Drinking culture in Columbia is as popular as it’s ever been, a big catalyst for the region’s growth.
According to the Brewers Association, American craft beer was a $27 billion dollar industry in 2018. $796 million of that was generated by the more than 80 breweries and brewpubs in South Carolina. 13 breweries and brewpubs currently reside in the Columbia area.
Craft cocktails have seen just as big a boom. Research by the Bw166 group showed that spirits were a $64 billion dollar industry in the U.S. during 2018. Bar programs aren’t just a nice luxury in today’s restaurant scene, but rather a semi-necessity to a serious business looking to make an imprint on the city. Bone-In Barbeque, The War Mouth and Hendrix are just a few of the newer Columbia restaurants that have emphasized bar programs to great success.
Beyond that, there’s countless festivals and events centered around the popularity of beer, whiskey, wine and craft drinks.
Unfortunately, I can’t enjoy most of it.
I, like many people of Asian descent, have an alcohol intolerance. Alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition where the body is unable to breakdown alcohol. It’s common in Asian populations due to a mutation that occurred when rice was domesticated. The enzyme that typically exists to convert alcohol in our body to a safer, more controlled substance got deactivated somewhere along the line. Instead of being able to enjoy the best parts of alcohol, I get the worst parts in a fraction of the time.
But it’s not just people with alcohol intolerance that don’t engage in drinking though. There are also people in the middle of pregnancy, members of different religious groups whose practices don’t allow alcohol, individuals who struggle with addiction, or people who simply don’t drink. That’s a large swath of people that don’t have the capacity to enjoy today’s burgenong drinking culture.
One of the hardest things about going to bars, restaurants or parties involving drinking is the feeling of alienation from everybody else. There have been many nights I’ve nursed the lowest gravity beer I can find for several hours while everyone around has the opportunity to explore different gins, whiskeys and interesting craft beers.
In restaurant situations, wait staff seem to respond better to tables that order alcoholic beverages, and hence spending more money. Not to mention the fact that pairing a meal with water or soda just isn’t as satisfying.
Non-alcoholic options, however, offer an opportunity to soften and balance these scenarios.
In the past, many non-alcoholic drinks went by the name “mocktail,” which to this day conjures images of sticky, sweet Shirley Temples and Virgin Marys. Non-alcoholic options have gotten incredibly sophisticated over the years, though, leaving mixologists to drop the description, often opting for either “non-alcoholic” or “spirit-free.” The popularity of bar culture has been a great benefit for non-alcoholic drinkers, as restaurants have more tools to work with for crafting interesting options.
For instance, Bourbon, the popular Main street whiskey bar, recently provided me with a ginger drink with pineapple and coconut juice and ginger beer shaken with a housemade ginger syrup and muddled mint. The drink was sharp and dynamic with big ginger notes and freshness from the mint.
Across town at Tazza Kitchen in Forest Acres, mixologist and bar lead Jake Smith crafted a couple of seasonal options, including a warmly spiced chai drink perfumed with lemon, orange and cinnamon, and a light, floral drink with hibiscus-rosewater syrup, pineapple, grapefruit and lemon.
Unlike most restaurants in town, Smith lists non-alcoholic drinks directly on the seasonal drink menu.
“We’ve had way more orders,” Smith says when asked about the popularity of the drinks since they were added to the main cocktail list. “It’s been good for us, because prior [to putting non-alcoholic options on the menu] we would do our best to accommodate and make a drink on the set, but now that we have some set options it streamlines the process.”
While every higher-end bar in town is typically more than able to come up with unique drink options for non-alcoholic drinkers, the benefit of printed choices is helpful, cutting out the need for uncomfortable explanations — especially for individuals with a more difficult history with alcohol.
While still relatively limited in Columbia, non-alcoholic drinks have become more of an industry standard down the road in Charleston, thanks in large part to the efforts of Ben’s Friends, a support group aimed at professionals who struggle with substance abuse. The hope is to help create a safe haven and judgment-free zone.
Ben’s Friends co-founder Steve Palmer, also the managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, has played a role in helping make spirit-free drinks a common part of cocktail menus in all his restaurants in the city. That influence has spread to others, to the point where some places have entire menus dedicated to spirit-free craft drinks.
Here’s hoping that Columbia, which frequently follows the trends set by our coastal neighbor, follows suit, and makes non-alcoholic drinks a more vital presence at local bars.