The bar of the future might look like Temperance Bar, a zero-proof speakeasy on San Francisco’s western fringe. It’s tucked among modern townhomes and apartments, inside a neighborhood deli about a block from the ocean and not far from Golden Gate Park. Inside, past a couch and the counter, an “Employees Only” door leads guests in-the-know to a dimly lit room where ambient music plays and colorful bottles and specialized glassware wait behind a long wooden countertop. I pull up a stool and study a menu that offers not a drop of alcohol.
There are no clocks, as is customary in such an establishment. The idea is to lose oneself in the moment, taking a break from the stresses of everyday life. It is late in the afternoon, though daylight does not penetrate the drawn blinds, but I can imagine groups of friends gathering as night falls and catching up on their lives. Many Americans rely on the effects of beer or spirits to relax with one another, but these days, more of us are getting straight to the point. Still, it’s nice to have a space and something nice to sip on while we do.
I choose a concoction called the Livener. The bartender mixes an elixir of apple cider vinegar, black carrot concentrate, pomegranate molasses, cayenne pepper and English beet sugar with sparkling water in a fancy glass. Joshua James, a scruffy 40-year-old with beach-bro vibes, owns and operates the place. “This one is a pick-me-up,” he says. The first sip is pungent but refreshing.
The same could be said for the concept of a bar without booze, especially for the younger generations. Gen Z and millennials are tempering their alcohol consumption, partly as a reaction to the pandemic — adults drank 14 percent more often in 2020, according to a report by the American Medical Association — but also because of a growing cultural emphasis on wellness and individualism. And the market is responding, developing tasty and sophisticated alternatives that go far beyond a soda or a flavored seltzer. Still, we don’t necessarily want to give up the social benefits of a gathering place.
James is not the only one banking on it.
Gen Z drinks 20 percent less per capita than millennials did at the same age, and millennials drink less than their parents and their grandparents.
America has had a long and winding relationship with alcohol. There’s an apocryphal story that the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, short of the Hudson River, because they were running out of beer aboard the Mayflower to sustain the sailors for the duration of their intended journey. What we do know is fact: there was more beer on the vessel than water, which, at that time, was a suspect beverage, germy and unfiltered.
That may have been a contributing factor in the early 1800s, when America’s drinking habit reached its peak. Historians estimate that the average adult at that time drank the equivalent of seven gallons a year. A century later, on the eve of the Prohibition era, that volume fell below two gallons a year. In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution banned the manufacture, transportation, sale and consumption of alcohol in the U.S. Still, we know that didn’t stop people from drinking. Fourteen years and three amendments later, that ban was repealed.
Alcohol consumption has been up and down ever since, along with pushback to associated societal ills like drunk driving and domestic violence. But drinking has been on the rise since the aughts and spiked again during the Covid-19 pandemic — particularly the lockdown stage — exceeding pre-Prohibition levels. This time, it was driven largely by women. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that alcohol-related deaths for women jumped 85 percent between 1999 and 2017. In 2020, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism declared that drinking was a “growing women’s health issue.” In 2021, according to data from Gallup, drinking plummeted towards the “low end of the range” for the first time in two decades.
In response, alcohol brands are diversifying their portfolios. Big-time players like Heineken, AB InBev (owner of Budweiser, among others), and Molson Coors — which together own about every recognizable beer brand in the Western world — have all begun rolling out more nonalcoholic options. There are now more than 70 nonalcoholic spirits brands in the U.S. and U.K., according to Distill Ventures, an independent accelerator for the drinks industry. “They know where the market is going,” says Marcos Salazar, CEO of the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association. “They’re listening to consumers’ demands and putting more of their budgets into nonalcoholic items.”
And increasingly, people can also go out without drinking. In the last few years, zero-proof bars have opened up across the country and around the world, with colorful names like Suckerpunch in Portland, Awake in Denver, Hekate in New York City, Zeroliq in Berlin and 0% Non-Alcohol Experience in Tokyo. In Austin, Sans Bar opened in 2017, offering drinks like a “nada colada” and a “sansgarita.” Curiosity opened this May in Salt Lake City. Its tagline: Same social habits, different ingredients. What they all have in common — aside from drinks containing less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, as much as an overripe banana — is the mission to be a destination for people who aren’t drinking.
