“A Beverage Revolution”: How Restaurants Are Developing Non-Alcoholic Beverage Menus
It’s no secret that soft drinks have fueled consumer passion. According to Nielsen, sales in 2021 increased 33% over the previous year, to $331 million.
With such demonstrable growth, restaurants have made room behind the bar. Non-alcoholic chef-led menus have been popping up across the country.
Sean Brock, chef and owner of Audrey in Nashville, collaborated with Acid League in 2022 to create a wine proxy. Proxies are non-alcoholic blends of vinegar, tea and fruits, herbs, spices and more that mimic the taste of wine.
Brock was inspired by his grandmother’s wine made from wild elderberries picked on her property. He added Appalachian ingredients like papayas and pine to complement his cooking. Other Acid League wine proxies, like Audrey, Brock’s proxy, have found their way onto the menu.
“I really feel like we’re at the very beginning of a beverage revolution,” says Brock, who doesn’t drink. “Making zero-proof drinks forces you to think like a chef and opens up a whole new world of undiscovered associations.”
At Willa’s in Tampa, zero-proofers have been part of the dining experience since its debut in March 2021. They take up half of the cocktail menu. Mercedes Mestizo, the assistant general manager, says she and her sober friends wanted to have the same experience as diners who drink alcohol. Inclusivity has become a priority with the bar program.
“If you’re sober, or pregnant, or looking for a healthier option, everyone should feel included,” says Amber Carregal, Willa’s lead bartender.
Julia Momose, James Beard Award winner and owner of Kumiko in Chicago, grew up in an alcohol-free home. As a bartender, she wanted her parents to have inventive drink options when they visited.
“A lot of people are looking for amazing experiences, but alcohol isn’t necessarily what makes it great,” she says.
In 2017, Momose wrote a self-proclaimed manifesto, Without spirit, who championed non-alcoholic concoctions as diverse and thoughtful, rather than anything less than a traditional cocktail. This philosophy drives Kumiko’s beverage menu.
“My idea was to create a script,” she says. “What will someone want at the start of the evening, what will they want halfway through their experience [and] what completes the action? From there, I filled in the gaps with various textures and flavors, showcasing the ingredients.
The storytelling shapes how Adam Fournier, Fellow’s bar manager in Los Angeles, approaches his non-alcoholic program.
“A drink is part of a story and a conversation between a company and its guests,” explains Fournier. “We want to make sure that no matter what people drink, they have as mindful and creative an experience as any other guests.”
At Oxalis in New York, the alcohol-free program was born out of necessity. His liquor license was delayed. “Our concept was based on natural wine pairings with food, so it forced our hand in developing non-alcoholic pairings,” explains Beverage Manager Piper Kristensen.
Kristensen and her team let their creativity run free. “When we talk about wine, you don’t say ‘flavored wine’,” he says. “You can use the words you would use with wine to build a non-alcoholic [drink]tease the elements that stand out and make it work with food.
It may sound simple, but the ongoing research and development at Oxalis is anything but basic. A catalog has been created to chronicle sour powders, which can impart wine structure and complexity to a soft drink.
But it’s more than just chemistry. Inspiration also comes from weekly visits to the market with the chefs, working with a forager during the darker months as well as the micro-seasons that form the backbone of the Oxalis menu.
“The important thing about going to a restaurant is that you’re going to have an experience that you can’t get anywhere else,” Kristensen says. “We want to organize this to make sure you’re completely immersed in the food-to-drink program.”
In Nashville, Jon Howard, Audrey’s bar manager, also puts seasonal produce at the center of their story. “There is no alcoholic menu and no alcoholic menu,” he says. “There is only one menu [with] five spirit drinks and five zero-proof drinks. We want people to have the same experience whether they decide to drink alcohol or not.
Eliminating alcohol as a necessity in a cocktail is at the heart of these sophisticated menus, says Fournier. It allows bar programs to play with textures and layouts suited to the experience they seek to achieve.
Kristensen agrees. “The cocktail is an alcohol delivery mechanism. Your delivery person can throw your package over your door, and they’ll still get there. But [nonalcoholic drinks] offers nothing but an experience.
Fournier sees the growth of soft drinks as a natural outgrowth of the craft cocktail movement. “We’ve spent the last two decades educating people about food, where it comes from. [and] how it was prepared,” he says. “We’re doing the same with spirits and cocktails, re-examining the relationship to drinks and what a drinking occasion looks like.”