How I’m Living Alcohol Free In A Pandemic

In 2017, I decided to give up drinking alcohol during Lent, and wrote an essay about my experience for Medium.

At the time, my choice was linked to a medical test that my doctor wanted to repeat, just to be sure the results were right. She advised me not to drink for a month before hand.

The 40-day period of Lent turned out to mesh perfectly with her advice. (The test came out fine.)

Yet, I found that going alcohol free became a habit that suited me. I’ve long been a one-and-done drinker, able to nurse a cocktail, a glass of wine or a beer through an evening.

A friend of mine once teased me for ordering fresh drinks that I never touched, just so I could keep pace with him and others at the table.

I stopped doing that, and ultimately just abandoned alcohol completely. I had six drinks in all of 2019, and I haven’t had an alcoholic drink since Thanksgiving, 2019.

Yes, I have gotten through the pandemic without a cocktail.

By no means do I want to spoil your fun. In fact, I fully intend to enjoy a glass of champagne to toast my book, when it’s published next year.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping to keep my streak going. I find my sleep enormously improved, there are obviously no hangovers to wrestle with, and I have a collection of techniques to fight anxiety, rather than reaching for wine.

Further, it’s an adventure to seek out interesting things to drink that don’t have alcohol. Craft sodas are everywhere. And choices of alcohol free beers, wines and spirits abound.

The Produce Station, a locally owned market when I live in Ann Arbor, Mich., now has an entire AF section inside the front door.

It’s like a library of non-alcoholic choices, far beyond the tepid selection of a few zero alcohol beers that used to be the norm at party stores.

But because I write about food and money, I was curious how much alcohol revenues contribute to the industry as a whole.

Alcohol Generates Profits

According to Modern Restaurant Management, about 20 to 25 percent of an average restaurant’s sales come from alcohol. At Tao Las Vegas, the country’s biggest independent restaurant, it is more than 50 percent.

Restaurants love to push alcohol, the magazine claims, because labor costs behind the bar are much lower than in kitchens. Think about the productivity of a good bartender versus the collective effort of getting a plate to the table.

Alcohol can be marked up as much as four times the wholesale price. Alcohol has a longer shelf life than food, and it gives wait staff the opportunity to record bigger checks.

In order to convince consumers to purchase more alcohol, the magazine says a strong wine program can fuel profits. The retail price of a single glass can be as much as the wholesale price for a bottle.

Cocktails have a “pour cost” — the amount spent on ingredients — of 20 to 25 percent, but making drinks in batches, like punch, or easily crafted brunch drinks like mimosas or Bloody Marys can help the numbers look even better.

But, that guidance was drafted in the pre-pandemic world.

Now that we’ve dealing with restrictions on indoor seating, sanitary protocols and so many people are getting carry out, we’ve seen restaurants adopt different strategies on alcohol.

Some are limiting time that patrons can occupy a table, which logically will cut into drinking time, and presumably reduce the alcoholic beverage portion of a check.

Some have been able to sell pre-mixed cocktails, that come in little jars or containers, requiring the diner to shake or add ice at home.

Others have offered deals on bottles of wine to clear out cellars that were gathering dust during shutdown.

Commander’s Palace turned its situation into a party, with virtual wine and cheese tastings where guests could order menu items and follow along.

Given the difficulties posed by lost revenue thus past year, I can see why restaurants would like alcohol sales to hold up until the pandemic subsides.

Making AF Drinkers Feel At Home

But, if it was up to me, I’d think about reaching out to non-imbibers, especially now, during Lent.

Through the years, I’ve encountered a number of friendly bartenders who were more than willing to dream up an alcohol-free drink for me.

One of my favorites was a lime and mint concoction at Thip Kao in Washington, D.C. that was so good my fellow diners got it, too.

The High Hat Cafe in New Orleans has featured a daily lemonade that often features fresh fruit, like satsuma oranges or Ponchatoula strawberries.

At Galit in Chicago, there’s a refreshing drink made with Yuzu tonic that is a prize winner. Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor has a swath of choices, including sodas that are savory, not sweet.

With so many interesting bitters and syrups now on the market, the possibilities to create custom crafted seltzers seem endless.

I couldn’t begin to own all the flavor choices now on the market, but if you presented me with a menu sheet of what was available, I’d love to experiment with different tastes.

Imagine an alcohol free class that shows you ways to dress up a bottle of Topo Chico. It could be like, well, a party.

Micheline Maynard created the CulinaryWoman Newsletter and podcast. Follow her @culinarywoman

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on NPR and NYT alum

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