Thirsty for an alternative to booze? The non-alcoholic drink industry's got you covered

Whether it’s for health, religious or personal reasons, there are a growing number of people who don’t want to drink alcohol but also don’t want to give up everything about the experience. What they’re often reaching for is the non-alcoholic version of their favourite beer or cocktail.

Local distributors and restaurants are seeing a spike in demand for mocktails and alcohol-free beer

Two people drinking mocktails behind a bar
Bartender Alexandra Poissant and front of house manager Jake Hazel try the mocktails they just mixed up at Hunter and Co. behind the bar in London, Ont. (Mike Lacasse / CBC London)

A growing number of people looking for alcohol-free drinks are finding brewers and bartenders are increasingly willing to accommodate their tastes as options in the beverage sector expands. 

For David Janzen, a retail manager who lives in London, Ont., the decision to cut back on his favourite craft beers was for health reasons. 

"I've just recently turned 40 last year and, looking down the road, I've realized that the detrimental effects of alcohol are real," said Janzen.

He said he started with Dry January and noticed that he was starting to get better sleep and had more energy, but still wanted to enjoy a drink without the drawbacks.

So he turned to alcohol-free beer.

"I enjoy a good stout or a lager. It's the summer, you've mowed the grass, you're barbecuing or any social time where you normally would have that alcoholic product there, to have alcohol free has just been really great. It's still relaxing," said Janzen.

Shakers, non-alcoholic drinks and a "Sobri Sling" mocktail at Hunter & Co.
A setup of shakers, non-alcoholic drinks and a "Sobri Sling" mocktail on the Hunter & Co. bartop. (Mike Lacasse/CBC London)

Restaurant Hunter and Co. recognized the growing demand last year when they added mocktails and alcohol-free beer to their cocktail menu. Jake Hazle is the front of house manager of the London, Ont. establishment and said that it's been incredibly popular since day one.

"It really hit home for a lot of our regulars, and a lot of new people coming in," said Hazle.

Alexandra Poissant, a bartender at Hunter and Co., said that she's had people specifically request non-alcoholic versions of their popular items.

"Customers like that experience of having a drink at a cocktail bar without having to serve them a soda or just juice," said Poissant.

Hazle added that to increase the menu's variety, they've started buying from another local company, Designated Drinks, a non-alcoholic beer distributor. 

A couple sitting on the ground in front of cases of non-alcoholic beers
Mike and Kristen Norris, founders of Designated Drinks, enjoying a cold non-alcoholic beer. (Photo provided by Designated Drinks)

Mike and Kristen Norris founded Designated Drinks in 2021 and said interest has exploded in that time. 

"We get requests from customers trying to get a selection of non-alcoholic drinks into restaurants because it just doesn't exist right now. You're lucky if you can get a Heineken 0 or a Bud 0," said Kristen Norris.

But recently, Health Canada announced new drinking guidelines corking the recommended limit to two drinks per week.  That's when the Norris' said restaurants became far more receptive to non-alcoholic options.

"It's like they flipped a switch," said Norris.

They also believe that the 6.3 per cent federal tax hike on liquor that's going into effect on April 1 will play a role in breaking the ice for some customers who are still sceptical.

"People think because the beer is missing the alcohol, it should cost less. By adding that tax to alcohol, it really separates the difference between the price of a regular alcoholic beer and a non-alcoholic one," said Mike Norris, who notes the beer he sells will not increase in price.

woman in front of a wooden background
The owner of Dry Variety Drinks, Amber Wisniewski. (Photo courtesy of Amber Wisniewski)

Amber Wisniewski, the founder of Dry Variety, an on-line retail store for non-alcoholic drinks, said that she's also seen an increase in demand among consumers for non-alcoholic options since the excise tax announcement.

While she said she hasn't broken into the restaurant market, she has seen interest from other sectors.

"There are inquiries from other businesses for wholesale to sell in their shops," said Wisniewski. She said she sells to a flower shop, for example, that puts beer and spirits in gift baskets. 

"It's a specialty gift shop but word has spread quickly that she has non-alcoholic options and people have been stocking up," Wisniewski said.

She also said that businesses outside of the city sometimes approach her but she's focusing on wholesale within London, where she's based, as shipping is tricky. 

Janzen has found a number of beers he's grown fond of and challenges even the most die-hard beer lover to do a blind taste-test. He said he's thought about it enough to know that post-pandemic, many people's relationship to alcohol has changed. 

"As a way to help, if you do want to cut back, I think alcohol free beer or wine is certainly going to help you on that journey."