Trending the rise of low- and no-alcohol beverages

A decade or so ago, many bar visitors who abstained from alcohol were limited to sipping a soft drink while their friends imbibed in cocktails, wine, spirits and beer — but that is no longer the case. In today’s environment, the low- and no-alcohol offerings are becoming almost as broad as the alcohol-based drinks.

Last year, sales of cider and beer with under 1.2% alcohol rose by almost 30%, and interest in no- and low-alcohol wine went up 8%, based on an analysis from Kantar Worldpanel. “Nonalcoholics, mock-cocktails, sodas, and low-ABV, are all trending and growing right now both in retail and on-premise,” said Peter Vestinos of The BarMedic, a bar, cocktail and bar team consulting firm.

Catered events are also increasing their alcohol-free offerings, said Manhattan-based caterer Thomas Rosen. “When we work weddings, parties and business events, we’re being asked to offer almost as many mocktails as cocktails,” he said. That trend has been growing for the past three or four years, he said.

What’s Behind the Trend?

The growth of low-ABV and nonalcoholic options has been driven by several factors, Vestinos said. “Some will cite the fact that many consumers avoid alcohol for medical, religious, health or pregnancy reasons, but those factors aren't anything new,” he said. “I think we are just doing better as an industry at servicing those needs.”

One reason that bars have been better about catering to those who don’t imbibe is that craft cocktails have seen a renaissance in the recent past. Therefore, Vestinos said, there are a lot more ingredients to work with and there are more creative people to develop them.

In addition, he said, “managers and owners have realized they are leaving money on the table by not having nonalcoholic offerings, and these can definitely boost tabs, especially during slower lunch periods, and consumers are trading away from sugary sodas. The industry is slow to change unless they have vocal demands from consumers, and this is especially true of bars.”

Members of the millennial generation have also played a part in driving demand for lower-alcohol options. “Drinking on a national level is down and there are a few reasons for this, but in general, millennials, who are very willing to be out most nights of the week, are not drinking as much and certainly not big drinkers like past generations,” Vestinos added. Beverage producers are addressing this consumer base, which is going out and spending dollars, but not necessarily on alcohol, he said. 

Be Ready to Meet Consumers’ Needs

Eateries and bars should be ready for consumers seeking lower-alcohol options by putting more of those products on the menu and having creative alcohol-free offerings. In addition, locales have been trending toward offering more entertainment options for customers who don’t just want to sit and drink.

“The spaces in which we gather are changing on the bar side,” Vestinos said. “You have seen the fantastic melding of eating and drink with either playing spaces or shopping spaces. My clients Acebounce and Flight Club have developed large gaming spaces with ping-pong and darts, respectively, as the main points of attraction. On top of that gaming space, they offer great food and bars. There are other similar spaces popping up such as shuffleboard and axe-throwing venues.”

Because these types of spaces attract large groups, the beverage options must be broad enough to meet the needs of everyone attending, he said.  

Venues should consider stocking a wide array of quality nonalcoholic beers and sodas, as well as low-ABV items in the aromatized wine and amari categories, Vestinos suggests. “Have the bartenders come up with one or two nonalcoholic or low-ABV items, print these options on a menu and most of all, inform the servers of what is available so they can best speak to guests about it.”

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