The last Thursday in December, a capacity crowd mingled at San Antonio cocktail spot the Modernist. As patrons sipped cucumber martinis, a handful of customers put in orders for nonalcoholic cocktails, which ranged from a dry Manhattan to a take on an Italian classic dubbed the "NOgroni."
Without batting an eye, the bartender poured from a bottle of Ritual Zero Proof, a popular 1:1 nonalcoholic replacement, showing as much care with the mixing of the mocktails as with the tipples she'd served up moments before.
Maybe the sober patrons were getting a head start on Dry January, an increasingly popular start-of-the-year reprieve from alcohol. Or maybe they were looking to save their stamina for an upcoming New Year's Eve bash.
Either way, they're among what beverage industry experts say are the growing number of Alamo City residents joining a nonalcoholic beverage movement.
Not too long ago, "the one ordering a nonalcoholic cocktail would have earned a side eye from the bartender or a humorous comment," said Luis Muñoz, who recently became co-owner of the Modernist. "Now we get requests about our nonalcoholic options daily."
Ashanti Williams, bar manager for the Modernist, added that alcohol-free options are a focused part of the venue's cocktail program.
"We always encourage people who don't drink alcohol to allow us to make them something more complex than just a soda water and lime," he added.
Nationwide, NielsenIQ reported a 315% increase in online nonalcoholic and low-alcoholic beverage dollar sales over the 12-month period ended in October 2021. That compared to a 26% increase in alcoholic beer, wine and spirits sales over the same period.
Indeed, alcohol consumption in high-income countries has been falling since 2002, according to a study published in The International Journal of Drug Policy.
As more people become aware of the detrimental health effects of alcohol, Dry January and the "sober-curious" movement offers an opportunity for people to reconsider their relationship with booze — even if it doesn't mean cutting out spirits completely.
"As people reevaluate their relationship with alcohol, more and more people are choosing to abstain or moderate their alcohol consumption," said Rogelio Sanchez, co-founder of HASH Vegan Eats, which opened in 2020 as San Antonio's first and only full-service dry bar.
Although San Antonians' acceptance of nonalcoholic spirits has picked up in recent years, Sanchez's business faced a rocky start. In fall 2021, faced with slow sales and $5,000 in bills, HASH launched an online crowdfunding campaign to keep its doors open. Fortunately, customers stepped up, raising the money in just a few days.
Since then, HASH has steadily grown, according to Sanchez. That's partly because the clientele has expanded beyond its initial target demographic of people who embrace year-round sobriety.
When Sanchez was trying to launch his venture, more than 20 potential investors turned down the concept. Now that it's on a growth trajectory, Sanchez said he's the one regularly turning away investors.
As a growing number of San Antonio bars add nonalcoholic options, Sanchez said he welcomes the company. He also hinted that he may launch another dry bar concept in the near future, this one on the St. Mary's Strip.
With improvements in the quality and availability of nonalcoholic spirits, local bartenders said they're eager to incorporate them into their creations. Sometimes the new menu items even become a showcase for San Antonio-made products.
"When Dry January comes around, I get excited," said Brittney Geissler, bar manager for Park Bar at the Pearl. "Initially, I wanted to build a nonalcoholic menu for myself and what I wanted to see: cocktails that didn't compromise flavor. By serving more nonalcoholic options, we can highlight local manufacturers like Southern Syrups, not only local breweries or vineyards."
And in the hands of savvy bartenders, those ingredients can yield nonalcoholic cocktails that feel as satisfying as their boozy counterparts — which is kind of the point. Park Bar's sober mojito, for example, hits the same sweet-and-sour balance as the full-strength variety while offering a similarly refreshing feel.
Muñoz of the Modernist said he sees the local interest in sober cocktails and other nonalcoholic beverage options as more than a passing fad. To be sure, he thinks the market for sober and sober-curious customers is still underserved, at least for now.
"One-thousand-percent, this is just the beginning of this industry here in San Antonio," he said.