Across San Francisco, a large number of people who typically consume alcohol at least once in a while are now several days into that annual experiment in endurance known as Dry January. Whether it’s a cloying seasonal cliche, a sincere effort to curb one’s excesses or a pitiful, virtue-signaling flex that’s certain to give out before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the phenomenon has only gained momentum—and the city’s bartenders are very aware.
“Over 50% of the drinking-age population is off of drinking,” said Joshua James, the founder of San Francisco nonalcoholic bar and bottle shop Ocean Beach Cafe.
Not long ago, mocktails meant often sugary, unappealing drinks that were embarrassing to order. Otherwise, people had to make do with bitters-and-soda, or strangely off-tasting water from the soda gun.
But millennials’ wellness obsession and Gen Z’s disdain for binge drinking have combined with new attitudes toward hospitality and new approaches to what a nonalcoholic cocktail can be. The result is a creative explosion in alcohol-free cocktails and menus.
Out are the sad facsimiles like O’Doul’s—Anheuser-Busch’s near-beer that still contains a bit of alcohol. In are inventive drinks—often priced comparably to their alcoholic counterparts—that help decouple a memorable night out from a state of intoxication.
Bartenders Like Playing Around
When James opened Ocean Beach Cafe on La Playa Street in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond District three years ago, he sensed an impending nightlife evolution, based on YouTube videos and Instagram threads.
“My background was geeking out on liquor, beer and wine for 20 years,” he said. “The way chefs geek out on food.”
But online, nonalcoholic drinks were suddenly all the rage, as obsessives crowed about adaptogens (naturally occurring compounds that claim to alleviate stress) and nootropics (chemicals, often synthetic, that are said to improve brain function). These ingredients were novel—and far superior to their predecessors.
Bartenders, if nothing else, like playing with stuff.
“We are moving away from trying to copy the alcohol world and moving into things that are really freaking cool,” James said. “Things with adaptogenic properties like ashwagandha, lion’s mane and rhodiola.”
James, who took a year off from alcohol but remains an occasional consumer, was floored by the possibilities, particularly herb- and mushroom-driven ingredients that impart a mild buzz without alcohol’s distorting effects. Bartenders exclaim to him about what people order these days.
“They’re like, ‘My zero-proof cocktail list is getting attacked every Friday and Saturday night!’” he said.
Another disruptive element is hemp-derived THC, which can be legally sold outside dispensaries under the terms of a 2018 federal farm bill. Low-dose, ready-to-drink THC cocktails may be the epitome of “California Sober,” that tongue-in-cheek state of quasi-abstinence in which people consume cannabis and maybe magic mushrooms while refraining from alcohol.
They’re Dolores Park in a can—at least when White Claws are off the table.
“Good, nonalcoholic wine is huge, but hemp-derived THC? I do a ton of [ready-to-drink] cocktails,” he said. “Dispensaries cater to the hardcore cannabis user, and I’m focusing on people who want an alternative buzz when they’re hanging out socially. It’s the biggest thing since nonalcoholic sliced bread.”
One of few places in San Francisco that helps nondrinkers build a home bar cart—Hayes Valley’s Boisson being another—Ocean Beach Cafe offers classes and “Temperance Tastings,” challenging professional bartenders to get creative. Mixing drinks like the foamy, purple-pink “Destroyer of Bad Vibes,” James has become an evangelist, spreading a good-time, nonalcoholic gospel. He’s angling for a Netflix show, barnstorming the country to praise ingenious forms of abstinence.
“This is a full-on movement, and since alcohol is the go-to for almost every event and social gathering, this is shifting the fabric of society,” he said. “This industry is like 3 or 4 years old! This hasn’t happened before.”
You Are Welcome Here
Making a nonalcoholic drink palatable—maybe even craveable—isn’t always simple. At Mission District cocktails-and-small-plates hangout Evil Eye, it’s close to alchemy. The bar has rolled out a Dry January menu of four nonalcoholic drinks, each as imaginative and complex as a standard drink.
“We get a lot of requests for nonalcoholic drinks,” co-owner Matt Norris told The Standard. “So it seemed like a good time to roll out something with the same care and attention that we apply to our regular menu, informed by wellness.”
Traditional mocktails, Norris said, often have too much juice and syrup. Trying too hard to mask the lack of alcohol can create an artificial mouthfeel that pushes drinks into the territory claimed by Harvey Wallbangers and other 1970s-era atrocities. So Evil Eye bulked up the drinks’ texture.
“I'm much more a fan of spirit replacements that are trying to not be like, ‘Here's a nonalcoholic tequila,’” he said.
The backbone of Evil Eye’s current NA program—as with many alcohol-free drinks elsewhere—comes from a few companies. Seedlip is a British firm that makes plant-based substitutes, while Wilderton is its slightly more hippie-ish rival, from Oregon. Then there’s Three Spirit, which uses specific herbs to position its offerings as the foundation for specific drinks—like yerba maté for an enlivening aperitif, or lion’s mane in a relaxing nightcap.
