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Sarah Kate made the decision to stop drinking just before the COVID-19 pandemic started, with a challenge to make April, 2020 an alcohol-free month.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my entire life. Watching everybody around me get plastered for the first two or three months of the pandemic and not having a drop was really hard,” she says.

Despite caving in a few times during the year and having a drink, she was committed to minimizing her consumption.

“I went from like one glass of wine a day … I was like, ‘I can drink as much wine as I want. It’s normal. Everybody else is doing it.’ And then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Wow, I’m drinking four glasses of wine a night,’” the Torontonian says of her habits before the challenge.

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Sarah Kate of Some Good Clean Fun.Supplied

However, the thought of a future drinking just club soda and pop was “bleak” for her, so in tandem with the month-long challenge, she launched Some Good Clean Fun, an online resource that tracks non-alcoholic drink options and trends. Its motto, she says, is “rethinking drinking.”

Kate is far from the only person reassessing how much alcohol they’re consuming. She now gets 15,000 page views on the site each month. According to a Statistics Canada survey from January, 2021, more Canadians decreased their alcohol consumption (22 per cent) during the pandemic than increased it (18 per cent). And younger people cut back more than older ones – 33 per cent of 15- to 29-year-olds compared to 18 per cent of 30- to 64-year-olds.

A Nielsen IQ analysis of U.S. drinking habits at the start of this year reports that during the first two weeks of January, non-alcohol products had a 19-per-cent increase in dollar sales, while total alcohol sales were down 6.7 per cent. In Britain, one in three drinkers regularly choose no- or low-alcohol drinks (up from one in four in 2020).

More Canadians may be joining those drinking less after the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released its latest update of Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines in late August. The update revealed that as few as three drinks per week increases the risk of developing certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer. And having seven drinks or more per week increases the likelihood of having heart disease or a stroke.

In response to the rising number of non-drinkers, drinks companies have been creating non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits to provide options aside from club soda and pop (and cash in on this booming market). For example, Seedlip, arguably the most well-known non-alcoholic brand, was founded in 2014.

But 2022 has seen the non-alcoholic lifestyle embraced by retailers, bars and hotels. Choosing not to drink is no longer simply 30-day challenge or the only alternative to addiction, but a conscious health choice that’s being led by millennials and Gen Zs. And it’s an increasingly lucrative market to be in.

Up until very recently there haven’t been any no-liquor liquor stores, which meant shoppers had to do a lot of research to find non-alcoholic options that weren’t a basic 0.0-per-cent beer – often ordering online from manufacturers only to find out they didn’t particularly like the product. And non-alcoholic options aren’t cheaper, contrary to what many may assume.

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“Alcohol actually happens naturally. That’s the easy part. What we’re trying to do is stop that, take it out. So it’s actually a more expensive process. And if you have a more expensive process, you have a shorter production runs,” says Daniel Stiller, chief executive officer and co-founder of Better Rhodes, an online market for non- and low-alcohol drinks that can ship a variety of options with no minimum purchase required.

Better Rhodes was launched in the U.S. in late 2020, and in Canada at the beginning of this year. Stiller says sales in this country are exceeding expectations, with wines being the most popular purchases. Among its current offerings, one bottle of wine runs from $11.99 to $24.99, while a 750-mL bottle of Taste of Tequila costs $38.99.

Brick-and-mortar shops are popping up, too. Last October, Jillian Barkley opened Soft Spirits, Los Angeles’s first non-alcoholic bottle shop, in the city’s Silver Lake neighbourhood.

“I couldn’t believe a city as health conscious as Los Angeles didn’t have these types of products more readily available,” she says when explaining what prompted her to launch her shop. The small boutique offers non-alcoholic wines, spirits and beers, as well as canned ready-to-drink cocktails.

“Initially, the most common customers were folks with substance dependencies, those who take medications incompatible with alcohol, many pregnant people, or those who follow a halal diet,” Barkley says. “Now we see a lot of people who may not have a specific ‘reason’ for cutting back, but just happen to enjoy the drinks we carry.”

This summer, Knyota Drinks opened in downtown Ottawa stocking a similarly diverse list of non-alcoholic drinks as well as running tastings.

With health and wellness being a major driver for the curiosity around non-alcoholic drink options, the hospitality industry is among the first to innovate for those who can drink but may not want to – a natural fit given that wellness is an increasingly lucrative motivator for travel. (The Global Wellness Institute estimates that in 2017, wellness tourism was worth US$639-billion and growing twice as fast as general tourism.)

The Bandbox, a non-alcoholic tasting room and bottle shop in Orlando, opened on June 25 – one of roughly two dozen such bars in the U.S. that offer a non-drinkers a bar experience and adult beverage options compared to, say, simply a Coke.

“These bars cater to the crowd of people who don’t want to drink,” Kate says. “We still want to socialize, we still want a nightlife, we still want a DJ. But being in a place where there’s no access to alcohol makes it really easy for you to go out and have a good time and not feel that pressure to drink.”

Customers waited up to three hours to have a taste of the premium non-alcoholic cocktails on offer the bar’s first night. The spirits-free speakeasy, which looks, feels and operates like a standard bar, specializes in tasting menus of craft cocktails that demonstrate to drinkers the potential and diversity of non-alcoholic options. One such drink is the Sheba’s Stinger, a mix of a tequila alternative, cinnamon syrup, nutmeg, orgeat and bourbon-barrel maple syrup.

“We were seeing even before we opened that the demand is out there for this,” Bandbox owner Kevin Zepf says. “It all kind of goes back to this healthier lifestyle. It started with the food industry, and more vegetarian, vegan, gluten free options, it’s finally catching up now into the drink industry.”

Also opened in Orlando in late June of this year is Ette Hotel, an alcohol-free hotel (though guests are allowed to bring their own to enjoy on the property with no corkage fees). The decision was an easy one to make, owner Alex Ekbatani says.

“The hotel is a wellness hotel, and we have to stay true with that. Obviously alcohol is hazardous for you,” he says, adding that before opening, others in the industry were concerned about how the policy would be received. “Everybody thought people were going to be resentful about it, but we stuck to our guns.”

Ektabani says 75 per cent of guests accept it without question. Travellers from Europe, Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the U.S. have stayed at the hotel, and he is looking to expand the concept with alcohol-free Ette hotels in Washington, Boston and possibly Dallas.

While nondrinking habits in Canada aren’t lagging, the options for where to find and consume non-alcohol drinks are, though that may soon change. In Toronto, Zero Dry Cocktail Bar is a pop-up run by Gail E. Lynch, who has been pouring alcohol-free drinks at farmers’ markets this summer. And Kate is planning a Some Good Clean Fun pop-up bar in October, with details being added to her website once a location is confirmed.

There’s resistance to go all in on alcohol-free menus or space, because alcohol is seen as a significant profit centre, but “we know that 20 per cent of people sitting around a table are not going to be drinking,” Stiller says.

“This isn’t a trend, it’s a movement.”

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