The past couple of years have been tough for all of us in many ways, in the business world though, none have been more affected than the hospitality venues that are the hubs for many of our human to human social interactions. Zoom has been an incredible tool to keep us connected but there’s nothing better than meeting friends, family or colleagues for a bite to eat or a ‘drink’ (minus the cooking or washing up!) 

Together with our European neighbours we are easily the biggest consumers of alcohol in the world by continent and it follows that the ‘drink’ is not only an essential part of staying hydrated (and alive) but is seen as a conduit to connecting with others, sharing stories and building and maintaining interpersonal relationships - the key factors to being a happy and healthy human being according to psychologist and relationships expert Robert Waldinger

One of the major trends that has developed over the course of the pandemic (for obvious reasons) has been a greater awareness of both our own individual mortality and the ways in which we can practice behaviours that are likely to extend our time spent on this planet. Health, wellness, wellbeing and mindfulness are not new movements by any means but when faced with an existential threat they logically seem especially pertinent.    

If social interaction and healthy relationships are as important as they appear to be - loneliness and social isolation is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions and the ultimate punishment meted out to prisoners is solitary confinement - there would seem to be a genuine need for the places where we meet to ‘drink’ to also be places where other factors around health and wellbeing are deemed a priority. 

Strangely, the history of alcohol consumption is closely related to public health, in that widespread consumption was driven by the fact that clean water access was a rarity in urban areas of Europe as recently as the late 19th century. Drinking fermented, alcohol containing liquid, such as ale or wine, was a much safer option than drinking water from a contaminated source that might well contain pathogens such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. It made total sense at the time, and protected people from disease, but judging from the trends it appears that it may have taken another threat to our collective health to remind us that alcohol might not be quite the safe option it used to be.

So where does this leave the beleaguered hospitality industry - the bastion of alcohol consumption - who have built their businesses on the popularity (and healthy margins) that a thriving booze culture and consistent demand for more premium and attractive versions of alcohol containing liquids delivers? What is there to fill the gap? 

In the past few years two significant new categories have emerged that could do the job - No/Lo alcohol and Functional. 

The No/Lo segment is currently the fastest growing area of the beverage market. In the US in 2019 the off-premise No/Lo market was worth $291m and in 2020 the same category hit $3.1bn in revenues. These products tend to be versions of alcohol based products (beers, wines, spirits) that have either had the alcohol removed or have been built from the ground up to taste just like the original without the alcohol. There are some incredible products available now that offer the same flavour profiles and a wide variety of serves to fit any occasion. From complex spirits to on tap lagers and flavoursome IPAs the non-drinker or moderator doesn’t need to feel left out or short-changed when ‘drinking’ with friends. 

The Functional category on the other hand is defined by the ingredients in the product, be they adaptogens (natural herbal medicines that promote homeostasis) or nootropics (natural or synthetic substances that have some effects on thinking, memory, or other mental functions). Cannabidiol (CBD) can be described as both adaptogen and nootropic and offers the genuine, functional benefit of reducing stress and aiding relaxation without the associated issues with addiction and dependence that come with caffeine or alcohol. 

With the help of these two new categories maybe it’s time to rethink the relationship between alcohol and the social settings within which it is traditionally consumed. We all benefit from access to public spaces where we can meet, talk, eat, drink and converse so perhaps social drinking might evolve to be less about intoxication and more about relaxation and connection.

The people really putting this idea to the test are visionaries like the owners of The Virgin Mary Bar in Dublin, who have taken the pub experience and removed the alcohol entirely - a bold move in a city with a famous thirst for stout and whisky. In the word’s of founder Vaughan Yates “People come here because they want to taste great non-alcoholic drinks, they want to have a good night out and feel good the next day”. When asked why he chose Dublin he replies “If we can make it work in Dublin we can make it work in any city in the world”. And make it work they have… after a successful launch they have plans in place to open in multiple locations across the globe in the next 12 months. 

Who would have thought the great tradition of the Irish bar might be re-imagined as a place where booze plays second fiddle to a tasty sophisticated menu of non-alc cocktails and delicious functional tipples. All they need to add now is Guinness 0.0% on draft and the craic will truly be real. 

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