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Words Matter: a Zero-Proof Manifesto

By Chris LeBeau and Annie O'Donoghue

Several months ago, I saw my friend and former podcast guest Annie O’Donoghue post about encountering a drink on a cocktail menu that connoted it was an alcohol-free drink. But upon talking with the bartender, she discovered that it was a “session” cocktail. She had heard of a session IPA but never a session cocktail. Contrary to the menu section’s title, this drink was not alcohol-free but low in alcohol. Not the same thing at all. Knowing that Annie is in recovery and that she has dedicated a good chunk of her professional life to helping others battling substance abuse, I was alarmed that this was the case (as was she!)

Since then, I’ve noticed this on a couple of menus. I reached out to Annie, asking if we could write something on the topic together in terms of why this alarms us. Annie and I have each shared our thoughts below.


Annie's thoughts

I’m a gal who now (proudly) only enjoys beverages that are non-alcoholic and/or alcohol-free, and yes, there is a difference. I fought like hell to get to where I’m at today, and if you ever doubt that our society might be centered around alcohol, try giving it up, you’ll be amazed. This, however, my friend, is changing, and it’s doing so rather quickly.

In the past 5 years, the alcohol-free movement has gained an insane amount of momentum. The numbers are astounding: In 2022, sales of no- and low-alcohol beverages grew by more than 7%, surpassing $11 billion in market value. (Forbes, Dec. 2022).

What I love about this movement is that it proves that the world of drinking/drinkers is not black and white. One doesn’t have to define as a drinker or a non-drinker, although, for some, like myself, the latter isn’t negotiable.

While I was so glad to see an alcohol-free drink section on that menu, it disappointed me that someone could miss a very large detail.

Here are a few definitions

  • Alcohol-free= no alcohol whatsoever - no trace amounts, nada, zilch, etc. So, 0.0% ABV - think Budweiser Zero, Heineken 0.0, Seedlip Botanicals, Amethyst Spirits, etc.

  • Non-alcoholic= Beers marked as NA (non-alcoholic) sold in the United States can contain up to 0.5% ABV. Kombucha, because of its fermentation process, almost always has trace amounts of alcohol, some more than others.

  • Zero-proof= because this is a newer term, its use and meaning can vary. I use it as a category title, encompassing both categories of drink. Many in this space would agree. In recent months, there have been a few people adamant its meaning is 0.0%, which goes against their past uses of the term.

*All of this goes out the window when you are in the UK. For example, non-alcoholic means alcohol-free.

So, back to the topic at hand. The only reason I found out about this “session” cocktail that was labeled as alcohol-free is that my sister had a question about one of the alcohol-free cocktails. That’s where we learned that it did contain alcohol. My sister was fuming. For someone like myself, one drink will send me down a path I can no longer go down. Trust me, I have tried many times in the past. They say that “one is too many, and a thousand is never enough.” It’s true. However, I’m not the only one that might be affected by accidentally ingesting alcohol. There are a slew of reasons: allergy, pregnancy, medication**, religion, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, and just because. There actually doesn’t need to be a reason.

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a zero-proof section on a menu. But a place that has done its research into what can live in that section of the menu makes me happier. Is all of this a trend? Maybe, but I believe it’s here to stay.

So for those places which include it because it is trendy but don’t want to spend the five minutes learning what this space wants and needs, shame on you. Know better, do better. Would you include just a little meat in a vegetarian item and mark it with a V? A tiny bit of garlic when someone has a garlic allergy? I don’t think so. Think of this in the same light.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol and/or other drugs, please know you are not alone, and help is out there. For resources, please visit SAMHSA.

**People on medications such as Antabuse will get violently ill upon consumption of alcohol.


Chris's thoughts

As a guy that runs a cocktail business, it is safe to say that a large portion of a typical day is consumed thinking about, writing about, reading about, talking about, experimenting with, and of course, tasting stuff. I have a deep love and curiosity for this world, and the longer I spend in it, the more I can’t imagine my life without it. I love the social convening power of alcohol, its rich history, and its pantheon of flavors.

I also love that, as a culture, we are leaning into lower-proof beverages and the acceptance that a night of excess doesn’t have to be how they all end. I think it's great that if you’re out with friends and don’t want the evening to end but have had enough, you can get a dignified cocktail, beer, or glass of wine without alcohol as opposed to feeling relegated to water, club soda, or a sugar bomb. All of these are wins for the category and our culture.

I’ve also written about my ongoing work to make sure that I maintain a healthy relationship with booze so that I can enjoy it while respecting my body. But something I’ve not had to reckon with, as some people have, is knowing or being told that it’s time to step away for good.

When I went to see a therapist about my concerns, she handed me a checklist of 10 or 12 signs to look for that would indicate I have a problem. Depending on how I looked at it, I was possibly checking two boxes, but likely just one. As I looked at the list, I remember thinking, “Oh my god! This is what people are up against?!” While I might feel a bit of a battle with booze at moments, I have no real understanding of how deep the war can go.

When people have stepped away from alcohol and been able to look back, I imagine the emotional fear of falling back into who they were is scary. They may fear that if they encounter it again, they could lose control or just relive painful memories.

So why am I writing this? I’m writing this because it's great that low-proof libations, non-alcoholic beers, and zero-proof drinks are common these days. But we have to remember that some of us are choosing to drink less or not drink at all for more voluntary reasons, while some people have fled for their safety or that of others.

The purpose of this writing surrounds the emerging terms like “alcohol-free” and “zero proof.” By the accepted definition, they mean a drink has zero alcohol in it. As someone that loves a drink but also feels clear communication is of paramount importance when we’re trying to market bars welcoming everyone, I feel strongly that these words must be used with caution and clarity.

Making a drink labeled as “zero proof” without a spirit like vodka or whiskey but including something like vermouth or St. Germain is disingenuous. It is not the role of people serving drinks to determine what we feel is "zero-proof enough." To supercharge this with unnecessary nerddom, the mathematical difference between 0 and 1 is infinity.

We’ve all read a cocktail menu that has listed its ingredients and thought, “What are all these things?” We can’t decide that it's the guest’s job to ask for details in a situation like this. We must be clear. We've all ordered food items where we felt a little unclear about what was coming out. But there shouldn't be any lack of clarity when it comes to something like alcohol or allergies... "It's just a dusting of peanut."

Even if drinking a low-proof cocktail doesn’t pull someone off the wagon but does send them into a panic attack, we’ve done them a disservice. Hospitality aims to see the world from the patron’s shoes. Not our own.

Finally, many people take great pride in the length of time they’ve been sober. I know several people who can tell me the exact date their sobriety began. Imagine someone who feels this immense pride discovering that three years of sobriety were reset to zero without their realizing it?

Thanks for taking the time to read and hear us on this.


Annie and Chris


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