After years of direct-to-consumer sales and limited distribution in specialty stores, the non-alcoholic beverage world just got its first dedicated Los Angeles brick-and-mortar: Soft Spirits, a Silver Lake storefront located on a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard near All Day Baby and Dayglow Coffee. L.A.’s first non-alcoholic bottle shop, which opened on October 9, is ready to rumble with a vast array of spiritless spirit brands, plus mood-enhancing functional drinks in the mix for good measure.
Shop owner Jillian Barkley—who has been sober for three years—hopes to guide the curious and uninformed through the vast sea of ethanol-free recreational beverages that have launched in recent years. At Soft Spirits, she’s effectively the city’s first non-alcoholic sommelier, with a curated store inventory of boozeless beverage brands and a service-oriented focus on pointing patrons in the right direction and answering questions.
“The more variety I can bring, the more people can understand the concept a little better,” Barkley said. The store originated from an Instagram account she started while living in New York City where she’d review pre-packaged drinks and mocktails available in the city. This search for replacements is part of what has kept Barkley from regularly drinking alcohol again.
Working in bars and restaurants in college, she started to appreciate craft cocktails—drinks that “felt really elevated and elegant.” After a few years, Barkley found that alcohol use brought more harm to her than pleasure, and decided to take a break. “It wasn’t supposed to be a forever break, just until whenever I felt like drinking next,” she said. “That day still has not come.”
The last half-decade has seen the rise of the sober-curious movement and a growing willingness to acknowledge alcohol for what it literally is: a habit-forming known carcinogen with no safe level of consumption, per peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet. Despite a growing interest in decreasing alcohol use or quitting altogether, the social rituals and celebrations built around booze live on (yes, that includes at Time Out), and non-drinkers don’t necessarily want to be left out.
The shift away from alcohol has dovetailed with the nationwide proliferation of functional beverages—which Soft Spirits also carries. They include Droplet and Bonbuz, both L.A. companies owned and run by women. However, so-called adaptogenic drinks aren't always appealing for some of Soft Spirits' patrons. Those in active recovery from alcohol abuse or people who are pregnant (both big parts of the clientele thus far) typically aren't trying to consume drinks with mood-shifting ingredients, Barkley said.
Instead, she added, they tend to attract would-be patrons curious about the store or the functional beverage category overall. To make both functional and non-alcoholic beverages approachable, Soft Spirits also sells individual canned drinks and smaller four-packs for sampling.
For those new to the non-alcoholic drink category, Barkley’s current favorite ready-to-drink functional beverage brand is Curious Elixirs, which come in five different flavors. Among the shop’s eponymous “soft spirits,” she’s also keen on Root Elixirs, a non-adaptogenic mixer that comes in floral flavors like cucumber elderflower and strawberry lavender.
With an in-person shopping experience, Barkley said she hopes to add a layer of expert knowledge that consumers may not be able to get from an Instagram ad campaign or online store. A longtime experiential designer who helped put together the Arts District’s immersive Madcap Motel, she currently has no plans to bring Soft Spirits’ curated array of beverages online.
Even though Soft Spirits is a store, not a community center, Barkley said she’s excited to create a place for the sober (and sober-curious) to congregate and feel included. In the near future, she hopes to use the shop to host monthly tastings and other events in order to build connections between like-minded consumers.
“For now, it’s been really exciting to interact with people directly, and find out what they’re looking for and what their reasons for coming in are,” she said. “Everyone has a personal story, or specific tastes.”