Free-Spirited America – Are We There Yet? – Pt. II
A two-part follow-up to 2022’s Free-Spirited Summer Series, by Gabriel Fore
By Gabe Fore | January 26, 2024
Welcome back or welcome-in if you are just joining us! This is Part 2 of a two-part follow-up to the Free-Spirited Summer/Fall Series from ’22, so if you haven’t read those articles yet, please take a moment to do so. If you are already up to speed, thank you for reading.
In this installment, I’m excited to take you through a look at some of the awesome national on-premise programming featuring this category and some signs of where we may be heading in the future. Grab a spirit-free cocktail or alcohol-free beer and dive in!
Part 1 (the previous article, in case you missed it)
- Consumer trends update
- Products and data
Part 2 (this article!)
- Lodging Sector Highlight: national, corporate programs and promotions
- What’s Next for the On-Premise
National, On-Premise Alcohol-free Programs and Promotions from the Lodging Sector
Considered by many to be one of the hardest segments in the industry to gain traction, at least from a national programming perspective, the lodging sector has actually been quick to jump on this trend and in some cases, do a fantastic job with it. Here are some of those cases:
Hyatt’s “Zero Proof, Zero Judgment” was one of, if not the, first on the scene from a national programming perspective. They’ve received a ton of press, such as this article from Travel + Leisure, which includes possibly my favorite quote ever for this category:
“All it takes is a few lines on a menu to make someone feel like their lifestyle and their choices are not only valid, but celebrated. That’s the purest magic that hospitality has to offer.”
– Anna Welker, Bar Manager, Hotel Revival, Baltimore
Without getting all philosophical on you, I think this is such a poignant way to express the importance of this category in our industry. Far too often we get hung up on trends, business outcomes, and sales results when it really must remain about hospitality, first. May we all be challenged to never get too far from the table, not to forget where the magic happens, when someone tastes something new for the first time, or is shown a surprising level of kindness. That is hospitality. And being inclusive of those who choose not to drink alcohol – at whatever time, for whatever reason – is hospitality, pure and simple.
Ok, off my soap box, check out the super-cool spirit-free cocktails you can get at Hotel Revival’s “Topside” bar in the image below. Note the inclusion of not just alcohol-alternative products such as Seedlip and Ritual, but also other non-alcoholic ingredients that help provide complexity, texture, and visual interest to create a fantastic cocktail experience, without the buzz.
Hilton’s Managed hotels, which includes brands such as Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Hilton, and DoubleTree, among others, were also early adopters of the alcohol-free space, focusing on marketing campaigns that provided not only timely offerings during Dry January, but served as outstanding examples for their properties for how to execute on the category at a high level. This group has launched back-to-back campaigns at the beginning of the last two years with a ton of success.
2023’s “Full Flavor, Low Proof” focused on offering a no- or low-alcohol cocktail, guest’s choice. The star of the show was the Lyre’s Rosa Negroni which could be made with either Lyre’s Dry London Spirit for a completely spirit-free experience, or as a low-alcohol alternative, The Botanist gin was paired with Lyre’s Italian Spritz aperitivo and Aperitif Rosso alcohol-free vermouth.
2024’s “Sip Without the Guilt” campaign also includes an option for both a low- and no-alcohol drink, as shown in this example.
At this point some of you may be thinking, “Sure, luxury, lifestyle, or large, full service hotels can execute this, but what about smaller or select service hotels, or bars without so many resources?” Hilton Garden Inn demonstrates that it can be done with a simple approach and still be impactful. Check out their current “Drylicious January” promotion in partnership with Heineken 0.0, including a chance for the guest to win a trip to Amsterdam.
Tempo is a brand-new lifestyle brand that is making waves with its free-spirited cocktails as part of its core programming and brand messaging. By default, every cocktail on the menu is also offered free of spirit. And not simply by swapping out a non-alcoholic gin, for example – each drink was reimagined by the same mixologist who created the spirited selections, to be as similar as possible to the full-proof version while remaining completely alcohol-free. The first location is now open in the heart of Times Square and they have also received a lot of press, specifically around their focus on free-spirited cocktails and catering to a healthier lifestyle.
Finally, to further add to the notoriety of this movement in lodging, if you follow Vibe Vista Awards, you may have noticed that both Hyatt and Tempo are finalists for this year’s Best Alcohol Free Program award. First, the fact that award even exists is telling for the category, but also note that it’s an award category which includes restaurant brands in its consideration, yet both finalists are lodging companies!
A Look into the Future?
While no one has a crystal ball, I think I’ve made a case in this follow-up series that this trend is here to stay – not as a trend at all, but a new normal. Americans all over the country are beginning to expect a lot more from the alcohol-free offerings they see on menus, and in case it’s not obvious already, I’m here for it.
One possible indicator of the potential for continued growth of the category and consumer “norm”/adoption is the rise of so-called “sober bars”. Think on this: if alcohol-free alternative products started their rise in popularity in the off-premise and e-commerce sectors, have now begun to infiltrate national on-premise accounts, and we see independent concepts popping up all over the country giving this movement a legitimate “cool factor”, all intersecting with a broader push for Health & Wellness – I’m not sure what else one would need to prove the longevity.
Imbibe magazine has provided a handy list of Sober Bars in its article “A Cross-country Guide to Sober Bars”, from October 2023. Here are a few standouts from my perspective, but please reference the link if you want to find one to visit yourself on your travels!
Sans Bar, Austin, TX
According to their site, this Black-owned, zero proof bar is “the first Non Alcoholic Bar in North America.” And while they are proudly sans alcohol, one thing stood out to me on their site that I think will interest readers of this magazine as well:
“This movement is about so much more than curated depictions of what it means to be alcohol-free. This is not prohibition. This is not an impotent rage against the machine of Big Alcohol. This movement is thinking bigger than viral hot takes and call-outs. Above all, we are inclusive.”
Right on, @sans_bar.
Umbrella Dry Bar, Raleigh, NC
Perhaps one of the most sophisticated cocktail menus I’ve seen, spirited or otherwise, this bar and bottle shop combo is all-in. Take, for example, Magdalena #2 with Jalisco 55, Free Spirits tequila, avocado pit orgeat, white verjus, tamarind, and cumin.
Or for something more approachable (and beautifully photographed) check out their Clarified Chai Colada with chai, coconut milk, lime, pineapple, cinnamon, vanilla oil, and El Guapo “Holiday Pie” bitters.
Hekate Café & Elixir Lounge, NYC
While certainly not the only sober-focused establishment in the big city, they do claim to be the first brick-and-mortar sober bar that’s open daily, and the menu does not disappoint. From stalwart cocktail bar favorites like the Jungle Bird (made with Lyre’s Spiced Cane, Lyre’s Italian Orange, pineapple juice, lime juice, Orange Clove simple syrup, and All the Bitters New Orleans) to an awesome selection of 7 different alcohol-free beers, and even classics like a spirit-free Amaretto Sour.
What do you think?
Are you seeing this growth with your products or within your operations? Do you feel a greater sense of urgency around developing or evolving this category with your brands or venues? Please reach out to your Account Manager at IMI or me – we are here and ready to help in any way that we can!
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.