June 20th, 2019 | By Edward Korry
At Johnson & Wales University, we have had a term-long course for over five years entitled “Coffee, Tea and Non-Alcoholic Beverage Specialist.” It addresses the perceived need for restaurants to serve their public well by having equally sophisticated non-alcoholic cocktail, beer and wine lists. Years later, while the retail off-premise market has plunged into sophisticated and flavorful non-alcoholic beverages, restaurants in general still offer what can best be described as children’s drinks, as non-alcoholic beverages.
The name itself has always posed a bit of a marketing challenge. The words “mocktails” and even “non-alcoholic” sound disparaging to most consumers. Thankfully, despite widespread use, there is a movement towards change. Julia Momose, of Kumiko in Chicago, who built her reputation at The Aviary, Green River and Oriole, produced a spirit-free manifesto that succinctly argues for different labels for this category, such as “zero-proof cocktails” and “alcohol-free cocktails” and including her preference and mine for “spirit-free.”
I recently attended a session presented by Kathy Casey, President of Liquid Kitchen® and Maeve Webster, President of Menu Matters, at the VIBE Conference in San Diego, which further validated much of the research I have conducted. The market for the spirit-free category has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Projected growth of this category is 32 percent over the next five years, and spirit-free beverage sales are $7 billion higher than just four years ago. In the meantime, beverage alcohol sales have fallen about .8 percent for the third year running, and in states where marijuana has been legalized, there has been an average drop of 15 percent.
Why is this? For one thing, millennials are consuming less beverage alcohol. Data suggests that 45 percent of millennials would give up alcohol to improve their health. Older Baby Boomers are more aware of potential health risks posed especially when alcohol is consumed with prescribed medications; additionally, they have decreased tolerance and therefore are consuming less. So, health is a major reason, which can also be seen in the marketing of “Dryuary” after the holiday season, National Mocktail Week in the second week of January, “Go Sober for October” in the U.K., or “Oct’sober Fest.”
Functional, Natural, Wellness-Focused and Refreshing
Sugar-free drinks and fresh fruit-based drinks are a broad-based trend that includes the soda market. The refreshing characteristic of soda or carbonated drinks makes all kinds of possibilities very attractive to the U.S. market, which represents the largest consuming nation of carbonated drinks in the world. Adding fresh and natural flavors to sodas without sugar has exploded in popularity. Some refer to this as the La Croix effect, and its impact is ubiquitous whether it is canned bubbly, bottled ice or on-premise less conventional sodas that are more savory than sweet. For example, Dram Apothecary Soda sells less conventional flavor combinations emphasizing zero sugar, natural fresh ingredients and no artificial ingredients, while incorporating floral elements such as lavender, or spice such as black cardamom. Many restaurants carbonate their own juice combinations with little or no sugar.
Many restaurants have even created their own colas using kola nut-based recipes and combining it with citrus peels, vanilla and fresh herbs, delivering fresher and more complex tastes — but the emphasis is still on natural and healthier beverages. There are other “functional” drinks that extol wellness by including super fruits such as blueberries and açai, or vegetal-infused beverages that are flavored with turmeric or ginger and supposedly have health benefits. The use of artichoke, clover, damiana, ginseng and lemon balm, in particular, fall under this category.
Wellness concerns have also led to the increased presence of fermented beverages such as kombucha and vinegar-based drinks, including shrubs. Restaurants are adding pickle juice or sauerkraut juice to their funkier health-driven concoctions for their probiotic value. Who had ever heard about Eastern European fermented drinks such as kvass until recently, which includes fermented red beet juice? We are in for the most diverse and expanding market to capture the attention of younger generations.
This also ties in to the millennials’ “thirst” for experiences that are authentic, multi-cultural and visually appealing for Instagramming. There is nothing more reflective of the successful impact of Instagramming appeal than Starbucks’ limited rollout of their Unicorn Frappuccino. There are simpler ways to provide eye appeal, freshness and an experiential component, such as the simplicity of the old-fashioned syphon method for brewing coffee at the table. Having a selection of brightly colored, quick-serve, healthy juice concoctions that include aforementioned ingredients in clear and attractive dispensers is merely a riff of what hotels currently use in their lobbies for waters infused with lemon or lime wheels. This is just going the extra mile.
Beauty and Spiritual Wellness
This was new to me though I have seen drinks that claim to have rejuvenating qualities. At VIBE, Kathy Casey and Maeve Webster enlightened me further with references to companies such as the German Waterdrop, who include collagen and hyaluronic acid potions. There are other drink crystal companies that create customer experiences with claims of enhancing one’s metaphysical state, such as Blue Moon Dream Water. More potentially impactful, in my mind, is the recent innovation of Ooho’s spherical, gelatinous and edible container for water and flavored water, created to eliminate plastic bottles.
The most iconic hard adaptation of a spirit without the spirit is Seedlip, the “world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit.” This English company has now introduced its products into the U.S. and as it has now formed a partnership with Virgin Atlantic, one can expect to see much more of its three primary spirit-free spirits: Spice 94, Garden 108 and Grove 42.
More ubiquitous is Coca Cola’s Bar None Sangria, Dry Aged Cider, Bellini Spritz and Ginger Mule. The trend will no doubt expand considerably as Anheuser-Busch continues to expand its non-alcoholic offerings with the purchase of Hiball’s organic energy drinks company and Alta Palla’s organic sparkling juice and sparkling waters.
The On-Premise Scene
So, what is a restaurant operator to do to distinguish itself from its competitors and offer its clientele a fresh, complex and delicious spirit-free beverage? The first trick is not to try to create a non-alcoholic version of an alcoholic cocktail. The main ingredient of a spirit-free beverage is water, whether infused by flavors, juices, coffees, teas, etc. Trying to substitute alcohol with water doesn’t translate well. The second key element is to remember that if serving it cold, don’t use plain ice. Make ice from the base of the spirit-free drink, otherwise it becomes quickly unbalanced and diluted. Use fresh ingredients when possible; at the very least, use colorful and even exotic garnishes including edible flowers that make sense and enhance the visual appeal. Use more savory ingredients that are in sync with the restaurant’s food menu theme.
Different exotic teas are a very good starting point. They can be infused with all kinds of flavors, transforming them into something complex and original. Mild heat from peppercorns and other spices can provide the consumer with the texture and taste that alcohol provides. Hibiscus and other natural ingredients including peppers can provide intense red colors to a drink. Or, you may choose to source natural food colors from an array of companies, to provide the same outcome.
Lastly, I provide a recipe from a recent Johnson & Wales University graduate, to demonstrate that it does not require great experience, only a dash of daring creativity. Eric Freeman, now at the Management Development Program for Food & Beverage at Hilton, produced this recipe for a class and it was then used at the renowned Providence restaurant, Persimmon.
3 parts orange juice
1 part pomegranate syrup
3 thyme sprigs
3 basil leaves
1/8 lime juiced
Combine syrup and herbs, then muddle well. Next, add juice and ice; shake and double strain. Garnish with thyme sprig; add a dash of Sprite (optional). Also can be made with a dash or two of hot sauce, or add hot pepper when muddling.
So, here’s to yours and your customers’ health! Bring a better spirit-free experience to an ever-more sophisticated consumer. And by the way, those who are already in the game and charge accordingly, have discovered not only a point of differentiation but also a valuable profit center.