At more Kansas City bars and liquor stores, even nondrinkers can toast to a night out
Wild Child will open in Shawnee, Kansas, this month with a focus on nonalcoholic drinks. The business will join the list of bars, restaurants, and liquor stores across the metro shifting more of their attention to a new type of consumer.
Drastic Measures is a James Beard Award finalist this year for Outstanding Bar, solidifying it as a leader in the realm of alcoholic drinks. But co-owner Jay Sanders believes he and his team can do more.
Sanders called Wild Child, a new bar he’s set to open on July 15 next door to Drastic Measures in Shawnee, Kansas, “a drinkery for everyone.” Traditional wine and cocktails will be available, he said, but the star of the show is the extensive alcohol-free drink menu.
“Our nondrinking friends have not been represented in this space and, while we may not be the first, we’re going to be the newest one to market toward them,” said Sanders.
He said his focus has always been on the experience of the bar, as opposed to simply selling alcohol. In the past few years, he noticed customers also putting more value in experiences without the need for a “social lubricant.”
Sanders isn’t the only one to pick up on the interest in alcohol alternatives. Across Kansas City, bars, restaurants and liquor stores are adapting to make themselves accessible to a new type of customer.
A culture shift
Josh Edwards co-owns Mitch e Amaro, a bar and retail shop in North Kansas City, Missouri, for cocktail enthusiasts. He first noticed an uptick in interest for alcohol-free spirits as the COVID-19 pandemic was easing.
“My interpretation is that during COVID people were alone a lot so there was an increase of people drinking more at home,” he said. “So afterward, the response to that was to seek out other options.”
When Mitch e Amaro opened in 2019, Edwards’ patrons seeking nonalcoholic spirits tended to have a serious reason to avoid alcohol, such as a chronic illness or newfound sobriety. More recently, he sees people using it as a tool to regulate their consumption without quitting alcohol entirely.
“It’s been interesting how it’s developed from an option for a small group of people to something that’s more ingrained in the culture of bars,” said Edwards.
Arturo Vera-Felicié, longtime Kansas City bartender and contracted brand advocate for BARE Zero Proof Spirits, said the industry-types call these customers “flex-sober,” or “sober-curious.”
Vera-Felicié said BARE estimates 32% of people who walk into a bar are potential nondrinkers, and that, by 2026, up to 41% of spending in the alcohol-free market will be in places like bars and restaurants.
“If you’re not engaging with the sober-curious, you’re just leaving money on the table,” he said.
And while Vera-Felicié said consumer data analysis by BARE showed a noticeable increase in overall alcohol consumption during the pandemic, younger generations imbibed 26% less between March 2021 and March 2022.
Younger Millennials and Gen Z are not engaging with alcohol in the same way as older generations, he said. “It’s not that they’re consuming fewer beverages, they’re just drinking less alcohol.”
The creation of Wild Child is meant to capitalize on this shift. Specialty drinks handcrafted by experts are an experience Sanders believes everyone deserves to enjoy, regardless of the alcohol content.
That’s why he isn’t satisfied with flavored syrups and artificial replicas of spirits from the past.
“I think most people are excited because they know we put a lot of effort into serving really cool drinks with culinary technique, and there hasn’t been much effort to do that for nonalcoholic drinks,” said Sanders.
Many of Wild Child’s offerings are crafted without direct spirit substitutes, but when Sanders is looking to emulate a classic cocktail, he turns to a process called vacuum distillation. The technique removes the pure alcohol from spirits while retaining the genuine flavor profile of the original drink.
A nonalcoholic negroni, for example, would still have all the bitterness and notes of juniper and citrus one would expect while measuring 0% alcohol by volume.
“If we can redefine what a nonalcoholic drink can be, (the customers) will feel that we made this just for them,” said Sanders — “because we did!”
An expanded selection
In The Brick’s 24 years of business, owner Sheri Parr has always included a few alcohol-free drink options. In recent years, she has not only seen an increase in interest, but a much greater selection of beverages to offer.
“There’s more things to play with now,” she said. “Nonalcoholic beers used to just sit on the shelf.”
Parr’s Crossroads institution currently carries four alcohol-free beers by Athletic Brewery: one inspired by a Mexican light brew, an India pale ale, a witbrew and a citrus infusion. They serve a Lagunitas Hoppy sparkling water and four flavors of CBD-infused seltzers. That’s not to mention the zero-proof spirits for cocktails, including tequila, gin and bourbon.
“A nice, balanced drink, whether you have alcohol or not, is fun,” said Parr. “It’s a small part of the menu and I don’t think everybody sees it, but those who are looking for it do and they really appreciate it.”
Edwards at Mitch e Amaro has also noticed a significant expansion of alcohol-free drink brands when he looks to stock shelves. He thinks the quality of the products has gone up too, along with people’s willingness to get creative.
“(Nonalcoholic spirits) started off as wanting to make things that taste like other things,” he said, “but why would you follow all the rules if you don’t really have to?”
People in the drink industry don’t expect that alternatives to alcohol will replace cocktail culture. Instead, they’re embracing the opportunity to grow with a new clientele alongside their regulars.