Top shelf prices for booze-free drinks: Are nonalcoholic cocktails too expensive?

"Non-alc drinks are often more expensive and time-consuming to produce than their alcoholic counterparts . . ."

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published August 9, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Cocktails and cash (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Cocktails and cash (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

For a little over a year, I've abstained from alcohol. In that time, I've had some truly sensational non-alcoholic drinks at restaurants and bars, as well as enjoyed some zero-proof libations at home. This past weekend, for instance, I enjoyed a refreshing, not-too-sweet, peach-forward non-alcoholic drink while out to eat at a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, situated right on the banks of the Hudson River. 

Whenever I open a menu and see a few non-alcoholic options, typically at the bottom of the list, I can loosen my shoulders and feel a bit of reassurance. Yes, there are generally far fewer than their alcoholic counterparts, but that's okay. I appreciate having options other than stale ginger ale or cranberry juice

No matter the reason, there are many people who aren't drinking alcohol right now and the beverage industry is quickly catching up to that fact. Industry data from NielsenIQ, a data analytics company, the market for non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits grew more than 20% last year and more than 120% over the last three years.

The market for mocktails, or "non-alcoholic cocktails" and "zero-proof beverages," as industry professionals prefer they be called, has grown alongside the demand for alcohol-free spirits — and at $9, $10 and sometimes $14 a drink, it seems the prices for non-alcoholic cocktails have grown, too. In fact, when chatting with some friends and colleagues, I've heard a similar refrain: Why are non-alcoholic drinks so expensive? 

Now, it's probably worth noting that I personally haven't felt aggrieved by non-alcoholic cocktail pricing. I have spent inexplicable amounts of money on actual cocktails, so if a spirit-free drink is, let's say $9, I have no qualms paying that when the alcoholic version elsewhere on the menu is $17. For example, this past weekend, my non-alcoholic drink was $10, while the alcoholic cocktails were all $18 and up. 

That's the case for many bar programs, like the one at  Ruse Restaurant at the Wildset Hotel in Maryland. General Manager Tanner Collins told me that the restaurants' cocktails are priced at $15 while their spirit-free beverages are priced at $9. "Which I think is a fair price break due to no alcohol being used in the drink," he said. 

To me? That makes sense. Still, I get it. If you're not getting the liquor in the first place, you might be cautious about dishing out nearly $10 for a concoction of juices, syrups, extracts, sparkling water and the like. But according to industry professionals, there are some hidden costs and extra labor associated with making non-alcoholic cocktails that help inform the ultimate menu price — and it all starts with non-alcoholic spirits.

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"Non-alc drinks are often more expensive and time-consuming to produce than their alcoholic counterparts due to de-alcoholization technologies [and] the difficulties of shelf stability without alcohol," Douglas Watters, the co-founder of Dry Atlas and Spirited Away, told me via email. 

However, according to Amanda Blue — the president and chief operating officer of the Tasting Alliance, an organization which hosts and conducts several international spirits competitions — these spirits aren't just weak imitations of their alcoholic counterparts. 

"[They] cannot be ignored and need to be evaluated with a different lens than the average proof spirit," Blue said in an email. "There are judges who now specialize in low and no alcohol and zero proof mixology, who we utilize to set the standards and benchmarks of evaluation." 

Then on the bar or restaurant level, there's a lot of craft that goes into making an interesting, nuanced beverage, whether it has alcohol or not. Will Patton is the beverage director of Bresca in Washington, D.C., where he says the restaurant's "culinary cocktails" offer both accessibility and elevated flavor. 

"Instead of just making a mint lemonade, we want to add layers of complexity as well," he said. "In our Mango Collins, we use a Bare NA Gin which has a peppery note to add an extra dimension to essentially a mango ginger highball." 

(It's also worth noting, perhaps, that a bottle of Bare NA Gin retails for around $40, while you can buy a bottle of Hendrick's starting at around $35.) 

Chris Struck, beverage director at ilili NYC, puts a finer point on how non-alcoholic cocktails are priced. 

"No one should order anything that they're uncomfortable with the price of," he said. "This is why restaurants list the price of what they sell, so that everyone is empowered to make the choices right for them and their budget. This fact doesn't change the costs of the goods and services that a restaurant sells in order to exist." 

Elevated, intentional drinks require labor, skill and time — regardless of if they contain liquor or not — and the price point should obviously reflect that.

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Underpinning the question of how much non-alcoholic cocktails should cost is an even thornier question: Should a drink's value actually be determined by how much of a buzz it can give you? 

Many professionals who work in the non-alcoholic spirits and cocktail space suggest that it's time for us as a culture to redefine what makes a beverage celebratory. 

"We're conditioned to value spirits by their alcohol content, associating them with a certain buzz," said Victoria Watters, the other co-founder of Dry Atlas and Spirited Away, via email.  "It's about savoring complex flavors, enjoying shared experiences, marking the close of a long day, celebrating moments big and small and so much more. Non-alc spirits enable these rituals without the downsides of alcohol." 

According to Blue, we're already seeing spaces that foster this kind of enjoyment as specialized dry bars and restaurants, as well as zero proof retail outlets, continue to pop up around the country. 

"New generations of drinkers want to be able to experience the social aspect of having a drink without the deleterious health effects of too much alcohol," she noted. For so many in the nonalcoholic realm, there's something particular and meaningful that brought them there. As Douglas Watters remarked, "most brands in the space have a deep why that drives them." 

So, no matter if you're exploring the non-alcoholic world with gusto, sticking with your usual offerings or abstaining from both altogether, make the choices that make the most sense for you, whether that's based on your personal preferences — vodka over rum, lime over lemon — or your bank account. Speaking from experience, the presence of these non-alcoholic drinks can be immensely important for many diners and bar-goers. So, if there's a need to spend a bit of an upcharge to feel comfortable, it's certainly worth it to me. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Food Food Cost Mocktails Non-alcoholic Drinks