Whether for health reasons or lifestyle, a turn as the designated driver or simply curiosity, the number of folks opting for a non-alcoholic drink when they go out for a meal or to an event is growing quickly. A Statistics Canada survey conducted in January 2021 found more than one in five Canadians decreased alcohol consumption during the pandemic. And Toronto’s hospitality scene is seeing this choice continue as people return to restaurants, bars and events.
What’s important now isn’t just offering a non-alcoholic drink but creatively engaging with guests through exciting menu options.
“People realized during the pandemic that there's more to a good drink than getting tipsy. It’s easy to mix up something basic at home, but it's another to have a drink experience,” says Lindsay Marrugo, event specialist at Destination Toronto. “There’s a focus on non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic drinks on menus in and around the Toronto area, including Casa Madera, Luma and Marked."
Here are some tips on how to add low- to no-alcohol drinks to your events in fun, innovative ways from those leading the movement in Toronto.
“Removing alcohol doesn’t have to take away from a drink's complexity or sophistication. In fact, it encourages experimentation and innovation!”
– Carla Lorenzo, Corporate Beverage Director at Noble 33
Don’t just create a drink, build a menu.
Having a full alcoholic menu with just one non-alcoholic option isn’t going to set your event apart. Carla Lorenzo is the corporate beverage director at Noble 33, which owns Casa Madera Toronto in the King West neighbourhood. The chic restaurant is one of the hospitality group’s first to have purposefully included low- to no-alcohol drinks on the menu from day one. And they’ve been incredibly popular, making up 10 to 15 per cent of drink orders overall. “Regardless of the occasion, each option should have the complexity, look and feel of a full-proof cocktail.”
The same applies to beer offerings, says Steve Abrams, co-founder of the Toronto-based Harmon’s Craft Brewing, a non-alcoholic brewer. “Beer is not a ‘one size fits all’ beverage. Offering a small variety of non-alcoholic beers will be appreciated by beer fans who are abstaining,” he says. He suggests two to three styles per event.
“I am finding that more of my clients are looking to accommodate everyone and making sure that options are available."
– Diana Seminara, Events Manager at Bisha Hotel
Make options part of the plan from the start.
Creating a menu of non-alcoholic options may seem daunting if it's your first time doing it, but it’s an exciting time to be exploring these drinks. “It does have to be part of the initial planning, but at the same time, it's not a complicated adjustment,” says Diana Seminara, events manager at Bisha Hotel.
In other words, low- and no-alcohol options shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially because there’s so much to choose from, including many from notable wine names as well as local suppliers. French Champagne houses like Tattinger have released their own non-alcoholic bubbly, for instance. French Bloom is currently available at Holt Renfrew. And Abrams says there are plenty of locally brewed options to explore. “Ontario produces some award-winning non-alcoholic beer, and there’s also great stuff coming out of Quebec and Alberta,” he says.
"Beer is not a ‘one size fits all’ beverage. Offering a small variety of non-alcoholic beers will be appreciated by beer fans who are abstaining.”
– Steve Abrams, Co-Founder of Harmon's Craft Brewing
“There is such an explosion of options right now, so I think tasting is incredibly important. It does range, and there are still some options that may not be as strong in their category.”
– Kris Menon, Your Brand Integrated Marketing Communications
Don’t forget about the food.
Thinking of the low to no-alcohol part of the menu from stage one of planning also ensures you have time to pair these drinks with the dishes that will be served. A food menu that’s intentionally organic or sustainable can be paired with similarly produced non-alcoholic beverages (Harmon’s, for instance, is certified organic). For events, “each part of the meal should have an appropriate beverage option,” says Lorenzo.
Kris Menon runs the communications agency Your Brand Integrated Marketing Communications, and organizing events for clients is a regular occurrence. He is now regularly incorporating non-alcoholic drinks into his food and beverage strategy and recommends doing a tasting of these drinks along with the food tasting that normally happens when setting an event’s menu. “There is such an explosion of options right now, so I think tasting is incredibly important,” he says. “It does range, and there are still some options that may not be as strong in their category.”
Rely on the experts to create something special.
Thanks to the increasing sophistication of non-alcoholic spirits, the days of relying on a mocktail mojito are no more. During this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Menon’s agency hosted several parties, all of which featured non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu. Instead of simple twists on traditional cocktails, he relied on the know-how of experts in Toronto’s mixologist scene.
“We’ve had such great outcomes. We did something with Michael Hunter at Antler this year, which was fantastic, and during TIFF at the St. Regis as well as Lapinou and some of the Liberty Entertainment Group restaurants,” he says. “I find it really intriguing because they come up with their own creation and they know how to make it really interesting and consumer friendly.” Lorenzo has found the same possibilities for creativity with her menus. “Removing alcohol doesn’t have to take away from a drink's complexity or sophistication. In fact, it encourages experimentation and innovation!”
Remember that the details matter.
At Bisha, Seminara oversees a wide variety of events at the hotel’s six venues—everything from daytime meetings to corporate galas, ranging from 12 guests to 200. “I am finding that more of my clients are looking to accommodate everyone and making sure that options are available,” she says. For daytime that might include a pop-up juice bar in addition to coffee and tea offerings, and in the evening, custom mocktails with clear signage at the bar indicating their availability.
Menon’s TIFF parties had separate bars set up for those drinking non-alcoholic wines and cocktails, which created multiple destinations in the event spaces and helped ease congestion around the main bar. “The separate bar is a trick of the trade that every event planner should learn. I think it's going to become an essential tool for event planning,” he says. “It makes you feel special, like your choice is valid and worthy.”
Presentation, flavour and creativity are still key elements to creating a non-alcoholic drink, designing a bigger menu—and making sure your event is a memorable one. And don’t forget to offer all guests taxi vouchers to get home at the end of the night, whether they’ve consumed alcohol or not. “The goal,” Seminara says, “should be to make everyone feel welcome and accommodated.”