Chris Boyd was celebrating his birthday in a San Diego bar a few years ago when he had an Aha! moment. “It was a Sunday night, and the bartender was serving up some amazing beverages,” says the entrepreneur. “But after a couple, despite how much I was enjoying the goods, I stopped and switched to water.”
After all, he says, tomorrow was Monday. “Curiosity sparked at that moment for me: ‘Why can't I have proper cocktails without the alcohol, so I can keep on going tonight and be sharp in the morning?’”
In 2019, Monday Spirits was born, offering a selection of alcohol-free gin, mezcal, and whiskey. It joined a growing list of California-based companies, restaurants, and bars that are catering to people who still want an adult beverage—but without the booze.
A recent survey from NielsenIQ showed that 22 percent of consumers were cutting back on alcohol consumption, largely for health and wellness reasons, and that sales of non-alcoholic spirits had gone up 113 percent in one year. Likewise, research firm CGA Strategy recently reported that the no- and low-alcohol beer market had grown by 96 percent in the past year.
With a culture that values both wellness and thoughtfully created food and drink, it makes sense that the Golden State would also be on the forefront of the non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirit industry. Working with a master distiller from Los Angeles, Boyd and his partner created three flavor profiles for a non-alcoholic gin. Two were not so great, but lucky bottle No. 3 was so good, he says, that they celebrated with real gin and tonics. “We put our glasses down next to the test batch. About 10 minutes later, we realized we couldn't tell the difference between the alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and we knew we were on our way. We've been serving the mindful drinking movement ever since.”
A New Kind of California Craft Beer
A few years ago, Sausalito local Tate Huffard stopped drinking during the week, “mainly because I wanted to get up and go surfing the next morning,” he says. “But you also don’t want to go out with friends and have a bunch of sparkling waters.”
In an attempt to balance his love of craft beer with his desire to decrease his alcohol consumption, he started tinkering with zero-alcohol beermaking. In 2021, he launched Best Day Brewing, which currently produces a Kolsch, a West Coast IPA, and a hazy IPA. “Eighty to 90 percent of our customers are drinkers,” he says. “They’re just looking for a more mindful approach to drinking.”
Huffard acknowledges that he was starting from scratch. “I came at this knowing nothing about brewing—it was just curiosity and a hunch that this would be a thing,” he says. “So I started knocking on doors and researching technology.” When creating a beer without alcohol, he learned, “you’re looking for the flavors. The yeast, the malt, the hops, and the carbonation—all that good stuff.”
His flavor-forward approach paid off. Not only is Best Day beer currently sold in select Whole Foods supermarkets, but it’s also served at some acclaimed Bay Area restaurants, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Hog Island Oyster Co. in San Francisco, and Michael Mina’s The Bungalow Kitchen in Tiburon.
“Restaurants in California have always had this focus on sourcing and quality ingredients,” he says. “To have those as pillars of their beliefs, but then hand a non-drinker a soda or water, has felt like an afterthought. Restaurants are now waking up to that.”
“Our Kolsch is the most popular,” he says. “It’s light, crisp, refreshing. It has a unique flavor in a non-alcoholic space and even in the alcoholic space—a little nuance that makes it very drinkable. Whether you’re talking beer, wine, or spirits, these great non-alcoholic options are gaining traction because of the emphasis on quality.”
Cracking the Code on Non-Alcoholic Wine
Creating a good non-alcoholic wine comes with its own challenges, but California wine country has offered some solutions. “There’s a lot better quality than you could get just a few years ago,” says Julia Littauer, a Napa sommelier who in 2021 founded Sovi with another wine industry pro, her husband Alex. They were inspired to create a good alcohol-removed wine after they became parents.
“As a true wine lover,” she says, “If I’m going to have a substitute for regular wine and enjoy it with my meal, I want it to taste like something I actually want to drink.”
Non-alcoholic wine, she points out, is just regular wine that has had the alcohol removed. “When you’re removing something from the product, you’re changing it,” she says. So they tried different wine grapes, and “it was a lot of hit and miss. Some varietals work better than others.”
Their top selling Rosé, she says, is a Tempranillo from the Clarksburg AVA, just 40 miles east of Napa and outside Sacramento. “It’s hotter there, but they also get the breeze from the Sacramento Delta, so it maintains acidity,” she says. “When we removed the alcohol, it still had a lot of flavor. For our red, we blended Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Tempranillo, so we could balance fuller-bodied grapes with some with a little more acidity, tannin, or oak.”
“We’ve put a lot of effort into our winemaking and sourcing,” she says. “We follow the traditional winemaking methods, and we treat it just like traditional wine.”
Where to Raise Your Glass
The real proof, course, is in the tasting. Monday, Best Day, and Sovi all sell their products online and in select stores, but California bottle shops, bars, and restaurants are also making it easy to sample the growing segment. You can browse the shelves of two all-non-alcoholic shops in Los Angeles: Soft Spirits on Sunset Blvd. and Boisson in Brentwood. Both offer a full range of options‚ including Surely wine, made with grapes from Monterey County; beers by Athletic Brewing Co., brewed in San Diego; or the two non-ABV beverages made by Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma.
Traditional bars and restaurants across the state are expanding their “mocktail” options, too, moving well beyond the Shirley Temple. "We want to be inclusive,“ says Laz Jimenez, the bar lead at Brian Malarkey’s Herb & Sea in Encinitas, where the mocktail menu includes options like the Never Have I Heather, fueled with lemon juice, dragon fruit, and basil syrup. “There are so many reasons why people choose to not drink, so whether it's for health or personal reasons, we want them to enjoy a delicious drink that's not just soda. We use the same ingredients our kitchen uses, which means we're sourcing local and seasonal produce that's fresh."
To explore the breadth of mocktail artistry, belly up to the bar for a one-hour “Temperance Tasting” at Ocean Beach Cafe, located near San Francisco’s Lands End. The totally non-alcoholic beverage menu includes takes on an Old Fashioned, a martini, and something called the Cheeky Coyote, which combines non-alcoholic tequila with fig-balsamic shrub, raspberry, and lime.
Savoring a good drink—or a few of them—is about more than its ABV. “I really love beer,” Huffard says. “I love the way it can put a great cap on moments in life. But it’s not the alcohol you’re looking for in beer. It’s the culture and bringing people together.”