Sober curious? Head to LA’s non-alcoholic bottle shops


Lots of bottles, no booze. Non-alcoholic bottle shop Soft Spirits in Silver Lake offers a variety of distilled liquors that are ethanol-free. Photo by Megan Jamerson/KCRW.

How happy is a happy hour with no alcohol? At the tail end of Dry January at The New Bar in Venice, where all the drinks are alcohol-free, 20 people are shoulder to shoulder in a cozy space and it feels as lively as any bar. No booze? No problem, patrons told KCRW. 

“I'm trying to work on creating my own social lubricant without having to lean on something for it,” says Nick Morgan, 27, as he sips carbonated water flavored with hops. Morgan says he quit drinking for Dry January and now plans to take the habit as far as he can because of the potential health benefits.

“I feel like in 40 years, people might look back at me and be like, ‘You idiot, how much did you drink? You drink like 10 beers a week, right? And that wasn't even in college. You're psychotic. Why did you do that to your body?’” says Morgan.

Veronica Zin and Nick Morgan clink to a year of less alcohol at The New Bar happy hour in January. Photo by Megan Jamerson/KCRW.

Morgan’s not alone in this experiment.

The New Bar is one of a handful of new non-alcoholic bottle shops in LA that are making it easier for people to drink less alcohol year-round with options like pre-mixed aperitifs and non-alcoholic distilled liquors.

At their recent happy hour, drinkers referenced a 2018 study from the British medical journal The Lancet, which found there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. And then there’s a Gallup poll showing Gen Z is drinking less than millennials did 10 years ago. 

Morgan’s partner Veronica Zin, 26, says she’s cutting back because she enjoys the taste of alcohol alternatives and because of peer pressure. A lot of her friends are sober. “I can't be drinking alone,” she says. “It's kind of sad.”

Owners of non-alcoholic bottle shops are seeing the effects of this on their business. Jillian Barkley is the owner of Soft Spirits, a non-alcoholic bottle shop in Silver Lake that was LA’s first when it opened in 2021. Her sales are up 20% and she’s selling out of items faster than last year. 

Jillian Barkley opened Soft Spirits, a non-alcoholic bottle shop, in 2021 after spending three years using her Instagram account to catalog all the best restaurants and bars to buy alcohol alternatives. Photo by Megan Jamerson/KCRW.

It’s not because people are trying to save money. While a can of non-alcoholic beer is around $2.50, customers can easily spend $40 for a fifth of alcohol-free bourbon, gin or tequila — about the same as the regular stuff. If customers ask about the price, Barkley explains that the non-alcoholic version is made with a traditional distillation process and then the ethanol is removed after, which is even more work. 

“If the value for someone is the alcohol content, then maybe this wouldn't be the thing for them,” says Barkley. “But if flavor and experience and something like that is more of a priority, then I think it's just as valuable.” 

Barkley says her customers are sober, sober-curious, or sometimes pregnant. “I really just want to present the option and provide choice,” says Barkley. “It doesn't have to be such a binary thing where either you drink alcohol, or you don't have anything at all.”

It’s a significant change from the long-standing stigmatization of people who don’t drink, says Edward Slingerland, the author of “Drunk,” a book about our cultural history with alcohol.

“[Typically] people are suspicious if everyone's drinking and there's someone in the group who's not drinking,” he says. “That's a warning sign: Something's a little bit off with this person. And it's not fair. There's all sorts of reasons why people might not want to drink.”

Thirty-six percent of adults say they don’t drink alcohol. These more sophisticated alcohol alternatives, says Slingerland, offer people the chance to participate in social activities where culturally alcohol has played a central role. “This gives you a way to capture some of the benefits, the social benefits … but without ingesting ethanol,” says Slingerland. “Which is in fact a fairly dangerous substance to get physically addicted to.”

Americans aren’t marching toward teetotalism, and alcoholic alternatives represent less than half of 1% of the beverage market. But sales grew 20% from 2021 to 2022.  

Brianda Gonzalez opened The New Bar in the fall of 2022 where she sells low- or no-alcohol drinks. It’s LA’s second non-alcoholic bottle shop. Photo courtesy of Brianda Gonzalez.

This growing non-alcoholic industry is the last place Brianda Gonzalez thought she would find herself. Her father is a bartender, and beverages and food were always at the center of her family’s activities growing up. Now Gonzalez owns The New Bar, the non-alcoholic bottle shop in Venice where that happy hour was taking place. 

She started to learn about alcohol alternatives after her dad was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and she began looking for beverages they could enjoy during times they normally would have shared a drink.

“It's important to be able to share those moments with your family and the people you love,” says Gonzalez. “But especially when someone is not doing well. And you're looking for ways to bring back those moments of joy and those small ceremonies that can feel like a celebration.”

She took what she learned from experimenting with her dad and brought it to her shop, where she helps customers learn about the latest products during the day. At night she hosts community events at the shop like tastings and dinners for people interested in alcohol-free socializing.

“I think it's just a whole lot more fun when you feel like there's people along for the ride with you, and that those people truly care about making sure that you have a good time [and] being good to yourself,” Gonzalez says.