“People are more mindful about what they put into their bodies. It’s been dictated by vegan food, but now it’s moving into what they drink.”
The feeling of knowingly being duped is mesmerizing. James pours me a sparkling “wine,” fizzy and sweet. Then a nonalcoholic pinot noir. Then a “naturally distilled coastal botanical,” a densely herbaceous quaff meant to mimic a gin. James knows the ropes. After two decades in the adult beverage industry, first as a bartender and later as an entrepreneur, he took a year off from drinking, just to see where it would lead. He felt so much better he decided to reboot his career, and opened Temperance Bar.
So far, it’s been responsible fun. The nonalcoholic beverage industry is “still in the honeymoon stage,” James says. “Everything puts a smile on people’s faces. ‘Oh my! It’s nonalcoholic whiskey!’” He compares it to the Impossible Burger, which had a cultural moment when it launched, largely because it was cool to see soybeans manipulated in a way that looked and cooked like beef. “When an analog comes around,” he says, “it’s powerful.”
It’s more than replicating a flavor; health is one motivating factor. “People are more mindful about what they put into their bodies,” Salazar says. “It’s been dictated by vegan food, but now it’s moving into what they drink.”
Brianda Gonzalez followed a similar path before she opened a zero-proof bottle shop in Venice Beach called The New Bar in July, joining similar establishments from Studio City to New York. Like many members of Gen Z, she spent years drinking alcohol without question. It’s intrinsic to how many people have fun, socialize and relax, she says, and yet she’s never met a person who said they didn’t want to drink less. “We meditate, we exercise, we eat healthy,” she says. “This is the new frontier.”
So far, members of Gen Z drink 20 percent less per capita than millennials did at the same age, and millennials drink less than their parents and their parents’ parents. The 2022 Consumer Trend Report by Drizly, an alcohol delivery platform owned by Uber, found young people to be “most game to try non-alc,” citing “healthier lifestyle” and “cutting back on alcohol consumption” as their top reasons. This trend isn’t limited to the states. In Japan, less than 8 percent of people in their 20s report drinking at least three days a week, compared to 30 percent of people in their 40s to 60s.
Alcohol was never the key ingredient for me. It’s nice to have an option where I can skip it altogether without losing the experience.
People today feel less pressure to follow social norms, and that includes consuming alcohol, said Brandy Rand, chief strategy officer at IWSR, the leading source of data on the global beverage alcohol market. She expects the stigma to all but disappear as more people choose not to drink alcohol, especially now that there are flavorful, interesting products available. Even among drinkers, more are choosing to take a night off. “Forty-three percent of consumers are substituting low-to-no alcoholic beverages for full-strength alcohol on certain occasions,” Rand says.
I’m a millennial, but I don’t go to bars to drink. Still, like most people, I am a social, story-seeking creature and bars provide an opportunity. The pretty drink sitting on a napkin waiting to be tasted. Another round inviting you to stay longer. The scent of limp herbs and sliced fruit, banter with the bartender, a celebratory “cheers!” Alcohol was never the key ingredient for me. It’s nice to have an option where I can skip it altogether without losing the experience.
Some call it a “third place,” a term introduced by urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg in his book titled “The Great Good Place,” first published in 1989. It refers to an informal public domain for gathering separate from the home — the first place — and work — the second place — essential to community vitality, democracy and public life, he argues. It’s where people hang out: coffee shops, libraries, churches and parks. For many, the bar has been a default third place, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. Now they have alternatives.
“My mission used to be to let everyone know this all exists,” James says. “Now it’s to let everyone know what this all means. Alcohol is not required to have an amazing time.”
After trying a variety of drinks — what would be a poor decision at a normal bar — I close out my tab and walk out through the “Employees Only” door. I drive home sober and safe, feeling great.