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Alberta ‘Zero proof’ trend raises its glass to good health

Jesse Willis notes that the previous trend in the spirits world of the resurgence of classic cocktails and their potent nature has the pendulum swinging back to more session-friendly sippers.

Callum Johnston/Handout

Recently, I had the opportunity to take part in a consumer food-product-innovation awards competition by way of joining its judging panel. Headed by the University of Guelph’s associate director of New Venture Creation, Dana McCauley, the SIAL Canada Innovation Awards aimed to seek out packaged products making waves in their respective areas.

Naturally – as current trends would suggest – plenty of plant-based creations were presented, nut-based cheeses, vegan cookie dough, so on and so forth, but one of the most unexpected submissions to sample was a nearly alcohol-free Canadian-made beer.

Calgary’s Partake Brewing is a craft- and low-alcoholic beer company that offers up anything from a blonde ale to a stout; all of which weighed in at an impressively low 0.3-per-cent alcohol content. Best of all, they tasted quite good, too.

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Craft non-alcoholic beer. Who knew?

Jesse Willis co-owns and operates one of Calgary’s premier liquor store chains, Vine Arts, as well as the award-winning cocktail bar Proof. He also readily sings Partake’s praises and says he has noticed the trend of low- or non-alcoholic drinks gaining significant traction in the past year or so.

Aside from those that are, perhaps, seeking out a healthier lifestyle or have chosen a sober path altogether, Mr. Willis notes that the previous trend in the spirits world of the resurgence of classic cocktails (such as an old fashioned, sazerac, vesper, zombie et al.) and their potent nature has the pendulum swinging back to more session-friendly sippers.

“While I’m a fan of all of these classic cocktails, tiki drinks and the like, it’s not surprising that people are now seeking out options for lower-alcohol drinks or those without any alcohol at all,” he says. “It’s a trend that’s both welcomed and likely here to stay.”

As well, after high demand, Mr. Willis says that both of his liquor stores and Proof now readily stock Seedlip, which is the world’s first alcohol-free distilled spirit. Similar offerings around the world have started to pop up such as Ceder’s or Gordon’s low-alcoholic premixed cocktails, but Seedlip seems to be the Canadian go-to for now.

“Having cocktails in a bar or restaurant setting has an important social aspect to it,” Mr. Willis says. “Because of that, it’s important to offer options for guests to still engage in the ritual of ‘raising a glass’ without the requirement for alcohol. It also removes any stigma [of non-drinkers] and to offer something more interesting than just a glass of water or pop.”

There’s no non-alcoholic cocktail menu at Proof per se, but rather, guests are encouraged to chat with the barkeeps to have them create a unique zero-proof cocktail that caters to their likes/dislikes. Lest we forget, there are plenty of things behind the bar such as shrubs, compound syrups, herbs, juices, tonics and more that offer depth of flavour and no alcohol at all.

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In regards to the appropriate terminology for non-alcoholic drinks, both Josey Krahn and Mr. Willis agree that it can be interchangeable – 'zero proof' seems to be the phrase of choice for most – but whatever you do, just don’t call it a mocktail.

Callum Johnston/Handout

Heading east to Winnipeg, Josey Krahn is arguably the city’s top authority on cocktails. Well-travelled and experimental, Mr. Krahn does a variety of pop-up events through his company Tiny Bar WPG and previously ran the drink program at Forth Bar.

“It’s a place where people are coming to get an escape from real life and they’re usually wanting to have something special to drink that they normally couldn’t make at home,” says Mr. Krahn, referring to Forth. “Whether that has alcohol in it or not, it’s important to make sure they feel happy and fulfilled with what’s in their hand.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Krahn worked with local chef Ben Kramer on a pop-up event entitled Good Food, No Booze. The evening saw them create a multicourse meal paired with non-alcoholic creations by the bartender. Mr. Krahn says the response was overwhelming.

The menu highlighted inventive zero-proof cocktails such as a pomegrante old-fashioned and a lavender-lemon fizz, which involved components such as lavender syrup, jasmine green tea, fresh lemon, cherry, mint and soda.

“People were so grateful that there was an avenue for them to have a multicourse dining experience in an interesting spot, not having to worry about alcohol, or make a request for something special,” he says. “All of these drinks are satisfying and are crafted just as thoughtfully as anything I’d make with alcohol.”

Mr. Krahn said he is planning to bring the event back in the coming months.

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In regards to the appropriate terminology for non-alcoholic drinks, both Mr. Krahn and Mr. Willis agree that it can be interchangeable – ”zero proof” seems to be the phrase of choice for most – but whatever you do, just don’t call it a mocktail. The two also echo each other by saying there is a negative connotation that goes along with it.

“On a recent trip to London, I noted that the menu at the highly acclaimed Lyaness Cocktail Bar offered a ‘boozeless modifier’ for several of its menu cocktails,” Mr. Willis says. “This is a trend I foresee more and more cocktail spots embracing. Not just in Canada, but all over the world.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Josey Krahn runs the drink program at Forth Bar. In fact, he no longer works for Forth.
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