The New Sobriety – Non-Alcoholic Bars in Vienna

“It looks kind of wild at the moment,” says Michael Peceny as he digs his hands into the high plastic container. Wild it looks indeed, this slimy, brown mass he introduces as his “kombucha mother.” Kombucha is an East Asian drink made from fermented tea – sparkling, slightly sour, and alcohol-free. It’s the base of a number of drinks Peceny has created in his role as bar chef at Tian, a fine-dining restaurant in Vienna’s 1st district.

Austria’s first and only vegetarian restaurant with a Michelin star, Tian opened in 2011 “at a time when no one asked for vegetarian food,” says chef and manager Paul Ivić. Tian was also ahead of the curve when it comes to non-alcoholic drink accompaniments. “I used to be totally into spirits and liquors,” Peceny says, “until Paul asked me to develop non-alcoholic alternatives to our common wine pairing.”

It wasn’t easy, particularly at first. “When you’re eating out, you’re having wine,” says Peceny. “This is a principle that has taken root over many years.” Today, though, you can find him behind the bar in the restaurant’s basement, the shelves at his back lined with motley coloured jars and bottles: Homemade vinegar and kombuchas. Kwas, a lemonade made of leftover bread and Eastern European drink Smreka brewed from juniper berries. Peceny works with traditional, often forgotten techniques to create drinks that complement the food. Whether with wine or one of Peceny’s drinks, “we want our guests to have a holistic experience.” 

Michael Peceny at Tian.

Over the last years, many sophisticated restaurants began offering such alternative beverages to pair with their multi-course menus. Alcohol-free cocktails no longer have self-conscious names like Safer Sex on the Beach or Driver’s Choice but more confident ones like Code Red or L’Aperitivo and single-origin grape juices are discussed with a seriousness that was once reserved for wine.

A Changing Bar Culture in Vienna

Alcohol has long been a fixture in Austrian culture. Joseph II recognized the nation of vintners, and winemakers with their own Law of the Heuriger. This granted them the right to serve their own wine “Am Hof” without a special license, accessible to all. In the decades after World War II, the amount of alcohol consumed rose along with the country’s growing prosperity. This reached its climax in the early 1970s when average Austrians drank three small glasses (Achterl) of wine per day. These numbers remained relatively constant for two decades. Since 1993, however, the trend has reversed: Average annual consumption declined from approximately 14.4 litres in 1993 to 12.2 litres in 2019 [Handbuch Alkohol].

After increasing for decades, the amount of alcohol consumed in Austria has been falling since the 1990s. The percentage of Viennese drinking on a nearly daily basis went down from 17% in 2013 to 9% in 2019, according to the Center for Addiction and Drug Coordination. “Dry January,” a practice revived in recent years in the UK, is gaining in popularity in Austria too. 

The end of alcohol-only bars in Vienna

Is the constant availability of alcohol – the unwritten social rule that every social occasion calls for alcohol – a principle that is now being questioned?

Ivić from Tian believes that the growing interest in abstinence is also a reflection of what’s on offer. For a long time, there were simply no appealing alternatives. 

“I value water a lot, but I don’t want to drink it all the time,” Ivić observed. The initial scepticism about their non-alcoholic juice pairing – a term that sounds “unsexy”, he admits – died away quickly when guests realized it had nothing to do with an Obi gespritzt (apple juice and club soda) or Soda Zitron-type lemonades. One of Peceny’s concoctions was an asparagus-flavoured drink, topped with rose-blossom-froth to accompany fennel, kohlrabi and rose-cream starter. For dessert, instead of sweet ice wine or port, he offers honey-coloured, velvety kombucha aromatized with roasted, caramelized popcorn. 

As with wine, it’s about the aromatic interplay. At best, both drink and food taste better. 

“Our goal is constant development and getting our guests on board,” Ivić says. Things have come a long way: When they started four years ago, only one in ten patrons went for the non-alcoholic pairing. Now, it’s roughly one in three, sometimes even half. 

“Nowadays, many [more] guests admit that drinking eight glasses of wine with an eight-course dinner is too much for them,” says Peceny.

To Your Health!

Pregnancy, driving, medication intake – the traditional explanations no longer dominate. In a time when we track our steps, buy superfoods and join yoga classes, cutting down on alcohol seems like an obvious step. Scientific studies have at least partially countered the long-standing myth of the g’sundes Glaserl (healthy glass). The same holds true for the belief that “a little wine won’t harm the baby“ – a saying that some pregnant women still hear from their mothers, who may hold that unrelieved tension is as bad or worse.

With rising awareness of health risks, public perception of alcohol is changing. Advertising guidelines for alcoholic beverages have tightened over the years. In 2010, the beer and spirits industry committed themselves to stricter standards. Similarly, the Österreichischer Werberat (Austrian Advertising Council) has formulated a code of ethics banning ads that encourage “excessive or abusive alcohol intake.” 

Of course, the question of “how much is too much” is open to debate. The recommended limits Austrian authorities [Handbuch Alkohol] use were first set by the British Health Education Council in the late 1980s and since adopted by the WHO, setting a 24 gram limit for men and 16 grams for women, or two Achterl for a man and one for a woman Achterl of 12% wine per day. Or alternatively, roughly half a liter of beer.

Abstinence is on the rise

The percentage of Austrians whose consumption is considered low and unproblematic has increased in recent decades: From 60% in 1994 to 71% in 2020. In a 2020 survey of consumer behaviour, 14% of Austrian adults said they were abstinent – that is, they haven’t been drinking for at least twelve months. Asked why four-fifths of the abstainers ascribed their decision to “negative effects on my health.”  

