August 12, 2022   |   By Gabriel Fore, Sr. Account Manager, IMI, Certified Sommelier, National Beverage Strategist

A Sommelier and all-around bev geek goes “alcohol-free” for the summer and lives to write about it.

“Sight for the Blind” – spirit free cocktail at Montage Palmetto Bluff. Features fresh carrot juice, ginger, fresh lime, and a carrot ice cube.

Why are you doing this? The question I get most often when I tell friends and colleagues about my self-prescribed Free-Spirited Summer. Admittedly, it does seem like an odd time to deny yourself a refreshing libation… hot summer days, vacations, kids out of school running amok. And truthfully, there have been several times this summer when an ice-cold craft beer or perfectly chilled glass of French rosé would have been the perfect complement, escape, small joy to look forward to at the end of my day. Since you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say you can relate. Yet, I began to feel like that makes the summer the perfect time to take a deep dive into one of the fastest growing categories in the beverage world.

Choosing a time generally thought of as “spirited” to be free of spirit makes it harder. Harder means realer. If I were someone who could not, or simply chooses not, to drink alcohol, how would I find that refreshment elsewhere? What would make me want to have a second one, pay as much, snap a photo to share on social, get excited about it? Someone must be driving the explosive growth of alcohol-free products (certainly not me, previously), so what is that culture like? Are they seeing something we in the alcohol biz aren’t? (Spoiler: they just may be.)

If I want to truly understand this category – how to strategize for national accounts, what menu listings and design should look like, how the products should be promoted, etc. – I realized I was going to have to understand the culture and the people who are driving the growth of the category. And since I wasn’t naturally that person, I thought there’s no better way to learn it than to force myself to live it.

I’ve now been living this lifestyle since July 4th and have committed to continue doing so at least until Labor Day (the unofficial end of summer). Overall, I must report that it’s going well! Not easy, especially at times, but eye-opening, challenging, interesting, fun, and revealing. Above all, I understand the term “mindful drinking” on a new level, and while I do very much look forward to when I can pop the cork on that bottle of Ultramarine Rosé burning a hole in my fridge at home, I may not ever imbibe in the same ways again.

Ready-to-drink spirit-free canned cocktails from Un-Spiked and Lyre’s. Perfect for poolside!

So, what does all this mean or matter to you? Well first, let me clarify that I am not on some crusade to convince you (or anyone) to give up drinking or consume less alcohol. Nor am I trying to be a champion of the poor, persecuted teetotalers out there who can’t get a properly made cocktail or glass of wine to save their lives.

Spirit-free Whiskey Sour made with Free Spirits “Spirit of Bourbon” whiskey alternative.

I’m thinking about the fact that 40% of Gen Z-ers don’t drink alcohol and 50-60% of adults are now reportedly trying to moderate their alcohol consumption. Or the surprising (to me, anyway) statistic that 79% of alcohol-free spirit drinkers also drink ultra-premium spirits, and 51% of those individuals do so on the same occasion.

I feel this is something we must be paying attention to in National Accounts and given the long runway needed for programming and promotional development for large chains, now is the perfect time to start the process.

In an attempt to help, this is the first of a series of posts I’m writing for in the Mix to provide you with as comprehensive of an overview of the category at large as possible. So, stay tuned!

NOTE: I’m conducting my own RFP/RFI which is being shared with all brands in the “alcohol replacement” space. Strategically, the focus is not on energy drinks, mixers, juices, sparkling waters, etc. but rather products that consumers are actively substituting for alcohol and that are designed for that purpose. (If you’re a Supplier reading this and you have products that fit the bill, please let me know if you did not receive the RFP/RFI – it is live!)

For all you Operators out there, if you think this category is too small or the timing too soon, drop me a line. I’d love to hear more from your perspective, what your hesitance may be, and where there may be obstacles. I will use your feedback to help inform the research.

Until next time, I hope you’re having a free-spirited summer, with or without alcohol!

Gabe is a 23-year hospitality industry veteran who, prior to joining IMI in 2016, spent the first 17 years of his career in restaurant and hotel operations, including corporate beverage program development, multi-unit restaurant oversight, fine dining general management, and Sommelier. For the past 6 years, Gabe has worked as Account Manager at IMI Agency leading the Hilton Worldwide business and helping drive several internal strategic initiatives. As Senior Account Manager, Gabe now leads a team at IMI focused on program development, marketing strategy, and building supplier partnerships. He is a Certified Food & Beverage Executive and Certified Sommelier (Level 2) with the Court of Master Sommeliers. He is passionate about all things beverage, coaching and training, and finding new ways to overcome challenges. A North Carolina native, Gabe lives just outside of Charlotte with his wife, Allyson, two boys, Truman & Ollie, and dog, Foxy. When not working on beverage-related projects or carting the kids to soccer practice, you’ll likely find him at a local car or watch enthusiast meetup or enjoying an F1 race.