The “Cheeky Coyote” mocktail at Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco
Ocean Beach Cafe
- Sober bars are opening across the US, charging the same price for drinks as their boozy counterparts.
- Owners say the growing popularity of Dry January is great for business.
- An emerging industry of alcohol-free ingredients is inspiring bartenders to rethink cocktails.
Many Americans are taking a break from alcohol this month, igniting a national conversation about sobriety and healthy living. But at sober bars across the country, alcohol-free cocktails are year-round staples and Dry January is more than just a trend.
Mixed drinks at many sober bars cropping up in major cities throughout the US are nearly indistinguishable from their boozy counterparts — colorful, well-presented, and packed with interesting flavor. In most cases, a good non-alcoholic cocktail runs about the same price as a liquor-based drink, which sober bar owners told Insider is proving not to be an issue for customers.
“The demographics are absolutely OK with paying a similar price point,” Joshua James, owner of Ocean Beach Cafe, a sober bar in San Francisco, told Insider. “They’re just so stoked to see something on the menu — they’re so stoked to be included.”
Most sober bars offer selections of alcohol alternatives that go beyond the typical non-alcoholic beer, finding a niche serving non-alcoholic wine, spirits, and especially cocktails.
“You don’t really get together over water,” James said. “There’s something huge about a pretty drink in a nice glass.”
The growing non-alcoholic cocktail movement
Making a mocktail with ingredients like seltzer water, lime, and mint can help curb the desire for alcohol.
Each sober bar puts its own spin on the idea of an alcohol-free cocktail, business owners told Insider. While some stick to standard recipes, using ingredients like non-alcoholic spirits to create one-to-one replicas of classic cocktails, others take the opportunity to experiment and create unique drinks that stand completely on their own merit.
At Sans Bar, a sober bar in Austin, owner Chris Marshall told Insider his favorite drink recently has been the “sans-hattan,” a non-alcoholic recreation of the Manhattan. Using an alcohol-free bourbon, non-alcoholic bitters, and zero-proof vermouth, he said the drink brings the same mature palate as the original.
“You can charge for a cocktail because you’re giving people an elevated offering,” he said.
Marshall was a pioneer of the sober bar business, opening Sans Bar in 2017. He, like many others in the market, was inspired to create a space for a largely underserved demographic.
Marshall said he “just realized a lot of people were struggling to have a social life without alcohol.”
In the years since his bar opened, Marshall said he has seen substantial improvements in the non-alcoholic drinks industry. The emergence of non-alcoholic spirits has been a huge leap forward in a movement to normalize an alcohol-free lifestyle, he said.
Consumers have picked up on the growing non-alcoholic beverage market, too. Non-alcoholic spirit sales nearly doubled in 2022, according to Nielsen IQ data, far surpassing the sales increases of non-alcoholic wine and beer.
“People are really quick to call this a trend,” Marshall said. “And it’s not. I think this is a movement.”
Better ingredients boost non-alcoholic alternatives
The “Kentucky Mai Tai” at Ocean Beach Cafe
Ocean Beach Cafe
The growth of new non-alcoholic ingredients has been a benefit for some traditional bars, too. At Oak at Fourteenth, a restaurant and bar in Boulder, Colorado, equal effort and care are afforded to creating both mocktails and cocktails.
“You should be able to enjoy yourself,” Kyle Letson, a mixologist at the restaurant, told Insider. “Not feel put-out.”
Owners of sober bars told Insider they only see further growth in the industry, as trends like Dry January and sober-curious lifestyles take a stronger hold.
For business owners who have been around a few years, the increase in foot traffic this January has been palpable. James told Insider that customers drive great distances to visit Ocean Beach Cafe every day.
Those just starting out like Robert Ashford — owner of Volstead by Unity, a sober bar and restaurant in Philadelphia that opened last year — said now feels like the perfect time to be offering a sober space to anyone looking to abstain from alcohol or make changes to their drinking habits.
“More people are starting to have more knowledge of what zero-proof spirits actually mean,” Ashford said. “I think we’re seeing this play out in real-time.”