Evil Eye’s Mellow Yellow combines Wilderton’s spicy, peppery Earthen and Seedlip’s pea-based Garden 108. To that grassy, botanical-forward base, Norris adds a house-made tonic consisting of hops, turmeric, fennel seeds, lime and peach bitters. For another drink, the Staycation, the team developed its own strawberry-balsamic “shrub,” or vinegar-based syrup.
The labor invested in these drinks conveys respect to the person ordering them. Evil Eye’s Dry January menu tells nondrinking patrons, “We see you. Whether you’re sober, pacing yourself tonight or you just want to try something new, you are welcome here.”
Could there ever be a bar with an elaborate, contemporary cocktail list comprised of 10 or 15 drinks, none of which has any alcohol whatsoever?
“I think it's probably already happening,” Norris said.
Money on the Table
As with mixologists, sommeliers have recently had their minds blown by nonalcoholic wine alternatives. Previously, zero-proof wines lacked body and complexity, and the best verdict a discerning palates could deliver was “serviceable, but not delicious.” Few ended up on shelves.
Instead, Cara Patricia, a co-owner of DecantSF in the city’s South of Market neighborhood, opted for alcohol-free distillations and aperitifs. But a new type of wine alternative has hit the market, made with verjus, the highly acidic, unfermented “must,” or juice, that’s pressed from unripened grapes.
“These have been supplemented with really cool botanicals that can really create notes of body or tannin,” she said. “I’ve been really impressed with Kally’s and with Non.”
James, of Ocean Beach Cafe, introduced her to a zero-alcohol Italian chardonnay that uses a proprietary process to extract the alcohol, something Patricia called the best alcohol-removed wine she’d ever tasted in her life.
“I felt like, ‘OK, I’m drinking this, and I’m not missing the alcohol at all,’” she told The Standard. “Even I, as someone who drinks wine every day, will feel OK bringing it to dinner.”
There can be a placebo effect embedded in the ritual of making a drink at the end of the day, Patricia believes.
“We say at the shop that there’s more to life than club soda and lime,” she said. “That’s why we’ve increased our alcohol-free section, and we consistently sell out of some.
At DecantSF, which is both a bottle shop and a wine bar, it’s mostly Gen Xers and millennials whose curiosity leads them to purchase alcohol-free products. Patricia believes that’s because those generations increased their alcohol intake during the pandemic, whereas Gen Z—who often had access to recreational cannabis, had less pre-Covid experience with American drinking culture and who gravitates toward less-expensive options like hard seltzers—did not. Nonetheless, the wine bar has alcohol-free spritzer, beer and cider on its menu as well.
“If you’re not embracing the nonalcoholic trend,” she said, “you’re leaving money on the table.”
The End of ‘Mocktails’
Trick Dog, routinely cited as a destination for some of the world’s creative cocktails, famously shreds its themed drink menu every six months and starts fresh. On Monday, the Mission District bar will unveil its 20th such menu—and it will have a number of nonalcoholic components.
Josh Harris, the founder and owner of Bon Vivants, the hospitality company of which Trick Dog is the best-known part, has been sober for years. Tasting drinks, he refers to himself as a blind samurai—and he’s done presentations on the importance of every element of alcohol-free drink service.
First off, he hates the glib, unhelpful word “mocktail” almost as much as he hates ginger limeade.
“In all my time navigating early sobriety and trying to figure out my place in the world, particularly with a foot in hospitality, I can’t recall the number of times I felt mocked by a bartender or server for asking about things without alcohol,” he said.
The inherent meanspiritedness of the “mock” insinuates that whatever it is, it’s fraudulent or lesser. Nonalcoholic drinks, Harris said, are their own things. And from its 2013 inception, Trick Dog has always approached its NA cocktails with care—although times have certainly changed.
“At that time, it’s not like we had stores dedicated to nonalcoholic stuff,” he said. “The idea of calling something a ‘nonalcoholic spirit’ wasn’t even a twinkle in somebody’s eye.”
In the years since, Trick Dog has begun to integrate its nonalcoholic cocktails into similar sections on its highly visual menus, rather than relegate them to a sad, miscellaneous category at the back. Their names don’t flag them as zero-proof, either.
That way, people who aren’t drinking can have the exact same ordering experience as those who are “without any anxiety about being singled out by people around them,” Harris said, “which, in my experience, is a really important thing.”
Whether they have alcohol or not, all cocktails on Trick Dog’s outgoing, yoga-centric “Tantrick Dog” menu cost $16. That, too, could be read as a sign of an equal playing field, but doubtless there will always be grumbling over the price. Some people will always feel like they’re paying more for less.
To Ocean Beach Cafe’s James, there are two reasons for that: the cost of ingredients, and the cost of labor. A nonalcoholic whiskey alternative runs just as much as a bottle of Maker’s Mark. Plus, he notes, the brand-new field of adaptogenic cocktails can also impart their own low-key buzz.
“There are consumers who are happy to pay full price,” he said. “They’re just hoping that what’s been put on the menu is a desirable adult beverage. To me, ‘mocktail’ is an important word, but one that describes the sugary children’s drinks of the past.”
“If every bar manager was to come into Ocean Beach Cafe for three minutes,” James added, “the number of desirable adult nonalcoholic beverages in San Francisco would be amazing.”