Salt Lake City is getting its first alcohol-free bar, joining a hot national trend

Call it zero proof, N.A. or “buzz-free” — more people want to drink without getting drunk.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raegan Plewe mixes a drink at Curiosity, a new sober bar scheduled to open in May. The photo was taken Friday, April 29, 2022.

Salt Lake City will have its first zero-proof cocktail bar opening later this month — picking up on a national trend that, despite what jokes one might make, didn’t start in Utah’s predominantly tee-totaling culture.

The upcoming opening of Curiosity, at 145 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, follows the lead of Ogden’s WB’s Eatery, which has been offering non-alcoholic cocktails — not merely “mocktails” — since November 2019.

According to Eater.com, the trend first took root in New York City and Chicago. It landed in hip Portland in January. A couple of Salt Lake City restaurants — the vegan eatery Zest and the American cuisine restaurant Oquirrh — have been ahead of the curve, serving alcohol-free cocktails alongside drinks with spirits.

Not drinking is increasingly the It Thing. Several trend forecasters say 2022 is the breakthrough year for nonalcoholic adult drinks; Yahoo! Finance reported last October that web searches for N.A. drinks increased almost 50%, and that the N.A. market is expected to expand to $1.7 trillion by 2028.

Reasons for the rapid growth of zero-proof vary: A boomerang effect following heavy drinking during the pandemic, the legalization of CBD, and increasingly health-conscious millennials and Gen Zs. Some give up drinking on the short term during pregnancy or marathon training; others give it up forever.

Whatever the reason, these N.A.-adopters love the ritual of drinking, and the social aspect of bars — without the side effects of alcohol. But they also reject cloyingly sweet “mocktails” and vapid near-beers. For those who have decided to forgo alcohol, there are more local options than ever.

An N.A. pioneer in Ogden

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) WB's Eatery co-founder ViVi Wanderly-Britt creates a non-alcoholic Hurricane Suzanne in the restaurant, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. WB's Eatery serves non-alcoholic craft cocktails and has created a full boutique Dry Bottle Shop that has a large selection of non-alcoholic spirits, wine, mixers and curated dry cocktail kits for those who enjoy the ritual of cocktails but without the alcohol.

WB’s Eatery sold non-alcoholic spirits when it opened in November 2019. Amy and Vivi Wanderly-Britt (who also own Pig and a Jelly Jar locations in Ogden, Salt Lake City and Holladay) quit drinking nearly a decade ago, but being in the bar and restaurant business, loved the ritual of mixing drinks and hanging out.

“Back then, we had two or three options for spirits, and we were trying to figure out how we could offer craft non-alcoholic cocktails. Not just a virgin option,” Vivi said. “Because usually those are filled with sugar. What was important to us was how can we offer something that you can pair with food that’s going to enhance your experience?”

Vivi said when they went to dinner, they found the N.A. options were usually soda, tea or a virgin pina colada. “Amy always said, ‘Why do we have to sit at the kids’ table?’” Vivi said.

Out of frustration, they started experimenting with non-alcoholic mixed drinks both at home and in the restaurant. The first brand they used was U.K.-based Seedlip, considered the world’s first distiller of zero-proof spirits. Vivi said she was shocked at her first taste of the gin: “It actually tastes like gin!”

Their second find was Australian zero-proof distillery Monday. Knowing cell phones listen in on conversations and offer ads based on what they hear, Amy began talking about zero-proof spirits at every opportunity, hoping algorithms would offer up other N.A. brands.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) WB's Eatery co-founder ViVi Wanderly-Britt pulls down a zero-proof bottle of spirits in the restaurant, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. WB's Eatery serves non-alcoholic craft cocktails and has created a full boutique Dry Bottle Shop with a large selection of non-alcoholic spirits, wine, mixers and curated dry cocktail kits for those who enjoy the ritual of cocktails but without the alcohol.

By the time the Wanderly-Britts opened Utah’s first boutique dry bottle shop at WB’s earlier this year, they were able to offer several shelves of non-alcoholic spirits, including bourbon, whiskey, gin, rum, vodka and aperitifs, as well as dealcoholized red and white wines, N.A. beers, kombuchas, barware and other accessories.

