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A Liquor Store, Minus the Liquor

January 13, 2021

Story: Joshua David Stein

photo: Spirited Away

New York's Spirited Away is a testament to the rapid ascension of the non-alcoholic category.

In the midst of a pandemic, when many Americans are staying home—or should be—and at a time when, according to a recent study, alcohol sales have skyrocketed 54 percent, Douglas Watters, a man with no experience in the food and beverage space, decided to open a brick-and-mortar store selling over 30 types of non-alcoholic spirits on the Lower East Side of hard-hit New York City. Sisyphus would be proud.

Yet the tiny storefront, Spirited Away, which occupies 350 square feet on Ludlow Street, has been a success. Much like Ben Branson, the Englishman who introduced the world to Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit in 2015, Watters is betting that a market exists for the growing crop of elixirs, distillations, concoctions and botanicals that are alcohol-adjacent but alcohol-free. Like Branson, who recently sold Seedlip to liquor giant Diageo, Watters is right.

The idea for Spirited Away arose from Watters’ realization that what he found so intoxicating about mixing a cocktail was less the alcohol than the ritual and accoutrement itself. “I want to have a drink pretty much every day,” he says. “The ritual of creating and enjoying a cocktail is pretty deeply embedded in me, but if I do that seven nights a week, it’s too much. What I realized, as I’ve gotten older, is that the holistic experience has become less and less reliant on the actual inebriation of the cocktail.” The complicated choreography of mixing a cocktail—the shaking, the whirring, the stirring, the pouring—is, of course, undogmatic about the ABV of what is being prepared. The jigger, the strainer, the muddler, the chrome-plated toys of a bar cart—all still glimmer and beckon with promise, even when the liquor inside is alcohol-free.

Today, customers of Spirited Away walk into a nascent world of like-minded drinkers. On the shelves are alcohol-free wines like Noughty, a sparkling chardonnay; alcohol-free beers like Athletic Brewing’s stouts and ales; well-known distilled alcohol spirits like Seedlip, of course, but also lesser-known brands like Ghia, Rasāsvāda, Three Spirit and Kin Euphorics. Many dwell in the dawn of being either a substitute—as Monday Gin, a non-alcoholic gin, is for a London-style dry gin—or a soulful stand-alone product, like Kin Euphorics, which bills itself as “mood-defining drinks meant to elevate the spirit,” or Rasāsvāda, a line whose name comes from the Sanskrit for the taste of bliss beyond all thought.

As customers stream into the tiny space, once an art gallery and still nearly as sparse, they file past woven artwork by Chellis Baird and are welcomed by a 15-year-old pointer named Remus. Watters guides them in the unfamiliar world of booze-free and booze-light mixology. “People come in and they buy a little of everything,” says Watters. “It’s such a brand-new world for most.” Watters is their ferryman, part salesman, part guide. Ghia, a booze-free aperitif by Glossier’s former head of retail, Mélanie Masarin, mixed with tonic water—what the company calls A Night at the Spritz—is a complex drink, perfect for bitters-lovers, Watters explains. In a Mezcal Negroni variation, he recommends skipping the Campari and substituting Rasāsvāda’s Rose Bergamot restorative, while letting the mezcal remain. “It’s not either/or,” he explains. “It can be both/and.” So far, this tolerance has resonated and, from his tiny shop on the Lower East Side, Watters is spreading the gospel of free-spirited living.

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