Non-alcoholic bars are cool, say the Brits. Will we follow suit? The owners of the upcoming Counterfeit Bar in Phoenix, AZ say yes.

Fruit mocktail. Credit: cherrylet

Fruit mocktail on a muggy afternoon in Gold Coast. Credit: cherrylet

In the UK, there’s a new craze.  It’s not in music, theatre, art, or fashion, per the usual Brit trendsetting.

It’s in their nightlife. An alcohol-free nightlife.

Non-alcoholic bars are popping up all over the country, and they’re just as various–swanky or friendly or colorful or full of character–as people expect regular bars to be.

With the added advantage of fewer drunken fights, calls to the cops, and nights ending in bloody accidents, these booze-free bars are drawing more and more clientele.

The BBC Radio 4 Food Programme recently featured a podcast showcasing the emerging popularity of dry bars in Britain.  The show’s presenter, Hardeep Singh Kohli, traveled around the country, interviewing their owners and patrons.

The Brink Liverpool

Stopping one patron outside of a non-alcoholic bar called The Brink in Liverpool, Singh Kohli asks what she thinks of the vibe. It’s “very, very calm and relaxing,” she says. “You never get any hassle in here…there’s no one swearing and no fighting, even when the football’s on. Which is a bit odd, because we are in Liverpool and we’re very passionate about our football!”

A large number of folks aren’t interested in the binge drinking culture in the UK, which many believe has gotten out of hand.  Liverpool, where The Brink is located, is top in the country for admissions to hospitals for alcohol-related harms.

Jacquie Johnston-Lynch, owner and manager of The Brink, explains the reality of the drinking culture in Liverpool and why things need to change. “Twenty seconds down the road there will be people drinking themselves silly…We don’t want to have that image anymore, we don’t want to have the image of drug crime, big drinkers. We want to have an image of people who are fit and healthy.”

In fact, Johnston-Lynch’s business venture has ties to a past marred by alcoholism. Not only was her entire community “steeped in alcoholism,” but her brother was also killed by a drunk driver. The Brink was born out of this experience, she explains:

And when the case came to court, this drunk driver was someone who had a series of offenses; he wasn’t someone who just left work one day and thought,”Well maybe I’ll have a quick drink on the way home” and got away with it.  He was somebody who had repeated offenses for drunk driving. And at no point did anyone ever say to him, “You may have a drink problem, how can we help you?”… I thought, maybe if this man had a place to go where he had an alternative and didn’t fell under pressure to drink, maybe my brother would be alive today. So [The Brink] was born out of a desire to save lives as well as give a fresh alternative to socializing.

But the patrons of dry bars are not only people struggling with drinking problems. “Joe and Josephine Public love to come here” says Johnston-Lynch. In fact, of the patrons visiting these bars, 40% are in recovery; 60% are not.

As Catherine Salway of the alcohol-free bar Redemption, quips, “It’s about having a night ‘off,’ not a night in.”

A business model that works

Contrary to expectation, the non-alcoholic option has been good for business, too.

Salway speaks of a “latent market” of 16 -24 year-olds who are drinking a lot less after watching how their parents have struggled with the damage done by alcohol abuse. “They think it’s a bit uncool.”

Catherine Salway's Redemption

So there’s a demographic niche here, a need to be filled.  And there are many people who for religious or cultural reasons don’t drink either. Salway observed that despite its cosmopolitan status, London didn’t offer a place with hip design, hip music, good food–but no alcohol–for the late-night crowd. So she started Redemption in East London, with plans to open a permanent location in West London.

Alcohol-free bars don’t follow the traditional model of the hospitality industry, which depends on the rocket-profits earned on weekends, largely fueled by alcohol sales, while the rest of the week lulls.

While dry venues might not make those kinds of sales over weekends, they can do well when traditional bars are struggling: during lunchtime, on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and in January, for instance.  Their model can bring in a steadier stream of profit, and while less exciting, it may also be a less mercurial, more trustworthy source of revenue in the long term.

Coming soon to the US?

Has the concept made its way “over the pond” yet?

Nearly.  After Liz P. and Paul B. of Phoenix, Arizona had one too many “just average” meals at chain restaurants and diners—the only alcohol-free places serving food at night—they came up with the concept for Counterfeit Bar.

Counterfeit Bar: "Good times you'll remember"

Its tagline?  “Good times you’ll remember.”

About a year ago, Liz posted on Facebook: “Wouldn’t it be awesome to go to a place with good food, good drinks, no alcohol?  Someplace upscale you’d take a first date?”

People responded, and as of this date, Counterfeit Bar’s Facebook page has over 5,000 likes.

It’s not a reality yet, though. Their business plan and concept are complete (along with preliminary menus), but now they need enough funding. This month, they will post their business plan on Kickstarter in hopes of raising enough funds and support to open their doors.

The United States has a long tradition of sobriety clubhouses and hangouts, often associated with 12-step programs. People can drink soda, eat food, play pool, and enjoy each other’s company.  So what’s the difference between a dry bar and a recovery clubhouse?

Liz describes it in terms of inclusivity: “An establishment like Counterfeit Bar is open to anyone; they don’t have to be in recovery.” The difference also lies in purpose: sober hangouts and clubhouses are havens for people in recovery, while the focus of non-alcoholic bars is on food and drink.

Sober bars can be purveyors of innovation and creativity in culinary arenas.  Food and drink pairings used to automatically implicate alcoholic beverages; now, terroir and palate can be discussed without alcohol. What goes well with sesame-crusted, seared tuna over a bed of braised bok choy and picked radish? A booze-free kumquat-tini with shiso garnish, of course!

It’s an important distinction that the description on their Facebook page points out:  “What we are not: a coffee shop, a soda fountain, or a juice bar. What we are: an entirely new concept with a focus on unique non-alcoholic beverages and seasonal ingredients.”

Counterfeit Bar has teamed with a professional chef, Jeremy Peterson, to develop their menus, which feature dishes like tempura pickles with homemade sweet tomato jam and Shepherd’s pie with heirloom carrots, fire roasted corn, sugar snap peas, chipotle smashed potato and gouda topping.

And of course, a full array of beverage possibilities, everything from specialty sodas to coffees and teas, mocktails to fresh-squeezed juices.

Once Counterfeit Bar is off the ground, Liz and Paul have their sights set on continuing the trend.  “It’s not just people in recovery who are interested in a dry bar; there’s a large Mormon community here that doesn’t drink, as well as a Muslim community,” says Liz.

“Part of our long-term business plan is to open in cities with big recovery communities and to provide jobs for people in recovery,” she continues. “People who don’t drink—I think it’s their time now.  It’s their time to have fun and be safe.”


Shaken not slurred: Fashionable urbanites revive a temperance tradition, The Economist

Booze Free Bars, BBC 4 Food Programme (podcast)

Alcohol and violence are so often intertwined, IRETA