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‘Rising tide:’ Growing number of sober, non-alcoholic bars spreading across Wisconsin

As Wisconsin is known for its drinking culture, these spots are 'a move towards questioning our relationship with alcohol and how it fits into our lives'

An employee smiles as she speaks to customers from behind the bar.
Chey W. C. takes an order from customers Friday, April 14, 2023, at HoneyBee Sage Wellness and Apothecary in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Inmoxicated in Racine has dozens of beers, cocktails and wines on the menu. Along with hosting trivia nights, karaoke and music events, they’re a “typical Wisconsin bar,” according to manager Jeff Gustin.

But there’s one key thing that separates Inmoxicated from other corner bars and pubs across Wisconsin — they don’t serve alcohol.

“We’re proof that you can go out and have a good time and do all of your old things, without alcohol,” Gustin said.

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Oranges and cherries are placed in a small jar. An employee uses a dropper to add to the drink.
“Beetender” Chey W. C. makes a non-alcoholic drink, a Wisconsin New Fashioned, for a customer Friday, April 14, 2023, at HoneyBee Sage Wellness and Apothecary in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Inmoxicated is one of a few new “sober” and non-alcoholic cocktail bars that have opened up in Wisconsin recently, offering alcohol-free options for those who don’t drink or don’t want to drink as often.

Many bars now offer non-alcoholic drinks, but spots like Inmoxicated in Racine, HoneyBee Sage Wellness and Apothecary and The Counter Day Bar in Milwaukee and The Bronze Dragon in La Crosse — all of which have opened in the last two years — only serve non-alcoholic beverages.

A 2022 Gallup poll found 65 percent of legal adults across the nation drink alcohol. But in Wisconsin, drinking is part of the state’s culture . A 24/7 Wall St. study revealed Wisconsin was the “drunkest” state in the nation, with just over 25 percent of residents drinking excessively. In 2021, 41 of the 50 “drunkest” counties in America were in Wisconsin, according to that study.

But businesses like Inmoxicated are trying to fight against that stigma and offer a safe space for those who don’t want to drink alcohol on a given night.

“We’re not geared just towards people in recovery — we’re for anybody that doesn’t want to drink that day, but still wants to go out and enjoy themselves,” Gustin said. “Our intention was to give back a nightlife to those that are living a sober life and those who just didn’t want to go to a bar and deal with the alcohol and the drunk scene.”

The Counter Day Bar is a popular non-alcoholic cocktail bar in Milwaukee. Evan Casey/WPR 

Meanwhile, the non-alcohol beverage drink market has been steadily growing. That’s something The Counter Day Bar is trying to tap into. It opened in February inside Crossroads Collective, a food hall on Milwaukee’s east side. Owner Ryan Castelaz said the majority of its customers have never tried a non-alcoholic cocktail, which is what his business specializes in.

“We’re really being able to create the precedent and the idea for them for what a non-alcoholic bar experience can be,” Castelaz said.

The Counter Day Bar offers customers a tasting menu, with drinks like the “Cane I Kick It,” which includes a non-alcoholic spiced rum, the non-alcoholic spirit aplos calme, cardamom, cherry and coconut syrup, lime bitters, pineapple foam and a touch of flake salt.

Castelaz believes more sober bars are expanding nationally, and will soon expand across Wisconsin, as more and more people are being conscious about what they drink and when. Castelaz compared it to more people switching to vegan or vegetarian diets.

“As we see new places join this mission and join this vision for the future of drinking, it is like this rising tide,” he said.

“This is a cultural shift,” he added. “This is a move towards conscious consumption. This is a move towards questioning our relationship with alcohol and how it fits into our lives and being more conscious about those decisions.”

Castelaz said The Counter Day Bar sees a wide variety of people, from families with their children to individuals who have been sober their entire life. He also views the business as an “experience.” Its current menu is titled “Myths and Fables” and includes stories and artwork for the customer alongside the drinks.

“Non-alcoholic drinks can be really fun,” he said. “There are so many applications for non alcoholic-drinks outside of just juice or soda or a little bit of an invention here or a little bit of invention there. This can be an entire art form, and it can be an entire craft.”

A woman in a yellow outfit smiles inside her bee-themed business.
Angela Mallett is the owner of HoneyBee Sage Wellness and Apothecary in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The variety of alcohol-free spirits is also on the rise. Many new options can be found at HoneyBee Sage Wellness and Apothecary in Milwaukee. Owner Angela Mallett said customers can buy drinks with non-alcoholic gin, whiskey and even mezcal at the bar and in the store.

“There’s a huge population of sober people, people who are in recovery, who are looking for spaces where they can have something more than a mocktail,” Mallett said. “A lot of people are looking for something more adult than that.”

Mallett’s father died from organ failure in 2019 after battling with alcoholism. When she was moving into her new location in the Bronzeville neighborhood, she didn’t feel right about applying for a liquor license and instead wanted her shop to offer healthy alternatives to alcohol, as she also serves herbal teas and kombucha.

“The fact that a lot of people can’t imagine having an evening of fun or an enjoyable evening without alcohol I think really speaks to the level of toxicity that we’ve created in our culture…and as Wisconsinites and throughout Milwaukee,” Mallett said.

She also said the interest in alcohol-free drinks, which she called a “movement,” is growing.

Inmoxicated in Racine is a sober bar. Facebook

When Inmoxicated opened in 2021, Gustin said many thought it wouldn’t last a week. But it just renewed its lease for another 18 months.

Gustin has been a bartender for several years, but this is his first time serving up drinks with no alcohol in them. He loves creating the drinks, but he also enjoys that he doesn’t have to deal with fights or disorderly customers.

“I never knew it could be so good,” he said about his job.

Zoe Lomenzo, general manager at The Counter Day Bar, also used to tend bar at other establishments across Milwaukee.

“Those people (non-drinkers) don’t have a place to go, and now we can provide a place for them and the more places that we provide across the city and the state and the country, the more that culture can grow,” Lomenzo said.

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