“The point is, we want to offer hospitality to everyone,” Amy said.

Vivi said some N.A. brands distill or ferment using traditional methods, then use a dealcoholization process. Others, like Ritual, mimic the flavor — its rum is made with honey, cinnamon, ginger, clove and apricot.

Dealcoholized spirits, wine and beer may have a trace of alcohol in it, like kombucha, Amy said. The process requires a $300,000 piece of equipment, but with the demand growing, traditional vineyards, breweries and distilleries are investing in adding N.A. bottles to their offerings. Two labels the Wanderly-Britts like in particular are Surely, which they say offers a superior cabernet, and Luminaria.

“We have people ask us, why would I pay for this what I’d pay for full-proof? And I say, it’s the craft and the process,” Amy said. “It’s a lifestyle approach. We are willing to pay more to have this quality brought back into our lives.”

Though zero-proof drinks are about avoiding intoxication with alcohol, they’re not necessarily about avoiding mood-altering substances — WB’s sells its own brand of CBD drops, for adding to cocktails.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) WB's Eatery offers a selection of non-alcoholic spirits in the restaurant's Dry Bottle Shop including bourbon, whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, and aperitifs, as well as a large selection of red and white varietals from Italy, Spain, New Zealand, and California, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. WB's Eatery has created a full boutique Dry Bottle Shop with a large selection of non-alcoholic spirits, wine, mixers and curated dry cocktail kits for those who enjoy the ritual of cocktails but without the alcohol.

“The younger generation is driving the industry, because they’re looking for something healthier, and the legalization of cannabis in a lot of states is at play,” Vivi said, adding she takes WB’s CBD drops in her morning coffee for their anti-inflammatory properties.

“Statistically, you can see the rise [in cannabis use] with non-alcoholic spirits, and in the non-alcoholic beers, they usually have a cannabis line,” Amy added.

WB’s also carries popular national CBD brands MiLLi and Ouid (pronounced “weed”). But CBD isn’t the only mood-altering substance added to N.A. drinks. The shop stocks Kin Euphorics, which blends its drinks with “nootropics” — herbs, medicinal mushrooms, amino acids and neurotransmitters like GABA.

CBD and even herbs aren’t for everyone, and some just want something flavorful and healthy that isn’t soda or tea. Noughty, Vivi said, just signed a contract with Virgin Airlines. Heineken, which spent years developing its “0.0″ beer, advertises it at Formula 1 races and European soccer matches. And California’s Athletic Brewing Co. only does N.A. beers.

“I was just talking to our rep,” Vivi said. “He said he used to work in the liquor industry before. He has never been so busy in his entire career. This category is exploding.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r WB's Eatery's non-alcoholic Hurricane Suzanne, Skywalker Margarita and Lemon Caipirinha, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. WB's Eatery serves non-alcoholic craft cocktails and has created a full boutique Dry Bottle Shop with a large selection of non-alcoholic spirits, wine, mixers and curated dry cocktail kits for those who enjoy the ritual of cocktails but without the alcohol.

Salt Lake’s first zero-proof bar

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Curiosity, a sober bar in Salt Lake City photographed April 29, 2022, has been struggling amid construction in front of the establishment, and the two co-owners are calling on the community to help them stay open.

Reagan Plewe and Erica Bruin are co-owners of Curiosity, Salt Lake City’s first completely zero-proof bar, which is slated to open this month.

Bruin, who’s married to Plewe’s mother, said they both came to the same realization at the same time: they didn’t want to drink anymore. Bruin overconsumed alcohol during the pandemic and, as a result, went on what she calls a “sober journey.”

“I missed the ritual of having a drink and making a drink, going places and having a drink. You can kind of do that — some restaurants have mocktails, but they’re just not what I was after,” she said.

Bruin’s initial idea was to start a zero-proof bottle shop. Plewe, who has worked in bars, said she found her system increasingly reacting to alcohol, and moved away from drinking it. She also started experimenting with nonalcoholic mixed drinks.

