November 04, 2022  |   By Gabriel Fore, Sr. Account Manager, IMI, Certified Sommelier, National Beverage Strategist

Free-Spirited Fall, Feature Series: Part IV

7 Easy Ways to Get Started with (or Sell-in) the Alcohol-free Category

Low-risk, logical, and requiring the least amount of time & money

As this is the fourth (and final) entry in my Free-Spirited Summer (and Fall) series of articles, you no doubt understand the alcohol-free category by now, or at least my opinions of it – that is, if you’ve been reading! Even still, there are a few things I wanted to summarize to provide some context before I leave you with a few possible paths forward.


It cannot be said enough that Gen Z, along with a sizeable portion of Millennials and a smattering of folks from other generations, is really driving this category. With Millennials already in their prime spending years, and the Zoomers not far behind, the purchasing habits of both are increasingly more significant as each year goes by.  And remember, it’s not “either-or” with this group: it’s both-and. 79% want both alcohol and alcohol-free options, more than half of the time during the same dining/drinking occasion. Not to mention the projected size of the category in general (see graphic to the left [1]).


I hear some of you thinking right now, “Ok, ok I get it – we need to do something with this.” Yes, but please make sure it’s listed properly on the menu and executed well, even if you only offer a few options. The number of times I’ve been presented with a hastily thrown-together concoction dumped in a water glass with no garnish as an alcohol-free cocktail still stuns me. I’ve had OJ at breakfast presented with more care – seriously. Another common occurrence is to not find an alcohol-free beer on the menu, yet after asking the server (and waiting for them to inquire with a bartender), behold! There is an option and, in some cases, a really good one. Just no one ever bothered to update the menu. Don’t be “that person”, or “that place”, I beg of you. It’s not hard to do this well:

  • Place alcohol-free offerings on the menu alongside their spirited counterparts, or in a special section if you have enough options to warrant it (not with soda).
  • Use modern and positive names, avoid “n/a beer” or “mocktails.”
  • Use proper glassware (coupes, old fashioned glasses, highballs, etc.) and thoughtful garnishes.
  • Train and incentivize your team to sell these items just as they would anything else.


1. Offer a free-spirited version of one or two of your most popular cocktails, or a popular classic

Select existing cocktails that can be made alcohol-free easily, such as by simply swapping out the base spirit for an alcohol-free version. Not only does this allow you to skip the mixology session, it’s also helpful for cross-utilizing ingredients and garnishes since you’re already prepping those for your existing cocktail menu.

2. Testing in key markets

Ah yes, the old “go-to” – let’s test it. While I do, admittedly, grow tired of this being the default response for so many new trends, I understand why it is. If you’re benchmarking and tracking correctly (see Article 2, about halfway down, “The Test”), then this is still a great way to get started.

3. Add it to a promotion or LTO

This is kind of another test, sure, but with the added benefit of having some additional collateral and incentives behind it (usually). It’s also a great way to promote or at least “bring along” another daypart without changing up the promotion itself.

4. Embrace Dry January, Dry July, and/or Sober October

Like an LTO, and perhaps it becomes one, another great way to get started is to embrace a time of the year where more people than usual are searching for alcohol-free offerings. This helps mitigate any risk of waste and if you’re feeling extra inspired, maybe you should even sponsor a company-wide challenge, perhaps coupled with a fitness goal of some kind (5K race/walk, daily yoga, etc.)

5. Piggyback on an existing trend

We all see the data and trend reports, the additional menu listings, and marketing on social media. The Aperol Spritz, Espresso Martini, Cosmo (believe it or not!) are all super popular right now, along with sparkling wine and low-no ABV craft beer. If you are concerned about the efficacy of this category in your or your customer’s business, start with a trendy offering, made alcohol-free.

6. Create a standard offering for banquets and events

It’s no secret, and thank the hospitality gods, private events and banquets are back. Chances are many large groups will have attendees who are sober, sober-curious, or abstaining for other reasons. Selling an alcohol-free bar or cocktail to an event allows you to batch the cocktail, sell all of it, and “crowd source” feedback from many attendees at once. Who knows, you may even become the place known for being inclusive of all types of guests – kind of a cool competitive edge, if you ask me!

7. Pick one sub-category and start there

If programming for this category is a large undertaking right now, you could begin by picking one sub-category (logically, one that is in line with your current sales mix) and do that really well. So, if you’re known for craft cocktails, don’t bother with alcohol-free beer or wine, just do three spirit-free cocktails at the same level as the spirited ones. Conversely, if you’re a sports bar, perhaps you skip the cocktails and stick to providing a beer style selection within the alcohol-free category. Three styles rather than one “token” option would make a huge impact without much additional effort at all.

BONUS: if you still feel like these alcohol-free cocktails and products are a bridge too far, consider adding a “low” alcohol cocktail option on your cocktail menu. This cuts back on the number of alcohol-free products you need to purchase, but still helps people find a way to moderate. For example, perhaps you’re ok with purchasing Lyre’s Agave spirit alternative, but buying their Orange Sec is just another product you’re not sure how much you’ll use. You can make a low-alc margarita by keeping the Cointreau in the recipe and only swapping the tequila for Lyre’s (or another tequila substitute you may like). From a mixology standpoint, if you’re going the “low” route, consider keeping the spirit (alcohol) that is the most challenging to replicate and swap out other ingredients instead. (For example: a Boulevardier with your favorite rye whiskey, Wilfred’s alcohol-free Aperitif, and Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso vermouth substitute. It is absolutely delicious and only includes 1 oz of alcohol).

No matter where you choose to begin, I hope you take away from this last article that just getting started somewhere is good progress. After all, it’s usually that initial hump that’s toughest to get over.


Well, friends, we are at the end of this series, but I certainly hope not at the end of our collective journey in the alcohol-free space. I set out this year to learn more about the culture, the products, and what it would take to be successful with this category in the on-premise and I do feel I have accomplished that, at least to a certain degree. If you’ve been following along, I hope you have learned something too or at least enjoyed reading.

I’m so excited for the future of this category in our industry. How often do we get something totally new? Even if meant to replicate something else, the methods in which they are made, the differences in style, the possibilities… it’s a fun time to be in the beverage industry!

Finally, if you are interested in doing more with this category and need some assistance, feedback, guidance, etc. please reach out to me. I’d love to explore how we could collaborate on that. My email:

Until next time, cheers and have a free-spirited holiday season, with or without alcohol!

I want to send a personal thank you to those who have reached out to me during this article series. Your positive words, feedback, and just the fact that you have taken the time to read this really encouraged me.

– G.

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.

[1] “Untoxicating Drinks for Sober October”, The New York Times: