A sober rethink: It’s time to widen our booze-free choices

Nonalcoholic cocktails at Front & Cooper.
(Giovanni Moujaes / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Millennials are leading the way as trends show alcohol consumption on the decline. Who locally is meeting the new demands of the day?

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My husband, Mike, doesn’t drink alcohol. What began as a temporary break during the pandemic became a lifestyle change when he realized the positive impact it had on his overall health. Now, he says the taste of wine, beer and liquor have become unappetizing to him. I completely support this choice, although I still enjoy alcohol. However, it puts us in some awkward situations when we eat out.

Last week, we stole a couple of hours away from our baby for a mid-afternoon happy hour date, deciding to splurge on appetizers and drinks at a nice restaurant. The drink menu included at least 30 options for craft beers, high-end wines by the glass and bottle and specialty cocktails, but not a single nonalcoholic option was listed. After flipping through the menu a few times in disbelief, Mike asked the bartender if they had any nonalcoholic beverages, to which the bartender replied, “We have iced tea, lemonade, Sprite or Coke.” It felt infantilizing. They might as well have said “apple juice.”

I ordered a beautiful (and expensive) house-crafted cocktail, while my husband sipped an Arnold Palmer. We enjoyed ourselves, but the experience, like many other similar interactions, annoyed me. It was obvious that this restaurant had taken great care to offer a wide variety of alcoholic beverages for its guests. And yet it acted carelessly about alcohol-free options — not even including them on the menu!

The idea that an adult beverage must be an alcoholic one is outdated.

Sobriety is on the rise, particularly among millennials. Young adults drink less frequently than previous generations, choosing to drink alcohol rarely or not at all.

But it’s not just younger drinkers. According to a Gallup poll released last year, only 63% of men and 57% of women drink alcohol — which means that at least a third of men and almost half of women don’t. The poll goes on to say that the latest average number of weekly drinks is the lowest recorded since 2001, more in line with reported alcohol consumption in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That doesn’t include all the people who temporarily abstain for health reasons, or because they just don’t feel like drinking alcohol at that moment.

Yet many restaurants — local and national — have been slow to respond to changing tastes, perhaps offering Mexican Coke and Bundaberg Ginger Beer, but the intensity of these sugar bombs fights rather than complements the flavors of a good meal. Some restaurants and bars offer one or two “mocktails,” but on closer inspection most of them are a variation of some kind of juice with a lime in it.

Thankfully, several restaurants have begun to put some thought into their alcohol-free offerings. Venus Kitchen, the restaurant arm of craft distillery Venus Spirits, offers two enticing “no proof” cocktails. A Rose By Any Other Name is a cheerful, botanical blend of butterfly pea flower, elderflower, rose water and seltzer. The Sucker Punsch is a zippy, citrusy mix of passion fruit, lemon, orange and warm spices. Venus also offers nine house-made coolers, tonics and sodas.

At Mentone in Aptos, general manager Chris Sullivan tells me most of the cocktails on the menu can be made sans alcohol, but the restaurant always has at least one designed to stand on its own. Currently, that’s a mocktail called the Natural Bridges, which is made with beet syrup, lime and an alcohol-free, Campari-like aperitif topped with soda and mint. Additionally, Mentone offers a lineup of barely sweet Italian sodas and a house-made lemonade flavored with seasonal ingredients like sour cherries and strawberries. Sullivan promises that its soon-to-be-released spring menu will have more nonalcoholic options.

Oswald in downtown Santa Cruz offers a seasonal alcohol-free spritzer, currently made with fresh mandarin and pomegranate shaken with house-made simple syrup and lime, as well as two mocktails. However, longtime server Shannon Magnante tells me that she and the other staff members are discussing expanding their mocktail menu. She says they have many customers who visit every day, but for whom “having a cocktail every night isn’t sustainable.” The staff recognizes that they have other customers who might not drink alcohol for whatever reason. “We want to be able to accomodate them while making it feel special.” Magnante hopes the new menu options will reflect a changing conversation around alcohol-free drinks, one that rejects the idea that booze-free drinks are cheap and simple: “It takes a lot of skill and work to come up with a delicious cocktail, whether or not it has alcohol in it.”

Two nonalcoholic cocktails are currently featured on Front & Cooper's drink menu.
(Giovanni Moujaes / Lookout Santa Cruz)

My survey also turned up good things about Barceloneta and Humble Sea Tavern, complimented for serving booze-free cocktails that “didn’t feel like afterthoughts.”

Both Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House in Soquel and Lúpulo Craft Beer House in Santa Cruz offer four or five buzz-free beers in cans or bottles among their lists of several hundred traditional brews. Neither regularly offers NA beer on draft.

Maybe we’ll see a migration from the grocery stores to the restaurants. Aisles are full of craft sodas, kombuchas and seltzers like Olipop, Health-Ade and Topo Chico. My fridge at home is filled with craft root beers, sparkling kefir, jun tonics and artisanal sparkling water. I would be so thrilled to find some of these beverages on a restaurant menu. Why eat Tofurkey when vegetables taste so much better?

In many ways, the alcohol-free movement feels like vegetarianism did 20 years ago. Back then, there were few meat-free options on most menus, but now it would be unthinkable to not offer several compelling choices. It’s no longer weird to not eat meat. Soon, it might not be weird to not drink alcohol.

It all got me thinking: Is it really the alcohol that made my drink special that day at the bar with my husband? Or was it the care and intention that clearly went into it?

If restaurants and drinking establishments offer an uneven response to the increasingly zero-alcohol trends, what about retail shops?

Are they responding to the data?

Deer Park Wine & Spirits in Aptos stands out locally with a comparatively impressive collection of alcohol-free beverages, including zero-proof whiskey, gin and vodka, 10 varieties of nonalcoholic beer and a botanical aperitif. It also offers a nonalcoholic German riesling and a sparkling rosé by German winery Leitz that “actually tastes good,” says wine director Caileen Brison. That’s the main reason, she says, that alcohol-free beer, wine and liquor are hard to find — by and large, they don’t “show well,” meaning they don’t taste or smell very good.

In general, though, the selection is so far meager locally, as bottle shops and liquor stores offer only a handful of alcohol-free options.

Soif Wine Bar doesn’t currently have any dealcoholized wine, although the manager gamely tried a sample of a canned sparkling rosé with me. Unfortunately, both of us found it unappetizing and flavorless.

Both AJ’s Market in Aptos and U-Save Liquors in Santa Cruz have one or two alcohol-free wines and beers. Neither has any zero-proof liquors or liqueurs.

Will free-thinking Santa Cruz, proud of its progressiveness, catch up to these latest societal changes? Many of us can adore a great glass of pinot noir or a crisp IPA, but can we accommodate and acknowledge the many people who don’t?