As the popularity of health and wellness trends increases, more Nebraskans are looking for social choices that don’t involve drinking, and sober bars are filling that need with inventive non-alcoholic beverages and welcoming environments.
According to a 2021 national Nielsen survey, 22% of consumers reported that they were cutting back on consuming alcohol and drinking less. When asked why, the top responses were health and wellness, lack of opportunity and shifting interest. The same survey found that the sales of non-alcoholic drinks increased 113% in 2021 over the previous year.
Those trends have prompted several Nebraska businesses to jump on the sober bar craze by providing an environment where people may socialize and have fun without drinking.
Dry Spokes, a leader in the non-alcoholic bar movement in Nebraska, recently established its presence in downtown Omaha. The business was strategic in waiting for the trend to take off on the coasts and surrounding states before bringing it to the Cornhusker State, said Mi-Ya Mata, who co-owns the bar with her wife, Leah Wright.
The couple’s intention is to create an environment that promotes social equality for those who don’t drink. Dry Spokes, which started in 2022 as a mobile dry bar, offers a secure and friendly setting for those who wish to interact and have fun without the use of alcohol, Mata said. She pointed out that Dry Spokes functions as a hub for the community.
“In almost every aspect of our lives, we found people who did not drink, and they would casually mention the impact on their social lives,” Mata said. “We drank for a while, but as we started to reduce our intake, we also started to feel the impact of being a social outcast.”
Before they opened Dry Spokes in early February and were running the mobile dry bar, the couple saw a need for non-alcoholic beverages at farmers’ markets and nearby community events after experimenting with cocktail creation and receiving feedback from drinkers and non-drinkers.
“We found people in every market we attended who were excited that we existed,” Mata said. “We also saw a demand for drink service and were being hired for corporate events and business grand openings.”
Dry Spokes has grown in popularity among those looking for an alternative to regular bars, Mata said. The bar serves non-alcoholic beverages, such as craft sodas and mocktails, and organizes game nights, karaoke nights and live music shows.
The business provides a friendly and inclusive ambiance, and the bar attracts a varied population of people eager to have a good time without feeling obligated to drink, Mata said. Those who prefer not to drink may engage with others, enjoy nice conversation and entertainment and establish lasting connections in this atmosphere, she said..
“The proudest we get is when we craft a drink and the person we are making it for watches us, and their eyes light up because we are taking the time to create a drink for them,”
Mata said the bar has two types of customers: Those who abstain from alcohol and are no longer overlooked when they visit a bar, and those who still indulge in alcoholic beverages and are pleasantly surprised by the offerings.
“We have made sure to create a welcoming environment for everyone, regardless of whether or not they drink alcohol,” she said.
Customer Jessica Selega said she likes to go to Dry Spokes to have a nice mocktail and socialize. She said she thinks it’s a chill environment with good drinks, and it makes her feel fancy.
Selega, who has been sober for 10 years, started drinking in college, despite knowing from her family history that she was at risk for addiction. Over time, she came to realize that her concerns were justified. She said she had a traumatic incident that occurred after drinking on an empty stomach. Later she was put on medication that she could not take while drinking, so she started abstaining.
“I decided to try the medication for a while and see if it helped. If it did, I would stop drinking. And that’s exactly what happened,” she said.
So she made the choice to continue abstaining.
While Bar 1867 in Lincoln isn’t a sober bar, it expanded its selection of non-alcoholic drinks after bar owner Kelsey Graves said she realized she was consuming a lot of alcohol during the pandemic and wanted to make a lifestyle change.
Since Bar 1867 is a punk rock club, many of its patrons were heavy drinkers, she said, but they now are sober thanks to the bar’s emphasis on non-alcoholic drinks.
“I love seeing people’s faces light up when they see our selection and realize they’re not tied to soda or Red Bull all night,” Graves said.
For people like Ashley Rapp, a 23-year-old Omaha resident, sober bars and those that offer a mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages is a positive development. In spite of peer pressure during her life, Rapp has never been interested in drinking alcohol.
But she typically accompanies her friends to regular bars because that’s where they like to socialize.
“Normally I would just get a free pop as the designated driver, but I think sober bars are awesome if you are looking to socialize in that environment,” she said.
Rapp said a big part of the reason she avoids alcohol is that her family has an alcoholic history and she’s faced dangerous situations with people who were drunk.
“I just don’t see the glorification of alcohol, so I have never had an interest in it,” she said. “The cons outweigh the pros drastically for me.”
Bars aren’t the only businesses taking advantage of the sober trend. Sandhills Elixir, a nonalcoholic beverage company in Valentine, focuses on making handcrafted natural and organic elixirs that may be consumed on their own or as cocktail mixers. The company uses high-quality ingredients to create the non-alcoholic beverages in a variety of flavors, including ginger, lemongrass, and hibiscus, said Andrew Wassinger, who owns the company with his wife, Erica.
In order to produce Sandhills Elixir, a “zero-proof spirit,” the couple merged their expertise — she as food scientist and he as a venture capitalist — to create an innovative beverage meant to close a market gap. They had carefully analyzed market patterns and did extensive product testing with alcohol consumers before launching, Andrew Wassinger said.
The Sandhills region of Nebraska is a key inspiration for the products, and the drink takes its name from the Ogallala Aquifer water, a source of pure and clean water found deep within the Sandhills. By blending the unique flavors and textures of the area, the couple aims to provide a satisfying replacement for traditional alcoholic beverages, Andrew Wassinger said.
“We drew connections between the trend of plant-based proteins and where else could you want alternatives and thought about alcohol and connected to some products currently in the market,” he said.
With a focus on quality and innovation, the couple has positioned Sandhills Elixir as a first of its kind in Nebraska, Andrew Wassinger said. The drink is designed to appeal to those seeking a healthier alternative to alcohol, while still providing a satisfying and refreshing beverage experience.
The company has made in more than 5,000 bottles, which were shipped to 35 states, he said.
For people trying to be sober and social, the increase in options — like sober bars or innovative non-alcoholic drinks — is a welcome relief.
“I’m all for this trend,” Selega said. “There are lots of reasons to be sober. And I love that it’s become more socially acceptable. and that there are places to go where I fit in.”