For decades, Oregon has been carving out a name for itself as an iconic food destination. The region ranks high on many “best of” lists, boasts more than a handful of James Beard Award-winning chefs, and has been known for pushing the envelope in the culinary arts. Which makes it the perfect spot to lead the newly burgeoning zero-proof movement.
And it’s not just teetotalers who are looking for booze-free beverages. The moderation mindset has all sorts of folks reevaluating their relationships with alcohol, while still wanting something more than a soda to sip on.
Bartending with an eye on inclusivity
Nora Furst is an award-winning bartender who for years has been creating craft cocktails with a twist: they’re totally booze-free.
“I think there’s a lot of really beautiful, creative boundary-pushing that can happen within limitation,” she says. “So I’ve really found a lot of enjoyment and exploration in the nonalcoholic spirits world.”
As one of the founders of West Bev Consulting, Furst has developed beverage menus for more than 30 different bars and restaurants from Portland and Seattle to Brazil. And she always includes a nonalcoholic component — whether or not people ask for one.
“We know that that want and that need is there,” she says. “And I just think it’s poor hospitality to not create a space for those folks.”
Furst grew up in a restaurant family in Seattle and realized at a young age how underwhelming the nonalcoholic drink options were.
“My mom doesn’t drink, so a lot of my early experiences of dining out as a young adult was about her trying to find something to drink that was nonalcoholic, but also not a ‘sugar bomb’ or just some flat tonic water off of the gun,” she says. “And I just remember what an impact that had on her and her experience and it opened my mind to like what we’re missing by excluding nondrinkers from this whole other world of experience.”
In 2016, Furst was hired by the British distillery Seedlip, considered the first nonalcoholic spirits brand ever created.
“It was at a time where people were just barely beginning to wrap their heads around the nonalcoholic space in fine dining,” she says “And I would walk into places to try to sell them Seedlip and I often got laughed out of bars and restaurants because people didn’t quite understand the significance or the place of the spirit.”
Furst only worked with the company for a little more than a year but said the experience stayed with her long afterward.
“It was maybe less about the liquid itself and more about the intention behind the liquid, which is kind of creating this inclusive space for nondrinkers to have the same type of hospitality experience that everybody else is having.”
It’s a sentiment echoed in what some are calling the “Sober Curious” movement, which has largely been driven by Gen Z and young Millennials. Last year alone, the market for no-and low-alcohol beer, wine, and spirits grew by more than 7%, surpassing $11 billion globally.
If you can’t find it, brew it yourself
Andy McMillan has thought about creating space for nondrinkers for nearly a decade. As one of the founders of the experimental art festival XOXO, McMillan got feedback from attendees looking for elevated drinks that were also alcohol-free. That hit close to home when he decided to quit drinking a few years later.
“I very quickly introduced a problem for myself that a lot of those people were experiencing when they asked for more considered options, which was I wanted that as well, but I wanted it everywhere,” he says.
McMillan grew frustrated with the lack of options for nondrinkers, especially in the Pacific Northwest, a culinary juggernaut with breweries, wineries, and distilleries to match.
“That frustration turned into an interest in trying to get a zero-proof bar open in Portland.”
So in early 2020, McMillan opened the city’s first such bar: Suckerpunch. The pandemic forced the bar to reimagine its concept via take-home cocktail kits, before reopening a 6-month pop up in 2022. Now, he’s fully focused on his next NA endeavor: crafting the perfect nonalcoholic beer.
“We started working on beer as a very modest project just to have something to serve at the bar,” McMillan said. “And now it’s sort of turned into something a lot bigger.”
McMillan enlisted Justin Miller, the former Head Brewer at Hopworks Brewery, to help create the booze-free beer named Heck from the ground up.
“We had Heck available at the bar a few weeks here and there when a [test] batch went especially well,” he said. “And people loved it. I had people stop me at the door and try to slip me 20 bucks to take a couple cans home with them.”
Traditionally, nonalcoholic beer is made by first making an alcoholic beer and then removing the alcohol afterward, making the beer taste watered-down, explained Miller.
“There are various processes for removing alcohol [but] inherently it is a process of destruction,” he says. “It’s not precise — you can’t just go in and remove the alcohol — you take a lot out with it.”
So making Heck started out with a lot of experimentation, using emerging science and brewing techniques to better control fermentation.
“We are very much at the forefront on this,” says McMillan. “Using particular strains of yeast and controlling the fermentation in the brewing process, you can make something that tests considerably below 0.5% [ABV].”
After months of tweaking the recipes for an IPA and a lager, McMillan says they are now just weeks away from brewing “at scale.”
“In the coming weeks we are now at a very exciting position where we’re graduating from pilot brews and two barrel batches and testing stuff in someone’s driveway to [being] ready to move into a proper facility and properly launch this thing,” he says.
Pushing botanical boundaries in the Pacific Northwest
One Oregon company already making waves in the burgeoning alcohol-free movement is the botanical spirits maker Wilderton. The Hood River-based company was founded in 2020 and earlier this summer opened the country’s first nonalcoholic distillery and tasting room.
“It’s a totally new category that doesn’t have a lot of definitions,” says Seth O’Malley, the founding distiller at Wilderton. “So it was an opportunity to venture into uncharted waters and create new types of flavor profiles and also meet the needs of consumers who are interested in having great cocktails, but who don’t always want alcohol.”
Both he and co-founder Brad Whiting have backgrounds in the traditional spirits market, but when they set out to create a nonalcoholic spirit they immediately found themselves at a crossroads: Did they want to create a nonalcoholic version of traditional spirits, or was there room for something else?
“[We] saw this as an opportunity to create something new and to make a category that wasn’t just based on what it isn’t and what it doesn’t have,” says O’Malley.
The pair started with some abstract questions: What did they like in all spirits? What sorts of experiences were they looking for? How should these spirits function?
“So the way that we constrained our thinking from the beginning was kind of around themes of light and dark,” he explains, “And that would eventually give way to Luster and Earthen.”
Luster was created with light “summertime” flavors — things like rose petal and citrus — whereas Earthen had darker notes of baking spices and incense. There was also a practical reason to steer clear of trying to mimic a traditional spirit.
“Certain things come through really well with alcoholic extraction, so if you want to make a Gin, juniper berries work really well if you’re using alcohol,” says O’Malley. “If you’re using water, not so much.”
Wilderton had to adapt all of the ingredients they were using to the capabilities of water as a solvent, something he was uniquely prepared to take on. As a teenager, O’Malley was fascinated by the world of tea and the traditions that connect people with aromatic plants. His experience working in tea shops and teaching tea classes turned into an opportunity to run Townshend’s Distillery, which made tea-based spirits from kombucha distillate.
Walking the line between science and craft, he was quick to show off the wall of ingredients in the makeshift laboratory space at the distillery. Both recognizable things like black tea and dried rose petal and the more unique items like a handful of rock-like Frankincense resin and dark orange colored strips of mace.
“We source ingredients from six continents … places that have the right infrastructure and climate to be able to produce the volumes that we need,” he says. “It’s a very eclectic list of botanicals.”
In Portland, Nora Furst has been using Wilderton spirits to create a complementary NA pairing menu, including using their award-winning Bittersweet Aperitivo for what she’s calling a NEW-groni.
“I think one of the things with nonalcoholic cocktails that’s really important is to kind of give them the same respect and treatment that you would an alcoholic cocktail,” says Furst. “It’s about looking at the whole experience of when that cocktail would happen, when you would want to drink that cocktail and emulating those flavors and that experience in a way that does its own thing, but also scratches that itch.”