PARIS — Call it the effects of Dry January, but Parisian Millenials are having serious second thoughts about hitting the bottle.
“Drinking is still fun, but I’ve decided to limit my alcohol intake to weekends only,” said Mathilde, a 27-year-old community manager. “I realized that I was drinking nearly every day and that I had put on weight. I needed to take care of my body.”
She shared her thoughts with her friend group and realized she wasn’t the only one wanting a break from alcohol. “I had stopped drinking for a while for medical reasons, and realized that my body felt a lot better,” said her friend Laurine, 28, who works in theater. “So we decided that for our weekly meet-ups, instead of a couple of bottles of wine, we would all bring food and Sanpellegrino.”
For Thierry Daniel, who created the Paris Cocktail Week, an annual mixology celebration hitting the French capital from Jan. 18 to 26, the rise of teetotalism amongst Millennials is due to a society shift toward wellness.
“People are paying more attention to what is going on with their bodies,” said Daniel, who adds that in the U.K. one-in-four 16- to 24-year-olds is a teetotaler and that the trend is slowly trickling down to Paris. (The legal drinking age in England and France is 18.) “In the Seventies and Eighties, it wasn’t uncommon to drink alcohol everyday, something that is pretty much inconceivable nowadays.”
Every year, his team of four try more than 2,000 bars to get a sense of how people drink. “It’s no longer about hedonism but about really tasting and appreciating what you’re drinking,” said Daniel, whose marketing agency Liquid Liquid also runs annual drinks trade show Cocktail Spirit. “People are looking to stimulate emotions via taste. Flavor has now become the most important factor, more so than the alcohol strength. It’s all about sipping and enjoying your drink.”
Every year since 2015, barmen taking part in the Paris Cocktail Week — 15 in 2015, now 50 for the 2019 edition — come up with two exclusive creations sold for the duration of the event, one with alcohol and one without in compliance with the French Evin law on the promotion of alcohol.
Over the years, Daniel noted a raise in orders of the spirit-free version: Since the last Paris Cocktail Week, 62 percent of bartenders taking part in the event reported an increase in orders of spirit-free or low alcohol drinks. In 2018, the category represented 18 percent of revenue for participant bars, and there are 21 percent more non-alcoholic drinks on Parisian drinks menus since January 2018.
“Mocktails are generally seen as too sweet or lacking imagination: It’s often just a regular cocktail, like a piña colada, but without the alcohol,” Daniel commented. “It’s about educating the customer [and] also the barmen. Working without alcohol pushes them to adopt different techniques — distillation, fermentation or infusion, for example — and have fun with textures and tastes. It’s like a blank slate for them.”
If the spirit-free mentality has completely taken up the anglophone world, Daniel cites bars in London and Dublin that offer a drinks list completely devoid of alcohol — France, the country of fine wines, is clearly lagging behind.
“When I say I don’t drink, people generally have the two same negative reactions,” said Matthias, 32, who has always been teetotaler. “They absolutely want to understand why, as if I had to justify my choice, and then they try to get me to drink. In both cases, they consider my abstinence to be a personal attack.”
Hélène, a 24-year-old communications student, stopped drinking when she was 16. “It didn’t stem from any bad experiences, I just realized that I like being in control of my actions when I’m partying,” she said.
She’s also been disappointed by people’s reactions. “Sometimes I feel like they see me as some kind of alien. Some people think you can’t have fun without drinking. You can often feel excluded from the others when everyone is drinking except you.”
“The spirit-free movement is all about inclusiveness,” reasoned Margot Lecarpentier, founder of Combat, a women-led creative cocktail bar in Belleville. “Non-alcoholic cocktails allow our bar to cater to everyone: pregnant women, former addicts, people who avoid alcohol for religious reasons and even children.”
To craft their spirit-free cocktails, the team at Combat work with seasonal produce — “fruit needs to be incredibly fresh, because there is no alcohol to mask the taste” — and play with human senses: A spray of juniper will create the sensorial illusion of a gin and tonic, without the gin. “For other ideas, you just need to open a magazine — for example, kombucha is a major trend,” Lecarpentier said.
The barmaid, now 32, thinks the social pressure she felt as a teen is no longer the norm. “It seems like teenagers nowadays are more self-assured and don’t let themselves be pressured into doing anything they don’t want to,” she conceded, warning that she considered it to be an urban tendency.
Daniel agreed. “The new generation of customers has distanced itself from the idea that partying necessarily entails alcohol. Not drinking has even become quite trendy,” he said.
Hopefully the trend will debunk the idea that not drinking prevents you from having a good time. “When I was head barman at the Mary Céleste, I realized that when people were doing shots, it’s the gesture that counted — everyone raising glasses together — rather than what was being drunk,” said Hyacinthe Lescoët, owner of the Cambridge Public House in the Marais.
So he came up with an alcohol-free shot to allow non-drinkers to take part in the ritual, a blend of cherry syrup, Japanese herbs and citrus fruit. At the Cambridge Public House, which opened on Jan. 14 and where a quarter of the cocktails are spirit-free, “clean” shots are made of hibiscus water, honey and verjuice. “It enables people who don’t drink to still be part of the group.”
While also avoiding a very nasty hangover.