Sometimes the most surprising news is just around the corner. Literally. Two corners, to be precise, but who’s counting? A few weeks ago I was walking along Columbus Avenue, in the Upper West Side neighborhood, when inadvertently my eye fell on a shop window. The storefront was both unadorned and eye-catching. There was only one bottle of wine on display. Nothing else. Who on earth comes up with the idea of wasting so much display space to advertise a single product? It sounds foolish, but evidently the technique works: a few seconds later I walked into the store.
On the shelves of Boisson there were dozens of bottles of wine, but also beer, whiskey, and bourbon. Additionally, there was vodka, tequila and cognac. Not to mention rum, gin and vermouth, but strangely, I didn’t recognized any of the labels. Upon paying more attention I noticed that every single label carried the same hyphenated word — de-alcoholized.
We are not talking about products with low alcohol content, nor are we talking about fruit juices that are cleverly marketed in spiffy wine and liquor bottles. The entire selection sold at Boisson is the result of the standard process of fermentation which is fundamental in the production cycle of alcoholic beverages. But there is one additional step. Once the chemical reaction is finished the alcohol content is removed.
Okay, let’s stop here for a good laugh. Fruit juices camuflaged as wines? Barely drinkable sugary stuff? Bottles that look like the real thing but are just a marketing trick? Putting all preconceived notions aside, let’s see how laughable this commercial offer really is.
January could not be a more appropriate time of the year to talk about non-alcoholic drinks. Traditionally, it is the month during which many people decide to curb their drinking. They call it “dry January,” and in 2022, 35 percent of Americans successfully participated. The trend was launched in Great Britain in 2012 thanks to a non-profit called Alcohol Change UK. Ten years later “dry January” has turned into a global phenomenon that finds many supporters in the United States. Less so in Italy.
Let’s remember that we Italians tend to consume alcohol in a manner quite different than Americans and Brits. We — like the French and the Spaniards — are not especially fond of hard liquor but hardly ever say no to “un bel bicchiere di vino.” Most likely we enjoy two glasses of wine or even three, pretty much always accompanied by food. But our social culture is never about excess. We never chug it down with the clear determination of getting drunk. We drink enough to feel a nice relaxing buzz. That’s when it is time to stop.
Not so in America and the UK where the concept of “Let’s go out and get drunk” is quite common. Binging is a predictable part of the evening, it’s not an accident that happens by chance, as it might be the case in Rome, Florence or Milan. I am not saying that Italians never drink to an excess. Especially young people seem to have picked up binging habits from their American counterparts. But for the most part getting drunk is frowned upon. Therefore, the trend towards de-alcoholized wine and spirits sounds foreign to Italian ears. And so are “mocktails”, a clever way to rename mixed drinks that mock the concept of a cocktail.
The trend was covered recently by the website The Gothamist that sent out a reporter on the town to discover the hottest clubs and bars in New York that attract patrons through their generous offers of mocktails. On of them is called Absence of Proof, a bar that offers for example spicy tequila-free margaritas. Another “dry” New York City bar is called Hekate Café & Elixir Lounge and it opened in the fall on Avenue B, in the East Village. One can enjoy a piña colada without rum or a prosecco with all alcohol removed. The Gothamist journalist reports also from regular bars like Sunny’s in trendy Red Hook, where the demand for mocktails is such that bartenders had to adapt.
“It’s growing faster than any other category of beverages,” Nick Bodkins, the co-founder of Boisson, was quoted recently on Cnn. “The data doesn’t lie, but look at the best bars and restaurants and you’ll have all the validation you need.”
Even the New York Times took notice and in early January published a list of the eight best nonalcoholic wines — red, white, and rosé. Personally, I find the reds still wanting. Without alcohol they lose the bite that makes them interesting. Some whites work quite well, but the best attempts are in the bubbly rosé category.
Things in the world of de-alcoholized wines and spirits are happening so fast that in early January Boisson announced that it was going national. It struck a deal with Drizly, a nationwide wine and liquor e-commerce concern that is part of the Uber giant. Now, in its portfolio it carries 125 brands of de-alcoholized beverages. For Boisson it is a life-changing expansion. Launched in 2021 in New York within a year it had grown to three stores in New York, two in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco.
What we are learning is that dry January is just the tip of the iceberg. Young urban Americans are drinking less alchoholic beverages, replacing them year-round with zero-alcohol or de-alcoholized choices. One parallel comes to mind: there was a time when smoking cigarettes in America was ever present. Even in Hollyood movies stars always smoked. It is astounding how quickly America moved away from cigarettes. Are we going to see a similar trend in wines, beers, and spirits?
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