes you just don’t need to get tipsy,” said Jankowski, 24, who lives in Lincoln Park.

As U.S. consumers, and particularly millennials, try to pare back their alcohol consumption, they are reaching for adult beverages without the very ingredient that made them “adult” in the first place.

In response, bar menus are featuring long sections of spirit-free cocktails. Liquor stores are carrying alcohol-free spirits. Brewers are launching IPAs boasting 0.0% ABV.

For drinkers who look forward to the buzz, such products can seem to miss the point. But as more consumers try to lay off the sauce, often for health reasons, startups and the world’s largest booze makers alike see an opportunity to capture a growing market that has historically been underserved.

“This category is not a fad — the desire for a more conscious lifestyle, for more choice, it’s shaping every business,” said Marcus Sakey, part of a trio of Chicago friends who recently launched Ritual, a brand of zero-proof spirits they bill as whiskey and gin alternatives. “We have no doubt whatsoever that it is not only here to stay but will become an accepted part of the experience.”

Nearly half of U.S. consumers over 21, and two-thirds of millennials, say they’re making efforts this year to reduce their alcohol consumption, according to a Nielsen survey.

The primary motivator across the board is health, though millennials are more likely than other age groups to cite price, previous bad experience and reputation as reasons for abstaining, the survey found.

It isn’t clear how those intentions translate to purchasing behavior, but volume sales of alcohol dipped slightly in the U.S. over the year that ended in February, according to Nielsen. Dollar sales were up, suggesting people are drinking less but opting for higher-end beverages — raising expectations for taste and quality that the makers of nonalcoholic drinks are also striving to meet.

Sharelle Klaus, founder of Dry, was on the early end of the movement when she launched her botanical bubbly sodas 14 years ago, when she was nursing her fourth child and missed having something special to pair with food.

“When you aren’t drinking you feel so left out,” said Klaus, who is based in Seattle. “It’s really all around the ritual of pouring yourself something.” Her company last year added a 750-milliliter “celebration” bottle that can be popped for special occasions or given as a host gift.

Low- and no-alcohol products account for only 0.5% of the total U.S. beverage alcohol market, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, but they are growing rapidly as interest extends well beyond pregnant women. Ready-to-drink products in the category are forecast to grow 39% per year through 2022, IWSR said.

Distill Ventures, a drinks accelerator funded by alcohol giant Diageo, in a white paper published this year cited wellness trends, thirst for new experiences and a desire for greater choice as the principle reasons behind the rise of booze-free nights on the town.

Meanwhile, the rise of CBD and legalization of recreational marijuana in some states may be offering buzz-seekers alternatives to getting drunk.

Big Booze is taking the trend seriously.

A quarter of the 15 brands in Distill Ventures’ portfolio are nonalcoholic, including U.K.-based Seedlip, a distilled spirit made with herbs and spices that can be paired with tonic or take the place of liquor in cocktails. Diageo in August took a majority stake in 4-year-old Seedlip, calling it a “gamechanger.” It already is served in more than 7,500 restaurants worldwide, including Chicago cocktail meccas The Aviary, Kumiko and Lost Lake.

Pernod Ricard, the French company famous for its anise-flavored pastis aperitifs, this summer launched an alcohol-free dark spirit called Celtic Soul in the U.K., describing it as having flavors of sweet vanilla, spices and oak cask wood.

Heineken brought 0.0, its first nonalcoholic malt beverage, to the U.S. this year, two years after launching it in Europe.

Coors on Nov. 1 plans to debut Coors Edge a more flavorful, less caloric version targeted at health-conscious 25- to 35-year-olds.

While nonalcoholic beers have been around for decades, largely as afterthoughts, they are starting to take center stage as their sales growth far outpaces beer overall. Some craft beer startups make only booze-free brews, such as Hairless Dog Brewing, which sells alcohol-free IPAs and black ales under the taglines “Party Like There’s A Tomorrow” and “0.0% Regrets.” Wellbeing Brewing’s offerings include an Intrepid Traveler Coffee Cream Stout and a Victory Wheat that contains electrolytes and polyphenols.

Going booze-free is part of a broader trend toward “healthier” drinking. Even cocktails with alcohol increasingly are boasting ingredients such as kombucha for digestive health, collagen for skin benefits and turmeric for its detoxifying properties, making people feel less guilty when they do imbibe, according to a report this year from Chicago market research firm Datassential. This year saw the U.S. launch of alcohol-free “wine water,” which infuses water with discarded wine grape skins and claims to have antioxidants.

The three spirit-free cocktails offered at Young American, making up a quarter of the drinks menu, are the most challenging to make, said co-owner Wade McElroy. But including nonalcoholic and other easy-drinking options was a priority for the bar when it opened in February.

“People are wary of hangovers,” he said. “They want to have fun and go out, but they don’t want to ruin their next day by having too much to drink and suffering from a gnarly hangover.”

Customers find them intriguing, he said, and even people at the bar for the purpose of boozing try them, sometimes with a shot of sherry or mezcal on the side.

One big draw is the option to add a dose of CBD, and 50% of people who order spirit-free cocktails do so, McElroy said. CBD, a cannabis compound that is not psychoactive but produces a warm, relaxing feeling, is not available for alcoholic drinks because it would be overwhelmed by the effects of booze, he said.

To Young American bartender John Brown, the popularity of low- and no-alcoholic beverages has less to do with concern for wellness and more to do with trendiness, particularly among twentysomethings in hipster enclaves like Logan Square. He doubts it would go over so well where he lives in the Hyde Park/Woodlawn neighborhood.

“If I told my friends, here’s a $7 drink without alcohol, they’d be like, ‘What are you selling me?’” Brown said.