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Non-Alcoholic Cocktail Bars Are All The Fun And None Of The Booze

People who don't drink often don't have a lot of options for socializing.

Isabel Tames has been sober for two years, but she can only remember one time that she had a mocktail she actually liked. “In one place, I found a piña colada. Once!” she told HuffPost Canada from her home in Montreal.

The vast majority of the places she’s been have the same two non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu — a Caesar and a mojito — “and usually they’re not good.”

That’s why Tames, along with her partner Diego Bayancela, is opening Mindful Bar in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood next month. The space is designed to have the social, laid-back atmosphere of a bar with a full menu of alcohol-free drinks. As far as she knows, it’s the first of its kind in Canada.

In the last few years, demand has increased for better alcohol-free options. Many people who don’t drink complain that non-alcoholic options often lack the creativity and complexity of regular cocktails.

Several Canadian bartenders have upped their game in response, adding interesting and elaborate alcohol-free options alongside their alcoholic drinks. Market by Jean-Georges, a swanky resto in Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel, has a menu that includes alcohol-free drinks, like a Ginger and Buckthorn Fizz and infused Botanical Water.

Pretty Ugly, a cocktail bar in Toronto with an ever-changing drinks list, serves a variety of “placebo” cocktails that allow people to enjoy a great drink, booze-free.

Mindful Bar hired a mixologist to come up with their signature cocktails, which will feature house-made syrups and other elaborate ingredients. Those drinks will draw on global inspiration, Tames says. The “Hygge,” made with fresh grapefruit juice, eucalyptus and ginger syrup, kiwi and and mint, draws on floral flavours she said she associated with European countries. Their North American drink, meanwhile, features “a touch of maple.”

They’ll also serve virgin takes on common drinks like margaritas and sangria, as well as non-alcoholic beer and wine.

Watch: Pretty Ugly’s owner Robin Goodfellow makes “placebo” cocktails at his Toronto bar. Story continues after video.

“It seems to me that the culture is changing a little bit,” Alexi Thibodeau, co-owner of Henrietta Lane, a bar and coffee shop in Toronto that serves both cocktails and similarly elaborate “teetotaller” options, told HuffPost Canada.

“There are a lot of people who are choosing to abstain, whether for short or long periods of time, for such a myriad of reasons. And I think there’s less stigma surrounding it.”

Heavy drinking rates are going up in nearly every age group, according to Statistics Canada. Some of the long-term effects of drinking can include memory loss, high blood pressure, and liver damage. But millennials and Gen-Z — basically, people in their mid-30s and younger — drink less than people in older generations did at the same age.

When she briefly stopped drinking about five years ago, Thibodeau said there were very few options besides “kids’ drinks” and soda water.

“I think one of the things that people really enjoy about a nice cocktail is — it’s a reward,” she said. “It’s a treat for yourself. And a soda water doesn’t have that.”

People in their mid-30s and younger these days drink less than people used to.
Marianna Massey via Getty Images
People in their mid-30s and younger these days drink less than people used to.

Non-drinkers are slowly starting to get better options at a lot of bars. But bars with no alcohol at all are much rarer. There are a few American ones, like Getaway Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., or The Other Side in Crystal Lake, Ill. In the U.K., there’s Redemption Bar in London and The Brink in Liverpool.

One of Tames’ goals was to keep the best parts of a bar — a casual, social, adult-only nightlife environment — but eliminate the alcohol and the drunk people. That’s why it won’t generally be a space to bring children. The bar will have a weekly Family Day, when kids are welcome — her five-year-old loves the mocktails on the menu, she said. But “the idea is to make a place for adults that is not existent right now.”

The bar will regularly feature live music, which Tames loves. “The idea is to have a place where you can have fun, and dance, and feel like [you’re] in a bar.”

Drinking has become such an accepted part of socializing that there are very few spaces where people can go out without being around alcohol, Tames said.

“The link [between] fun and alcohol is so normal,” she said. But “you can also have fun and dance and listen to music and connect without alcohol.”

Tames, who describes herself as an alcoholic, doesn’t particularly like being around drunk people, which often happens when she goes to a bar. “When people are too drunk, they start being very invasive,” she said. “Talking too close, or asking you to drink ‘just one.’”

Thibodeau of Henrietta Lane says it’s gratifying to give people the option to keep socializing without drinking alcohol. People who don’t drink for their health, or for religious beliefs, or because they’re pregnant, can still enjoy a night out or after-work drinks.

Also, “it’s very hard to date if you don’t drink,” she said. Ordering a cocktail by name, where it’s not immediately evident that it doesn’t contain alcohol, means it “doesn’t have to become a thing” if you don’t necessarily want to bring attention to it.

And it’s also just smart business, she said. “A person who might otherwise sit and have a few glasses of water will instead have a couple of drinks that are at a similar price point as a basic glass of beer.” It’s easy enough to develop the drinks, especially if you make your own juices and syrups and shrubs, she said.

Plus, “it’s a fun exercise for a bartender.”

While Tames acknowledges that her business model isn’t a common one, “I don’t see it as a risk,” she said. “I see it as an alternative that could benefit a lot of people.”

Lots of people were quick to sneer at the concept of vegan restaurants, she said, but alternative diets have proven to be very marketable.

“I think the first vegan place, it was the same thing. People were like: you should have something with meat! And now you can see them everywhere.”

Her overall goal is not just to open a successful business, but to popularize the concept of alcohol-free nightlife, Tames says.

“I would like to see more of this kind of bar,” she said. “I would like it to grow.”

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