They found themselves in the same headspace at the same time, and wanted to collaborate on the shop. Plewe, with her background in art and specialty coffee (she once combined those two skills in an art installation centered around flavor and tasting), wanted to do more than retail.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erica Bruin and Raegan Plewe mix a drink at Curiosity, a new sober bar scheduled to open in may. Friday, April 29, 2022.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we make it a social experience?’ Not just bring people in to buy bottles, but to taste things with us, and show them what they can do with the ingredients,” Plewe said. “We drew inspiration from different companies, like there are a lot in New York and L.A., but really there’s nothing exactly like this in Utah, doing the bottle shop and bar, and tastings and coffee and tea.”

Bruin said she’s an entrepreneur at heart — she also runs Hive Market in Trolley Square — and Curiosity became a reality in the matter of months. Plewe and Bruin found a former floral shop on 145 E. 900 South, a few doors west of Randy’s Records and Jed’s Barber Shop. They gutted the interior, then built it out and painted it themselves.

The shop is now outfitted with a small bottle shop and handmade green tiled tables and counters. The sign, designed by Plewe and installed in February, is one of the most eye-catching on 900 South. She said the sign, true to the name, has lured a lot of people to the front door to ask what they’re up to.

The idea behind the name, Plewe said, is “about being curious about ingredients past alcohol. It showcases that there’s so much more out there. Not just ingredients, but consciousness. What does it mean to connect when you’re not dulling your senses? We’re trying to get people to be curious about new ingredients, and new experiences.”

Plewe and Bruin said it can be hard to make mixed drinks with an interesting flavor profile without leaning on sweetness, which is what old-school mocktails tend to do, though the wide variety of new zero-proof spirits has made that much easier.

“They’re like capturing that same flavor profile as a whiskey, or a gin, or a mezcal,” Bruin said. “They’re using herbs and they’re doing a lot of unique things. It’s hard to mimic alcohol, right? But it’s close.”

They try not to use the word “mocktail,” except when trying to explain what they’re doing to people who have no concept of zero proof. “We’re not mocking anything,” Plewe said. “We’re exploring mixed drinks without alcohol. A lot of bars actually have started using these spiritless spirits as a base to build a drink.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Curiosity, a new sober bar on 900 South in Salt Lake City, scheduled to open in May. Friday, April 29, 2022.

Like WB’s, Curiosity also stocks Seedlip, which Plewe said used old apothecary recipes from the 19th century as a starting base for its spirits.

“They were recipes for things that were used for medical purposes,” she said, “So they would use herbs, and steep them, but then strain the alcohol out, so the medicinal quality of the herbs were still there.”

Unlike WB’s, Curiosity isn’t CBD-focused, but does stock brands like Kin, which uses herbs and nootropics, and Three Spirit, which mixes in ingredients like L-theanine, caffeine and ginseng.

“It’s replacing the euphoria that alcohol can give you,” Bruin said. “They have one called Enlightener, one called Social, and Nightcap. So they’re for different phases of your evening.”

Plewe added that “they’re brain-enhancing, rather than dulling the mind.”

De Soi — founded by singer Katy Perry and distiller Morgan McLachlan — is another line Curiosity plans to serve. The company makes canned and bottled aperitifs made with such ingredients as maca, passion flower, reishi mushroom and caffeine.

Once Curiosity opens, Plewe said they plan to pop different bottles to give people an opportunity to taste different things, because the experience will be so new to most people in Salt Lake City. Those people who have knocked on the door, she said, have had a difficult time wrapping their heads around the meaning of zero proof.

Curiosity will also carry high-quality Japanese tea and single-origin tea, and high-quality coffee from Denmark’s coffee collective; Plewe said they want to host tastings for those drinks as well. They’ll also offer a rotating weekly cheese board and berry/chocolate tasting board, as well as small plates like hummus and crudites.

Though both women are interested in flavors, the ritual of making drinks, and finding new spirits, wines and beer fun, they both say Curiosity’s mission is to create a warm third space that’s totally alcohol-free. They plan to host non-alcoholic wine tastings, lectures and social nights centered around a specific topic of conversation, which is why they placed a big, communal table in the middle of the shop. Plewe said she thinks that without alcohol, it can be easier to dive into deeper conversations.

“I love the social aspect of this, and how it engages the senses and helps people to come back to their body and be more present with the people they’re with and their surroundings,” Plewe said. “So it’s bringing more depth to that, thinking of what you’re consuming.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.