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Why no buzzy new bar will be without low-to-no alcohol cocktails in 2022

Many of us hit the bottle at the start of the pandemic, but now the ‘sober curious’ are flourishing

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

You might reasonably assume that if anything was going to drive us to drink, 23 months of a never-ending pandemic would be it. And yet, the low-to-no ABV movement has boomed under Covid. ‘Mindful drinking’, ‘sober curious’, ‘NoLo’: the trend has adopted many names depending on where you’re imbibing. But regardless of what you call it, this ascendent trend is shaking up the way we think about our alcohol intake.

Sydney-based psychologist Rachel Vousey says that the emotional rollercoaster of the past two years has majorly influenced this pendulum swing away from drinking’s established status quo. ‘We have a very different psychological climate now compared to the start of the pandemic, when there was this real uncertainty. None of us knew what was going to happen, so our responses to that situation were heavily fear-based. People got into the habit of saying, Stuff it, I’ll just do whatever. Let’s throw caution to the wind, which led to an increase in unhealthy habits like binge-drinking. Now, people feel more frustrated than fearful, which means they’re more inclined to retain control over their choices, like reducing the amount they’re drinking. Plus, many of my clients remember how bad they felt coming out of lockdown last year. They don’t want their iso-bod back.’

Drinking our feelings away in 2020 paved the way for a wellness renaissance in 2021, and this, in turn, has inspired hospitality businesses to see the mindfulness movement as a ripe opportunity, says Angela Hui, Time Out London’s food and drink writer. This has made laying off the booze a far easier choice when going out. ‘There’s been a big increase in the hospitality industry putting more effort into their non-alcoholic alternatives, offering well-thought-out pairings with food and how it’s becoming more socially acceptable to go out and have fun without the use of alcohol,’ she notes. ‘The global wellness trend has motivated people to reevaluate their alcohol consumption and daily lifestyle choices. And in turn, we’ve seen an increase in low-to-no alcohol options, as well as some completely giving up booze for good.’

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But it’s not just the ‘why’ that has changed when it comes to abstaining, but also the ‘how’. Gone are the days of making do with sickly-sweet mocktails, a lemon, lime and bitters or a pint of coke. Now there’s an increasingly varied range of alcohol-free spirits that offer the sophistication of a ‘grown-up’ drink, minus the hangover. Low-to-no ABV beer and wine makers have also focused on improving the flavour and finish of their products, so imitations are just as palatable as their boozy counterparts. Even the alcohol industry’s heavyweights are paying attention to this burgeoning market, with big brands like Gordon’s Gin releasing zero alcohol alternatives last year.

The goal of normalising teetotalism is also reaching beyond the off-licence, with the emergence of entire distilleries and bars dedicated to sober living. Carolyn Whiteley, the owner of Seadrift, Australia’s first alcohol-free distillery and Sydney’s first alcohol-free bar, says that taking the alcohol out of a beverage is only part of the reason the range of low-to-no options is growing. ‘People want to live a holistic lifestyle. They want to know that, yes their drink is alcohol-free, but also that it’s a product made with integrity from really good ingredients sourced in sustainable ways that work with the land. You need to embrace all those values as a producer, too.’

Perhaps ironically, Whiteley also believes that the occasional tipple – rather than going cold turkey – is a far more savvy way to keep on track with this lifestyle change. ‘I’ve seen a lot more people talking about moderation and keeping balance in their life. You know, you can still have a big Friday night if you want, but then you drink something non-alcoholic during the week. I think what we’ve been through the last couple of years, the level of stress, it’s understandable that people have wanted to drown their sorrows now and then. But zero alcohol options can be a means to finding better ways of coping. A really important role that these types of spirits can play is breaking that cycle.’

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But just like cake pops, nitrogen gelato and turmeric lattes, food and drink trends come and go. So will abandoning booze be a passing fad or will it go the distance? Amber Sutherland-Namako, food and drink editor of Time Out New York, believes the current low-to-no moment is a case of old wine in new bottles.

‘Low and no-ABV cocktails have been trending on and off since the first hangover in recorded history,’ she says. ‘In NYC, however, they’ve never really ignited like last summer’s frozen cocktail boom, or the recent proliferation of dedicated martini menus. Both have long been available at a smattering of bars and restaurants, but it wasn’t until this year that I saw nearly every buzzy new opening incorporating the genre.’

Drinking can become both a bad habit and a personality trait, and zero-alcohol libations are helping people break out of that cycle. As Sutherland-Namako says: ‘Some elder millennials who came of drinking age during the NYC cocktail renaissance of the mid-to-late 2000s – when a preference for a strong drink could masquerade as a personality – might just need or want a little ABV break.’

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