Nina Mohimi and Dani Terbu, Vienna-based food consultants, speak of a “better for me” movement. Others call it “sober curious,” an idea established by New York author Ruby Warrington. In her 2018 book, she wrote about increasing physical health, self-care and mindfulness she found “on the other side of alcohol.“

For Lisa Brunner, head of the Institut für Suchtprävention (Department for Addiction Prevention), it is not so much about total abstinence but about sensible consumption and increased awareness of the dangers of excessive drinking. “The crucial thing is having alternatives. I’m delighted about every non-alcoholic drink I discover on a menu and every start-up in this sector.”

According to IWSR, a market research institute surveying the global beverage alcohol market, the “no” and “low” consumption market will grow by 31% by 2024. There are no specifics for Austria, but sales doubling for non-alcoholic beer since 2012 suggest a similar trend. This summer, Austrian spirits company Rick Gin, which already produces a gin alternative, launched two non-alcoholic rums, further adding to the growing range of alcohol-free spirits.

“We have long been derided,” says Roman Proschinger, who is convinced that the market for non-alcoholic drinks will keep growing. “It’s the same with non-alcoholic beer. 20 years ago, no-one gave it a chance.” 

Non-alcoholic Wines

Just a few steps from Schloss Belvedere, Proschinger runs Austria’s first shop specializing in non-alcoholic wines. After he took on Vinumis a few months ago, he is now working on expanding his range of currently one sparkling and three white wines. “Bubblies are easiest to market,” explains Proschinger as “the carbonic acid works as a flavour carrier.” He estimates the market share of non-alcoholic sparkling wines at currently 5% – suggesting great potential for growth.

His biggest customer group? Pregnant women, drivers, and older people cannot drink for medical reasons. But also, the health-conscious who want to exercise and maintain a balanced diet. And people who enjoy drinking one or two spritzers for lunch and want to return to work with a clear head. Proschinger’s bottles are imprinted with a black tomcat, consistent with his motto: Zero per cent Kater (a pun with the German word for a hangover, Kater) – Hundred per cent wine.

The history of abstinence

The wish to stay sober is nothing new.  Temperance movements, promoting abstinence from alcohol, date back to the early 19th century, although history often records catastrophic effects. Still, they reemerge.  In this tradition, so-called sober bars have a long tradition, and today can be found in Austin, Texas, Tokyo Japan and beer-loving cities like Dublin and London. With Zeroliq, established in March 2020 in Berlin, the first sober bar opened its doors in the German-speaking market. There’s no such venue (yet) in Austria, but a growing number of bars include elaborate “sober” drinks on their menus. 

Take non-alcoholic gin and Italian spritz, homemade pandan cordial and soda, and top it off with grapefruit juice and a slice of cucumber. Code Red is Sigrid Schot’s best-selling sober drink. Since 2017, Schot has been running the Hammond Bar, in the 2nd district, where, says Schot, they have always had some non-alcoholic drinks on the menu, made from tea, homemade syrups and cordials. 

However, during lockdown (“God knows we had plenty of time”) they expanded their offer, creating drinks based on non-alcoholic spirits, a market that “rapidly grew over the last 1,5 years.“ Schot also talks about “lifestyle drinks” – appealing to customers who wish to live more consciously – and draws a comparison to the gin hype which swept over the bar scene a few years ago. 

Coexisting with Booze

“I don’t think the consumption of alcohol will decline as a consequence,” says Schot, given our culturally rooted drinking habits. “It’s more likely going to be an add-on.” Not least due to prices which often exceed those of alcoholic drinks. Code Red, her signature “sober” drink, costs €10. The mixing is challenging, because alcohol as a flavour carrier and preservative is missing, and ingredients are generally very high quality. 

“You can’t just throw any old dregs in there; Otherwise no one will buy it,” she says. This is consistent with Michael Peceny’s observation that there is no stigma in guests opting for the Tian juice pairing. Still, both admit that it’s likely due to their particularly open-minded customer base. 

Elsewhere, social expectations persist: 

“Alcohol is offered at most events. Drinking seems like the logical thing to do,” says Lisa Brunner from the Department for Addiction Prevention. “You almost have to defend yourself, if you’re not drinking.” Some hosts even feel affronted if you refuse the offered Gläschen.

Reframing Social Rituals

Sharing a drink is a social ritual, culturally established over many centuries. An evening beer with colleagues from work, catching up with a friend over a glass of wine, clinking glasses at a birthday party. Alcohol is part of our daily life – even more so in a country like Austria which has a long vinicultural tradition. A country that upholds its “Österreichische Gemütlichkeit” (Austrian sense of ease and sociability). A country where musicians praise the pleasures of alcohol and mayors are known for dictums like “Man, bringe den Spritzwein!” (“My good fellow, bring on the Spritzers!”)

In short, alcohol plays many roles in our society: It’s a mood elevator, it relaxes and lowers inhibitions, and it brings people together. Brunner is far from campaigning for total abstinence, praising the joys of glass in good company. Alcohol is part of our culture, she agrees, and a “nice thing.“. Her work is not aimed at prohibiting it but at keeping consumption at a low-risk level. Therefore, she embraces societal trends promoting sober drinks and non-alcoholic substitutes. “It’s about dealing with the topic more deliberately.” 

At Schot’s Hammond Bar, this often means that guests start with one or two standard drinks – and then, when they feel they’ve had enough, switch to non-alcoholic ones or -–increasingly popular – low ABVs (alcohol by volume), drinks which are mixed both with spirits and their non-alcohol equivalents. “They say: I don’t want to be totally hangover tomorrow, but it’s cosy and we want to keep chatting so I’ll have another round.”
With or without alcohol, what does it matter? At Tian, there’s no longer preferential treatment: Their menu simply lists a one-price “beverage pairing.” Proving that non-alcoholic drinks can be just as complex, exciting, and “sexy” as wine or champagne.