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This drinks festival doesn't have alcohol. That's why hundreds of people came

Festival volunteer Erin Petrey pours nonalcoholic martinis during bartender Derek Brown's master class at the Mindful Drinking Fest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Festival volunteer Erin Petrey pours nonalcoholic martinis during bartender Derek Brown's master class at the Mindful Drinking Fest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.

One of the hottest tickets in Washington, D.C., last weekend was to a festival that was all about drinking and having fun — without being fueled by alcohol.

The sold-out Mindful Drinking Fest was emphatically zero proof, but it offered plenty of proof that the movement to drink less alcohol is booming. And with an explosion of new choices, it's also delicious.

From a ginger old fashioned to espresso martinis and spritzes, hop water to pink rosé, the rich complexity of today's alcohol-free drinks was on full display.

"I'm certain you're going to find something you love here," award-winning bartender and author Derek Brown, one of the festival's three organizers, told NPR.

The party stretched across four floors of the Selina, a boutique hotel brimming with industrial chic, where more than 300 people tasted an array of cocktails, wines and beers. Many attendees were locals, but some were from as far away as Colorado and Canada. Vendors traveled from Florida and Oregon, California and the U.K.

"People came with so much positive energy. I mean, we had a line out the door, which was awesome," said Maria Bastasch, the festival's creative director and coordinator.

Getting to taste new cocktails, no headache required

The scene looked pretty much like any successful festival: People chatted, sipped and smiled while music soared. They were interested in alternatives to alcohol for a range of reasons, from health and religious choices to a simple aversion to alcohol's effects.

"It's been a lot more upbeat than I would have expected" for an alcohol-free party, said Leah Silverman, who lives in the D.C. area. "I've met some really interesting characters who are either into mixology or interested in wellness."

Silverman said she's never been into alcohol, but she only recently found out that nonalcoholic cocktails existed. She made up for lost time: Silverman and her boyfriend, Kurien Thomas, say they sampled 10 or 20 different drinks at the festival.

"I tried this Kentucky mule cocktail, which was really good because it actually mimicked the Moscow mule cocktail," Thomas said. "So it felt really familiar, really comfortable, and I liked the spiciness of it, too."

That was the festival's chief goal: to give people a way to try new takes on things they might be familiar with, and sample drinks without splashing out $30 or $40 to buy a bottle of something they had never tried.

These are boom times for nonalcoholic drinks

The idea for the Mindful Drinking Fest came last fall, after a smaller event quickly sold out. Similar festivals are being put on elsewhere — for instance, by Counterculture Club in Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago AF in Illinois.

The events signal a rising tide of popularity for nonalcoholic drinks. And while many people point to Generation Z's avoidance of alcohol as one explanation, the Nielsen IQ market analysis company says there is "a wider wellness movement taking place throughout society, with more people from every age and stage of life trying to take better care of themselves."

Festival attendees could choose from dozens of nonalcoholic drinks at the festival, held at the Selina hotel in Washington's Union Market district.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
/
Keren Carrión/NPR
Festival attendees could choose from dozens of nonalcoholic drinks at the festival, held at the Selina hotel in Washington's Union Market district.

The pandemic and economic issues have brought uncertain times for the broader beverage industry. But, Nielsen IQ reports, "Between August 2021 and August 2022, total dollar sales of non-alcoholic drinks in the U.S. stood at $395 million, showing a year-on-year growth of +20.6%."

And for anyone who says cutting down on alcohol is just a fad, Brown, whose rejuvenation of historic American cocktails helped land him a stint as the National Archives' chief spirits adviser, has an answer.

"Not in my experience," he said. "This is a long, old tradition" in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Nondrinkers get treated like adults again

Brown doesn't want to see a new Prohibition era. But he notes that the temperance effort started in an earlier era of excess. Drawing on his research, he said that in the 19th century, "All of the early bartending manuals include nonalcoholic drinks."

But after the temperance movement was turned back, Brown said, "People stopped treating people who don't drink alcohol like adults."

That's what the festival's organizers want to change.

