Free-Spirited America – Are We There Yet?

A two-part follow-up to 2022’s Free-Spirited Summer Series, by Gabriel Fore


By Gabe Fore | January 18, 2024


It’s been a little over a year since my last article in the Free-Spirited Summer/Fall series, and with Dry January upon us, we thought it would be a good time to circle back on the category that just keeps surprising so many of us.

We left off last time acknowledging the culture that was driving the proliferation of new, exciting products, what makes for great menu programming and execution of the category, and some low-hanging fruit type ways to get started. If you missed any of that, please go back and give it a read!

If you’re already up to speed, you’re in the right place. We have decided to split the follow-up to this category into two parts to keep out of tl;dr territory. So read on and plan to come back next week for the second installment.

 Part 1 (this article!)

  • Consumer trends update
  • Products and data

 Part 2 (next week)

  • Good examples of corporate programs and national promotions
  • What’s next for the On-Premise (Hint: ever been to a “Sober Bar”??)

Consumer Trends for Alcohol-Free

Overall, the category is up 31% from a year ago, according to a recent report from Nielsen. Great news for those who have invested in the category or just personally enjoy it – that is some healthy growth off a not-as-small base. Part of what is driving that growth is the ever-growing popularity of social movements like Dry January, which we are all more than familiar with now. Anecdotally, there are more people in my life this year than ever before who I know are participating, including yours truly (I may have cheated a little on my birthday a couple weekends ago….) But don’t just take my word for it, recent survey results provided by Civic Science shows the growth in both “Very likely” to participate and “Somewhat likely”.

Big months like Dry January aside, there has been a marked increase in adoption of the category by alcohol drinkers, as well. I previously quoted that 79% of alcohol-free spirit drinkers also consume products containing alcohol. That number has purportedly now risen to 94%. Indeed, more alcohol consumers are experimenting with these new products and the so-called “Sober Curious Movement”.

“The ‘sober curious’ movement is not just a fleeting trend. It’s a shift in the way people and generations are interacting with and thinking about alcohol use. The movement refers to individuals becoming more mindful of their alcohol consumption without necessarily committing to complete abstinence.”

“According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2020, the percentage of college students aged 18 to 22 in the United States who stated that they refrained from drinking alcohol rose from 20% in 2002 to 28% in 2018.”

– Forbes, “Understanding the ‘Sober Curious’ Movement”.

You may ask, “Wait – how is data from 2020, commenting on trends from ’02 – ’18 an ‘update’ on this consumer in 2024?” I feel it helps illustrate the long-term nature of this trend and its staying power. In fact, as the quote mentions above, I don’t think it’s just a trend – it’s a societal shift that’s continuing to become the norm.

I want to be clear at this point that I am not trying to say that alcohol is doomed. Rather, as people are becoming more mindful of their drinking, they’re being choosier as to what to drink and when to enjoy those libations. So far, that just means quality over quantity in most instances, which is something I think we can all get behind, at least in time.

Consider this: according to Nielsen, the alcohol free + alcohol consumer (those who regularly purchase both, which is where the trend has been heading all along) spend on average $783 a year in a store – $292 more than an alcohol-only household! The “premiumization” trend we’ve all been monitoring on a parallel path for the past several years is on full display here, intersecting with both alcohol and alcohol-free products. We just need to provide the right choices, as always.

You may have been thinking, “ok but this is being driven by the Off-premise and e-commerce sectors, right?” Yes, that’s true, but the On-Premise is very quickly coming alongside and, I believe, it is really about to pick up speed (more on that in Part 2).

“Around 1 in 7 of all On-Premise visitors drink non-alcoholic alternatives, rising to a quarter of under 35s. This highlights the opportunities for non-alcoholic options in the On-Premise as the various sub-categories grow in popularity.”

 – Nielsen CGA, July 2023

Alcohol-Free Product Data

While there has been some growth in terms of launching new products, over half have been line extensions, so as far as the on-premise is concerned, the products we discussed before (and others from the same suppliers/manufacturers) are still where I believe the focus should be. We are just beginning to get our arms around this category from a national On-Premise programming perspective – as fun as it is to experiment, introducing additional products (aside from flavors) is likely a bit premature, unless you’re further ahead than most I’ve seen!

So, in lieu of a discussion around new products, here’s what the updated data is telling us about On-Premise opportunities, in terms of creating a “wow” with guests and driving dollar sales.

Cocktails

Consumers interested in this category are going to find beer and wine the most accessible in Off-Premise retailers. Cocktails are more difficult to experience at home, require more ingredients and a bit of skill or at least research. That said, alcohol-free spirits are growing at +94% vs. YA, so the interest is certainly there. If we in the On-Premise use our outstanding mixology skills and resources in to develop compelling alcohol-free cocktails, the sales will surely come. Just make sure they are done well!

Which brand(s) should you focus on? Well, as with alcohol, that depends greatly on your operation and needs. But the data shows that Ritual is the top spirit-free alternative brand (Nielsen), with Seedlip still close behind. That’s specifically in the Off-Premise, but keep in mind with such a new category, it’s worth noting what consumers are most used to seeing in other venues.

Final note on cocktails: data shows that Health & Wellness is what is truly behind this shift towards alcohol-free product consumption. So, being sure to highlight the additional health and wellness attributes of a product (if applicable) could really help sales. Conversely, making a sugary concoction with alcohol-free products or adding other less healthy ingredients likely won’t help your sales. Not every cocktail needs to be “fully functional” with adaptogens, nootropics, or CBD, but don’t negate the interest in the products with other ingredients that defeat the purpose (to many).

RTDs

RTD’s (or “pre-mixed”, as Lyre’s refers to them) are another category that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially by our lodging clients. They now hold the largest share of the alcohol-free spirits category (32%, mid-way through 2023) and are still growing at 160% YOY. Keep in mind those based on Whiskey and Tequila counterparts are likely to do the best, according to Nielsen data. I’d wager these are certainly worthy of some share of that coveted retail and grab & go cooler space.

Beer

Overall, NA craft has 28% of the alcohol-free beer share, with NA domestic premium not far behind at 16%. However, don’t sleep on NA Super Premium beers, they had the second highest growth % vs YA (at +66.5%), mid-way through ’23 — second only to NA craft (at +78.2%). I still maintain the best way to see the potential of this sub-category is to focus on offering multiple styles – such as Heineken 0.0 alongside Athletic Brewing’s Free Wave Hazy IPA – and being sure they are listed along with the other beers on your menu, so they aren’t missed.

Wine

When it comes to wine, Sparkling still has the largest share, and understandably so. In my experience, it is by far the closest to the “real thing” in terms of flavor but also experience. In addition, it can easily be used in many cocktail recipes, both to create a low-alcohol version of a Spritz, for example, or in creating a completely spirit-free drink.

When it comes to still wine, Frē has been the top brand for a long time, but Giesen is close behind and beat them in absolute dollar change growth last year. In speaking with the winemakers/owners of Giesen, their process is incredibly effective at creating a similar wine experience and they are committed to long-term improvement of that process and the final product. If you haven’t tasted Giesen 0% recently, I’d recommend revisiting.

What do you think?

That wraps it up for Part 1’s update on trends and data! As mentioned at the top, stay tuned for next week’s Part Two article. In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you: 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 myself if we can be of any assistance!

Data sources:

Growth Drivers and the Non Alcohol Consumer, NIQ, August 2023.

https://civicscience.com/dry-january-interest-is-up-this-year-with-3-in-4-gen-z-adults-planning-to-abstain/

Forbes, “Understanding the ‘Sober Curious’ Movement

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.