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Bars Without Booze for the Sober and "Sober-Curious"

David Thomas Moran isn't drinking tonight. Not alcohol, anyway. He's sipping sugar-free Red Bull at Southern Nights, a popular Orlando bar packed with fans of drag queen Yvie Oddly, who's due to perform.

Moran has been a Southern Nights regular for 15 years. He cut way back on booze in June, after what he describes as excessive bouts of drinking. These days, he's more likely to drink Diet Cokes and cranberry tonics than his old favorite, gin. “I would say that I’m, like, sober-curious,” he said.

Already, Moran is spending less at the bar. “I've tried to keep a relationship with my bartenders,” he said, “even though I don't go to them like I used to. You know, where you're getting, like, three doubles in a night, or four doubles.”

But he says that drinks without alcohol can be a little boring. “When I go out and I want to get something that's not alcoholic, it is literally, like, Sunny D,” he said. “They want to make me some really fruity, sugary thing that makes me feel like I’m a child,” Moran said. “There are rarely alternative drinks, you know, when you're out, so you can still feel like an adult and part of the scene.”

By opening establishments with all the trappings of a bar, except alcohol, a handful of startups across the country are trying to fix that very problem. In New York City, for example, Listen Bar brands itself “All Bar, No Booze,” offering herb-infused drinks with names like “She Pretty” and “Ghost me Maybe.” It operates pop-up events and is crowdfunding to open a permanent space.

There’s also Sans Bar, in Austin, Texas, which looks like any other bar, with shelves of drinks and bottled offerings from specialty brands like Dry Soda Co. “We also handcraft our own specialty 'mocktails' — things like a rosemary and ginger mule, or a sans-garita, which incorporates lime, agave and apple cider vinegar,” said founder Chris Marshall, who used to work as an addiction recovery counselor.

He started Sans Bar as a place for people who want to have a good time without alcohol. He started with pop-up events in retail spaces, backyards and parking lots. Now, Sans Bar has a second location in Kansas City, Missouri. The locations, according to Marshall, draw some 40 to 50 people every Friday night. Marshall said Sans Bar is running more alcohol-free events in cities and states across the country this year. So far, the company has hosted in St. Louis, Portland and Alaska.

Marshall hopes to expand internationally. He sees a growing market in public health campaigns such as Dry January, where consumers cut out alcohol for a month. “Dry January, which was this kind of small, inside-baseball thing five years ago, is now a huge marketing opportunity for brands,” said Marshall.

A growing number of health-conscious consumers has encouraged companies to experiment with beverage options. “You’re seeing the rise of some other beverages that have functional benefits, so you see drinks with probiotics, you see kombucha, for example. So, other options, that consumers have, that have a bit more of a 'health halo' surrounding them,” said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group.

For Moran, the idea of having non-alcoholic bars is nice, but he said he would prefer if regular bars became more accommodating to non-drinkers. “I don't want to have to choose between being in a drunk society or being in a sober society,” Moran said.

“People will pay the same amount as they paid for any other cocktail. Just make them great cocktails, and have non-alcoholic beers around, and allow people to have options so that they can still participate.”

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