When Mel Babitz went to bars in her early 20s, she’d order one beer at the beginning of the night and hold onto it until she left. Babitz wasn’t much of a drinker — even a small amount of alcohol made her feel sick — but in the early 2010s, there just wasn’t much on tap for her to drink besides seltzer. “I would get my one [can of] PBR and no one would know it was the same one from hours ago,” she says. “Essentially, I was being underserved. I couldn’t go out and order something I wanted.”
For years, that didn’t change. Babitz worked at coffee shops and restaurants in Philly for many years, where she was given creative freedom to experiment. “I was always interested in what else to do besides put syrup in a latte,” Babitz says, so it was only natural that she experiment on herself, buying bottles of the few zero-proof spirits that were just hitting the market at the time, and making the nonalcoholic drinks that she wishes she could have ordered at bars. Before long, she was running pop-ups after hours at local coffee shops, where she would serve up cocktails without alcohol, learning along the way which new nonalcoholic batched cocktails were good, which nonalcoholic beers she liked, what nonalcoholic spirits paired well with which mixers. Babitz educated herself on a burgeoning array of drinks, expanding her knowledge of the nonalcoholic bottles on the market.
In May, Babitz decided to harness that knowledge by opening the Open Road in Pittsburgh, a bottle shop dedicated to selling only nonalcoholic beverages. She joins a small but growing list of business owners nationwide whose shops only sell bottles of wine, cans of beer, batched cocktails, spirits, and aperitifs that are 0.5 percent ABV or lower.
Over the past few years, beverage options for nondrinkers, the sober-curious, and those who just want to expand their drink options past booze have gone from the musty memory of O’Doul’s to hundreds of options, from beers and wines to spirits, aperitifs, and batched cocktails, either dealcoholized versions of the original or novel inventions. Following a wave of bars dedicated to zero-proof cocktails, nonalcoholic bottle shops tend to focus on batched cocktails in artfully designed bottles, wine proxies made with ingredients like caramelized pear, and so-called functional beverages infused with CBD, ginger, and turmeric — the brands really targeting the person who wants to drink without drinking.
When many of the best-known nonalcoholic beverages are highly marketed, Instagram-targeted, direct-to-consumer products, it might seem counterintuitive to open a brick-and-mortar space to sell what people can easily buy online. But owners of nonalcoholic bottle shops don’t agree.
Nick Bodkins, founder of Boisson, a nonalcoholic bottle shop with three locations in New York City, says relying only on e-commerce means customers have a higher likelihood of ordering something they hate. “[At wine shops], you go and you discover new producers and talk to people that know what they’re actually selling in there,” Bodkins says. He doesn’t think nonalcoholic shops need to reinvent that wheel. “Our retail component is massive because it allows us an opportunity to educate our customers.”
For shop owners, that education often comes from a place of obsession. For over 20 years, Danny Frounfelkner, co-owner of Sipple, a nonalcoholic bottle shop in Houston, worked in the hospitality industry. Frounfelkner grew up near Napa Valley, so “caught the wine bug pretty young,” he says. He worked as a beverage director, a sommelier, and director of operations at City Orchard Cidery in Houston, but when Frounfelkner was furloughed from his job during the pandemic, he saw an opportunity to try out something else.
Frounfelkner had cut back on his drinking a lot before the pandemic even started. “I had a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol, something that came from family stuff, conditioning, but also being a beverage director,” he says. “I had wine breath at 10 a.m. almost every day.” So when his job was put on hold, his professional and personal lives collided at the same time. As he saw the nonalcoholic beverage trend boom, he realized, “I can still nerd out on beverages and not have to focus on alcohol.”
Sipple started as an e-commerce website in January, then officially opened as a brick-and-mortar bottle shop in Houston in October — reportedly the city’s first. The shop is near Rice University’s campus, a decision Frounfelkner says he and his co-founder Helenita Frounfelkner made on purpose. “I know that the younger crowd — people in college and out of college — are pushing this movement and category forward.” Even so, Frounfelkner says Sipple sees customers from between their early 20s to mid-70s — all of whom offer any range of reasons when asked about why they’ve decided to shop there.
The most interesting challenge for Frounfelkner so far has been talking to people who have never tried alcohol. “A Mormon couple [came in] who had never even had a drink before,” he says. “How do you explain what wine tastes like? I kind of went into a whole different realm: ‘Do you drink water, soda, tea, coffee? What flavor profiles do you like?’ Finally after some digging, we got there.”
Shop owners also note that many customers are in recovery. It’s important owners and staff understand and explain which beverages still have a small amount of alcohol in them. “.5 percent ABV is roughly the alcohol content of a ripe banana,” Babitz says. “A lot of things that we consume in the food space have an alcoholic content we don’t think of: rye bread, sourdough, orange juice.” But for the people who come to the Open Road who want to not have any alcohol at all, Babitz knows which bottles to steer them toward.
“The top two questions I get are, ‘Is this stuff actually good?’ and ‘What’s the best thing?’” says Jillian Barkley, owner of nonalcoholic bottle shop Soft Spirits in Los Angeles. Since she opened the shop in September, she’s noticed some pushback on social media. “People on the internet are always going to have things to say. I hear a lot of, ‘What’s the point of this, who would want this, this is just juice.’ But I think with anything new, people tend to resist it, or not understand it.”
Like many physical spaces that exist outside of the mainstream, bottle shops are not just places for commerce: They also can be community spaces for people who don’t feel comfortable at bars or other forums where alcohol is present.
“The idea of nonalcoholic beverages can seem intimidating to a lot of people. I wanted to make sure that anyone who comes through our doors feels welcome no matter who they are,” says Apryl Electra Storms, co-owner of Minus Moonshine, a nonalcoholic bottle shop that opened in June in Brooklyn. As a queer nonbinary person, Storms says that they have historically tried to cultivate or be a part of spaces where they feel safe to be themselves, which translates to how they run the shop. “It can feel overwhelming to walk into a new place especially when you’re not drinking. There’s no social lubricant, so to speak.”
Storms hopes their shop can ease that awkwardness. “This is a really great space to have everyone together because we all have this one thing in common,” Storms says. Briefly, they ask if they can put me on hold — a customer has just walked into the shop. In the background, the customer — who is coming into Minus Moonshine for the first time — says to Storms, “I’m so happy you’re here!”