Derek Brown holds a copy of his book, <em>Mindful Mixology</em>, as he gives an overview of cocktail history at the Mindful Drinking Fest.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
/
Keren Carrión/NPR
Derek Brown holds a copy of his book, Mindful Mixology, as he gives an overview of cocktail history at the Mindful Drinking Fest.

"You can re-create any cocktail in the world you want, which is so exciting," said Carly Blessing, who started All The Bitter, making bitters without alcohol in Chico, Calif., with her husband, Ian.

Thanks to products like theirs, nonalcoholic cocktails are reaching new levels of flavor and complexity. Their take on Angostura-like bitters has more than 20 ingredients, from warm spices like ginger, nutmeg and allspice to deep flavors from gentian root, dandelion root, yellow dock root and cinchona bark.

Carly and Ian each had stints leading the nonalcoholic drink program at the French Laundry in Napa, where they met. Just four or five years ago, she says, the options centered on juices and sodas. Now their company is part of a growing culture where cocktails don't need alcohol to have the same bite, intensity and texture of a well-made drink.

Looking at alcohol with fresh eyes

Having a beer or cocktail has long been seen as part of a ritual of winding down, relieving stress or changing one's mood — but the nonalcoholic movement has questioned that narrative.

"If somebody feels dependent on that to change their mood or affect stress, I think there's a deeper issue there," Brown said. "To be honest with you, I think the best reason to drink alcohol is because you don't need it."

The nonalcoholic cocktails he and others are now making prove that sharing moments with others doesn't require booze, said Brown — who, we'll note, was once singled out by GQ for making the best martini in America.

"All the positive emotions we associate with alcohol — they come from just being with people and tasting delicious, wonderful things," he said. "You don't really need alcohol."

Some popular nonalcoholic spirits are analogs, doing their best to resemble whiskey, gin or tequila, and allow people to re-create what they're familiar with. But others are entirely new, and some include herbal and plant ingredients that promise to boost your health rather than impair it.

"I think that's going to really explode," the festival's Bastasch said. "I think where it's really going to take off is when people see that they can wake up in the morning" and feel amazing.

"So they don't have the hangover," she added. "They still had an amazing time the night before. And they have a net benefit from going out drinking. They're not, like, making up for lost time."

Creating a space where 'everybody wins'

"In the zero-proof space right now, everybody wins," said Andy Borbely, the national advocacy director for BARE Zero Proof Spirits who's based in New Orleans.

"The bar and restaurant wins, because 80 million Americans who don't drink alcohol are coming through the door," he added. "The consumer wins because people feel seen and appreciated. The bartender wins because there's more people in seats, and the brands win. There's a tremendous opportunity all around."

Borbely cites the Chloe Hotel, a New Orleans bar and hotel with a pool made for summertime people-watching. Zero-proof options drew nondrinkers there, he said, but they were also a hit with people who didn't want to leave after a full-strength drink or two. So, they would "down proof" to stay longer, Borbely said. To cope with the high volume, the staff put nonalcoholic cocktails on draft.

A similar range of views was available at the festival, where some people said they quit drinking after having kids, or for other reasons. Some still drink, but in smaller quantities. What they want now, they all said, are choices.

"I'm not against alcohol. I still imbibe," Bastasch said. "I just want to have more choices. Alcohol sometimes makes me feel terrible, so I don't want to feel that way anymore."

Building nonalcoholic culture beyond Dry January

Many nonalcoholic vendors at the festival spoke about the need to carry momentum through the year.

One opportunity is just around the corner, Borbely said, when many people traditionally give up alcohol for Lent. Famed New Orleans bartender Chris Hannah of the Jewel of the South tavern is among those prepping a special zero-proof bar program for the season, he said.

Not everyone is wild about terms like "Dry January" and "Sober October," even in the nonalcoholic crowd. To Kristina Roth, founder of Mixoloshe, which sells ready-to-drink canned cocktails out of Miami, those labels sound a little too boring and serious.

"I like the term 'take an alcoholiday,' " Roth said, meaning a break from drinking.

"It's going to be good for you," she added. "It's up to you how much you want to bring down the consumption of alcohol. But we're here for you."

Bastasch says the Mindful Drinking Fest team might even spread to more places, growing along with the burgeoning movement.

"We want to put this on the road and go on tour," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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