Cocktail Culture Goes Clean & Sober


Now is the moment of the mocktail. With both beer and soda sales down, non-alcoholic (N/A)  drinks have become not only more popular, but a business-leading corner of their own. This spike in popularity is driven by three trends: health and wellness, sensory experiences, and sober socializing. 

Healthy Living & Elimination Diets“Health and well-being is the new premium” (JWT Intelligence)

Driven by health and wellness, consumers are making choices around alcohol consumption that go beyond in-the-moment fun, and consider their long term goals and lifestyle. By eliminating alcohol (and often soda), the new breed of non-alcoholic drinks can be lower in calories and sugar, and may be gluten free or align with diets and health requirements. Finesse Luna of 6Smith, an artisan inspired meat and seafood restaurant, commented “There seems to be an increase in popularity of not drinking alcohol & clean living, or at least doing it for 30 days at a time, etc…” And we see that reflected in research and lifestyles all around us. With the rise of probiotics, fermented foods, and other boosts or supplements, imbibing with health benefits comes a bit easier without the alcohol, too. Kombucha mocktails and chia-tinis are popping up at summer parties. Many classic drink additives, like cocktail bitters and shrubs, up the ante with extra health benefits (real or perceived) allowing the health-conscious crowd to have their “cake” and drink it too.

Scott Dillion of The Twisted Shrub, a drinking vinegar/cocktail catalyst, observed “We see two significant consumer bases using our shrubs for N/A drinks: 1) Female Millennials looking for healthier (the Apple Cider Vinegar is a huge hook!), lower sugar, non-soda, booze-free drinks that are interesting & different; and 2) Female Boomers looking for healthier drink options that aren't diet sodas or sparkling water.” The Paleo diet and clean eating advocates are also turning super waters like coconut, birch, cactus and aloe, all of which can act as the “natural” base for an N/A beverage. Herbs, aromatics, and fruits create classic flavor combinations, but these elements also deliver on a medicinal or spiritual quality, and those aspects aren’t lost for the millennial who wants to muddle, or as an accent to an enlightened, natural mocktail.

Sober Sophistication

Prior to the mocktail boon there was little of interest for the teetotaler. Water, soda, or childish drinks (i.e. the Shirley Temple) were the menu mainstays. Now many N/A drinks rise to the sophistication and complexity of any bartender’s best bets. Mixologists can play with flavors and ingredients from all over the world, while having a wide assortment of sparkling waters, intensely flavored bases, and traditional alcoholic enhancements (shrubs, bitters, herbs, syrups) to choose from. All of this puts a sophisticated spin on what was once child’s play. Dillon said, “Until recently, there was no middle ground when it came to drinking. You either consumed a cocktail or you drank a water or soda. I think this often inadvertently created two distinct crowds: the "fun" crowd and the "not-drinking" crowd. Mocktails provide a way to blend these crowds together where everyone is having fun whether you're partaking or one knows!” Spending time with friends by participating in themed bar crawls or hanging at a brewery for the afternoon does not necessarily entail drinking. Across the country, sober social events have taken off, focusing on fun without the need to drink. Because socialization is the key driver, spending more on food and drinks isn’t out of reach for the younger crowd (JWT Intelligence). Even though these new drinks, fancy sodas, and sparkling waters carry a premium price tag, it’s not stopping their surge and might even be adding to the caché a can of LaCroix carries. Hand-crafted and high-quality, restaurant patrons are willing to spend money on a mocktail when it delivers satisfaction and sophistication. Mad Men ushered in the “Mad Men Effect”, bringing back drinks with a vintage flair and highlighting old school methods, flavors and techniques that were formerly lost to supper club menus. Interest in vintage drinks as a symbol of sophistication also brought Gen Xers and Millennials to the party, and the increasing availability of non-alcoholic beverages in glass bottles adds to their desire for high-end style because it looks good in a party setting or on Instagram.

Sensory Experience

The globalization of flavors and access to high quality ingredients and techniques has pushed the N/A beverage market into new territory. Dillon commented, “At sampling events, most of our consumers want to START with the intense, explosive, spicy flavors. You see faces light up when they experience the perfect balance of sweet, tart and spicy hitting them all at once. It's new, different, zingy and exciting!” Dillon adds, “Everyone loves flavor and everyone wants to be wowed with something new.” Dry sodas with serrano pepper, rhubarb, and cucumber are on shelf. Kombuchas with juniper, orange blossoms and beet make a powerful addition to drinks or offer intensity on their own. Flavors relegated for other foods, or occasions are coming to the forefront. Trendy combinations like Matcha green tea and mint, or turmeric and carrot juice, can take a mocktail from sweet to earthy. Habanero, pineapple, and cilantro deliver another palette of now familiar global flavors, but when together in a drink, they kick things up a notch. Locally sourced honey with chamomile tea, flowers, and tonic fizz act as a refreshing summer reminder of its cozy cousin.“ I believe it's because consumers get to sip these drinks and enjoy the spectrum of flavors and nuance, much like a cocktail,” Dillon observed. Chefs and mixologists are creating their own house made syrups, infusions and shrubs, taking their culinary background into new territories, including forays into foraging. By expanding their drink menus, they expand their repertoire, drawing in customers looking for something different and new.Of 6Smith’s N/A offerings, Luna stated “It’s simply a part of my foundation in the business.  It’s an important element to set a restaurant apart for lunch & for those that don’t drink alcohol.  In addition, it’s another way for us to be creative!”

The Last Sip

Since the evolution of culinary sophistication moved from food to beverages, we can expect to see it follow from nimble niche brands into the steady mainstream. Consumers’ increased demand for variety, flavor intensity, and healthful living will continue to drive innovation, ingredient exploration, and simplicity.