The Scoop on Low- and No-Alcohol Drinks

No alcohol doesn’t have to mean low-quality ingredients.
Mingle Mocktails’ Cranberry Cosmo is a zero-alcohol version of the classic (made popular on 'Sex and the City') with cranberry, lime, and a touch of orange juice. // Photograph courtesy of Mingle Mocktails

As a longtime veteran of hospitality and alcohol service, Emily Sweeney Handy knows more than most folks about choosing high-quality drinks, either at a bar or a store. She’s also racked up plenty of experience sussing out no- or low-alcohol alternatives — especially since she’s seven months pregnant when she sits down to talk with Hour Detroit.

During her work as a craft bartender at The Fillmore and as an event coordinator and accounts payable specialist at Grand Trunk Hospitality Group, Sweeney Handy has witnessed the rise of the mocktail and the evolution of nonalcoholic spirits, beer, wine, and ready-to-drink cocktails.

“Even before I got pregnant, I have never been much of a drinker,” she says. Now, she says, she looks for complex flavor profiles, and she has always tried to focus on quality over quantity in her drink choices.

The national zero-alcohol spirits category grew by more than 113 percent in 2021, while nonalcoholic beer, cider, and ready-to-drink cocktails grew by more than 30 percent, according to NielsenIQ data. A large part of that growth represents the variety now available to consumers. Just a few years ago, options for alcohol-free drinks for adults veered toward the sweet side, with a standard ginger-beer-and- blueberry drink here or a funky lemonade there.

Says Sweeney Handy: “Mocktails are really prevalent, but you have to watch where you get them from, especially if you’re watching your sugar.”

She has tried nonalcoholic drinks, including craft cocktails and wine, at spots all over town. The key to a good alcohol-free drink, just as with an alcoholic beverage, Sweeney says, is quality and understanding.

The quality of nonalcoholic drink alternatives has increased dramatically just in the last few years, but that doesn’t mean they’re a lot less expensive than their full-octane counterparts. Expect a spirit alternative to cost nearly as much as a similar alcoholic drink; Ghia, a top-selling nonalcoholic aperitif, retails at around $38, about the same as a premium bottle of Italian amaro.

As for understanding, a bartender’s experience and skill at melding flavors and textures can really help. Sweeney Handy has enjoyed nonalcoholic cocktails at several restaurants and bars, including Bumbo’s Bar
in Hamtramck and Flyleaf in Grosse Pointe Farms.

“After being a craft bartender for so long, I know it’s actually harder to come up with a nonalcoholic cocktail than it is an alcohol cocktail and have it layered and taste great,” she says.

She has also enjoyed finding Wölffer Estate’s alcohol-free Spring in a Bottle sparkling rosé at retail stores and wine bars in town. “It hits different when you can go to a restaurant and have a nice nonalcoholic cocktail or beverage that people put thought into and that makes you actually feel like an adult,” she says.

For the sober-curious or the full-on “dryhards,” the array of ready-to-drink options is growing, growing, growing. Cans of no-gronis, faux-gronis, aperiti-nos, and nonalcoholic spritzes demonstrate that the nonalcoholic drink is all grown up. Most well-stocked liquor stores have a few bottles of nonalcoholic spirits like Seedlip or Lyre on hand to mix with tonic
or soda.

Pre-batched cocktails like Mingle Mocktails’ Cranberry Cosmo, with effervescence and citrus notes, mimic the popular drinks they’re based on and come ready to pour and serve. Hop water — citrusy, dry, or piney hop- infused carbonated water — is also readily available; Short’s Brewing Co.’s lemon-lime Thirst Mutilator is made right here in Michigan.

Dana Haddrill, a sales representative at Oath Distributing, works with retail stores to bring both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages to consumers at liquor and grocery stores, and Ghia is one of her products.

“When I started with Oath, I had to do some convincing with people to bring in NA beers,” she says. “And then the next week, they’re [saying], ‘I need five more cases of that.’ They’re definitely getting a lot more respect now.”

Haddrill and Sweeney Handy have both found that in just the last year or two, bartenders and retail vendors have become more willing to devote real estate, whether that’s on the store shelf or the menu, to nonalcoholic drinks. The faux-groni has now evolved into a drink that will hold its own against its liquor-intensive peers. Says Haddrill, “If people aren’t doing something with NAs, they’re living under a rock.”

This story is from the January 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.