When the pandemic hit, D.C.’s happy hours did not end. Alcohol sales spiked in the DMV and my social media feeds were awash with those “Brady Bunch” screenshots: a human with wine glass in each Zoom square. Group photo!
But even before the pandemic hit, the trend lines on alcohol were drifting downward. Low-ABV and alcohol-free drinks were showing up on the menus of the finest cocktail bars. Like so many others, Covid seems to have intensified this trend. Sure, there was a 24% spike in alcohol sales after lockdown began – but I refuse to believe that this got even close to offsetting the amount of social drinking Washington used to do in an average week.
For my part, I’ve found that a tall glass of soda water with a heavy hand of Angostura bitters is a charming way to end the evening, and I’ve rediscovered the “spritz” format: soda water with a bitter liqueur such as Aperol, Campari or Cynar. Adding a little sparkling wine to the mix is also common, but not necessary. These are so popular in the summer, but surprise: an Aperol spritz pairs perfectly with snow days. This is my projection: 2021 is the year that D.C. really resizes its drinking.
D.C.’s tastemaker and favorite cocktail master Derek Brown is leading the way with his own no/low-ABV journey, having officially become a face of distilled nonalcoholic spirits brand Spiritless, which launched with its Kentucky 74 in December 2020. Mingling flavors of smoke, oak and vanilla, this bourbon alternative comes in at a mere 0.5% ABV.
Brown’s trend-setting bar Columbia Room featured the brand during Dry January and will continue to showcase it once the bar reopens. While the patio is open and to-go cocktails are available, full operation is planned tentatively for Phase 3 of D.C.’s reopening – fingers crossed.
His goal? To showcase the ability of Spiritless offerings “to stand alone in a great cocktail as well as its ability to go ‘halfsies’ with bourbon,” Brown says. A half-alc Old Fashioned sounds ideal for school nights, as well as those dreaded evenings when work beckons after dinner.
I asked him if he really thought this trend could survive the post-pandemic “roaring 20s” that we all hope will start soon.
“I think the category will continue to grow and just get better and better,” Brown observes. “There’s already a growing list of producers making great nonalcoholic beers, wines, spirits and cocktails.”
D.C. is certainly embracing this evolution, as evidenced by the long list of “made in D.C.” brands, lots of creative options on trendy bar menus across the city and the impending arrival of D.C.’s first “dry” bar (named, interestingly, Binge Bar).
But beyond geeking out on trends, I really want to ask Brown for advice on transitioning out of Dry January, which seems to have become something of a D.C. tradition and has survived pandemic life.
“You don’t have to transition,” he replies. “You can continue to drink delicious, nonalcoholic beverages forever.”
For those who find this advice falls short of satisfactory, he adds, “Should you transition, just remember the brakes are always there.”
Of course, for some, drinking alcohol leads to a danger zone.
Brown says if you’re having trouble transitioning out of Dry January, beyond finding good recipes, “It’s helpful to seek advice from your doctor, therapist or counselor.”
This is a useful reminder that Dry January isn’t just about washing and drying your liver to ensure continued use.
“Dry January is a helpful moniker,” Brown points out. “But this is all about you: how you want to feel, how you want to drink.”
Spiritless “Whiskey” Sour
2 oz. Spiritless Kentucky 74
1 oz. Fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz. simple syrup
1/2 oz. egg whites (optional)
Orange wheel (for garnish)
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a highball or double rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with cherry and orange wheel.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.