When Marvel Bar, the Minneapolis cocktail lounge, reopened earlier this month after a winter break, something was missing behind the bar: the alcohol.
Top-shelf liquors were replaced with an elaborate installation of dried flowers. A counter that once held 192 bottles of whiskey is now a bookshelf featuring, among other titles, Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” a pocket guide to herbs, and an illustrated volume on cats that live in distilleries.
The whiskey? It’s still there, just tucked out of sight.
These days, Marvel Bar doesn’t look much like a bar at all, in the traditional sense, anyway. Yet its bartenders are still shaking and stirring some of the most mouthwatering cocktails in town, minus one crucial ingredient.
As more Americans cut down on alcohol consumption, Twin Cities cocktail menus are evolving to meet demands for more than a simple seltzer and lime. “Mindful drinking” and “sober curious” movements, Dry January and Sober October are just some of the buzzwords — without the buzz — that reflect a surge of bar and restaurant consumers who want a drink, without drinking.
Marvel Bar’s dramatic new look is part of a four-month “exploration” into nonalcoholic cocktails, a program it’s calling “Dry” that includes classes and panel discussions, in addition to a new drink menu. (Traditional alcoholic cocktails are still available, but they’re downplayed.)
Meanwhile, customers at P.S. Steak can get a nonalcoholic negroni that mixes verjus (nonfermented wine grape juice) with a bitter soda. Travail’s Uffda pop-up has a list of “church basement punches” that riff on different colors of Kool-Aid. And Demi offers a multicourse “temperance pairing” of alcohol-free beverages with dinner.
“The best bars exist to make people feel welcomed,” said Nathaniel Smith, bar director for Travail Collective. “I don’t see why every cocktail bar in town wouldn’t have a section of their menu dedicated to a large percentage of the population.”
More than half of Americans 21 and older abstain from alcohol at some point in the year, according to Nielsen data. Half of those who hold back on booze say they do it for health. Other reasons respondents gave were weight loss, the price of drinks and bad experiences.
“It’s all part of the desire for a healthier lifestyle that has seen a corresponding rise in vegetarianism and veganism,” said Fiona Beckett, author of a new book of recipes, “How to Drink Without Drinking.” “Just as people are deciding not to eat meat — or so much meat — they’re deciding not to drink or only drink at certain times or on certain days. And there are so many more good options than there used to be.”
While beer consumption, for example, has been in decline over the past five years, increasingly popular nonalcoholic beverages including kombucha and sparkling water have grown into an $86.5 billion industry.
As with many health-based trends, millennials (ages 24 to 39) are fueling the movement to lighten up on liquor. More than two-thirds of American millennials say they’re trying to cut back on how much they drink, according to Nielsen.
While that generation has been saddled with blame for the demise of everything from golf to mayonnaise, it turns out nightlife isn’t on death row. It’s adapting.
“People our age aren’t going to go out and have a Shirley Temple,” said Eric Dayton, Marvel Bar’s co-owner. “What we’re making is every bit as sophisticated as something with alcohol.”
The 39-year-old quit drinking three years ago and immediately saw what he called ripple effects: He lost 30 pounds, slept better and had more energy.
But he was unimpressed with his options when he went to bars to socialize: cranberry juice and soda water were too limiting.
The drink scene has changed, he said. Dayton and others attribute the rapid rise of nonalcoholic cocktail menus to more bar professionals reducing their own alcohol consumption.
“People who work in hospitality are becoming more thoughtful about our health,” he said. At the same time, “it’s becoming more common to have a more elevated experience than what I was having before.”
Many bars now serve nonalcoholic beverages in the same glassware as martinis and spritzes, whereas a couple of years ago, nondrinkers typically got their sodas by the pint.
Having more varied drink offerings that actually look like cocktails can make all the difference for customers who don’t want to stand out, such as women in early pregnancy, who are expected to take temporary breaks from alcohol.
They have had to endure paltry drink selections until only recently. It’s an imbalance that’s not lost on the male bar professionals who are now abstaining from alcohol for their own health.
“When I started out in the late ’90s, there was kind of a generic term for a nonalcoholic cocktail, which is ‘My Wife’s Pregnant,’ ” said Jeff Rogers, bar director for Jester Concepts, which owns P.S. Steak. “We see pregnant people come in and they can’t drink for 10 months, and instead of throwing a bunch of juice together, we can come up with way more than that.”
Sugary, fruity drinks are indeed taking a back seat in some of the new nonalcoholic cocktails in Minneapolis. Take the Monarch at Marvel Bar. Syrup made from milkweed flowers foraged over the summer is mixed with rice vinegar, creating a concoction that tastes like an “adult watermelon Jolly Rancher,” said general manager Peder Schweigert. “The milkweed shrub is “floral, funky and interesting.”
On the fall menu at Demi, a dish of foie gras, apple and brioche was paired with a hard cider from Normandy. But diners who opted for the Temperance pairing received a mixed drink of cranberry juice, verjus and thyme that equally complemented the autumnal flavors in the dish.
But don’t call them mocktails. Menus seem to be abandoning a term that bartenders say is too cutesy, or too demeaning.
“At best, it insinuates that less seriousness or care has been put into a drink, or that it is lesser than, and that is not how I want any guest at my bar to feel,” said Travail’s Smith. “At worst, it’s insulting.”
“The word almost has the association of something for a kid,” said Tristan Pitre, Demi’s general manager. “I feel like a lot of the beverages we’re making are very much for adults. Flavors lean complex, savory, and can almost be challenging.”
Pitre said Demi’s nonalcoholic pairing was named to take alcohol out of the equation entirely. “Calling them spirit-free or nonalcoholic is always tying them to alcohol in some way,” he said. “By calling them Temperance pairings, they’re existing in their own world.”
The pairing runs $45 to $55. Travail’s punches, which incorporate ingredients such as sea buckthorn, switchel and oxymel, go for $7 each. P.S. Steak’s ersatz negroni is $9; a rickey made with vinegar and olive brine is $6.
It turns out that having a nonalcoholic cocktail menu is also good for business.
“There’s a bar in New York selling a nonalcoholic old fashioned for $19 to $20,” Rogers said. “People are drinking three, four, five of them at a sitting. Selling soda water versus a nonalcoholic beverage that makes people feel like they’re drinking with friends? Sure, there’s a moneymaking aspect to it. But that’s not why we do it.”
Besides, some nonalcoholic cocktails take as much thought and work and hard-to-source ingredients as the most complicated cocktail. And, it’s not just what’s in the glass that counts. Alcohol or not, bars are selling an experience — one that’s evolving with the behaviors of customers who are increasingly cutting back on booze.
“Each person has their reason for doing it,” Dayton said, “and we want to make them feel welcomed.”