At a grand opening over the weekend, Jillian Barkley debuted Soft Spirits, L.A.’s first non-alcoholic bottle shop, on a high-foot-traffic Silver Lake block that includes notable neighbors like All Day Baby and Dayglow. Her hope is for Soft Spirits to help redefine how people view drinking, a mission that reflects a larger trend in the U.S. and speaks to her personal story.
Barkley has been sober for just over three years and being a non-drinker played a big part in her decision to open Soft Spirits. “I think it’s something that’s very needed in our community,” she says. “A lot of my struggle when I stopped drinking was being able to go out and socialize and not feel awkward that I wasn’t drinking. Or I was holding water and people were asking me, ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ Just having the opportunity to have something that feels like an adult beverage, that’s not like a Coca-Cola, that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to you, helps me to stay sober.”
She hopes to increase awareness and accessibility for non-alcoholic beverages she finds exciting. “These are still valid, interesting drinks, just without alcohol,” she says.
Barkley coined the term soft spirits to describe the non-alcoholic beverages she started experiencing in 2018. She started an Instagram account to chronicle the places in New York City, where she was living at the time, where you could get a good alcohol-free beverage. She repurposed that account and did a refresh when she began the process of opening a storefront in L.A.
“I want it to be vibrant and exciting and colorful and kind of put a new spin on what it means to be sober,” Barkley says of Soft Spirits. “Sobriety in general sometimes has a lot of negative connotations to it, so I don’t necessarily want it to be focused on recovery or problem drinking. I just want it to be a new, interesting way to experience cocktails.”
John Seabrook recently wrote a New Yorker story that explores non-alcoholic beverages, including processes like “arrested fermentation” and “vacuum distillation” that prevent alcohol from developing in beer, “spinning cones and reverse osmosis” that strip alcohol from wine and non-alcohol spirits that often avoid using ethanol entirely.
Non-alcoholic adult beverages are still in their infancy, but the market has grown significantly in the past few years. “I think with COVID, people kind of became more aware of their mortality and started taking their health more seriously because sales of these products have been really accelerating,” Barkley says. “It’s one of those things that will just kind of become commonplace over time. Most bars and restaurants will start offering non-alcoholic options. I kind of think about it in a way like vegetarianism and veganism used to be a little inaccessible. Now you’re very hard-pressed to find a place that doesn’t offer [those options].”
Prior to opening Soft Spirits, Barkley worked in experiential design, creating brand pop-ups and interactive art installations, most recently for Madcap Motel in DTLA’s Arts District. Barkley prefers to interact with customers in-person and doesn’t plan to offer online sales. “I really want people to feel that they have a place that they can come, a place that is community focused,” she says.
She organized her shelf space with different purposes in mind. “There are what I call alternative spirits, which are basically one-to-one replacements. So non-alcoholic tequila or rum or whiskey,” Barkley says. “Then there are also new categories of spirits that are just kind of their own thing. They’re not necessarily trying to imitate anything else, but still kind of that cocktail base. There’s a lot of beverages made with nootropics and adaptogens that have functional properties, so they can kind of make you feel enlivened or even a little bit buzzy, but there’s still no alcohol in them.” Customers can also find non-alcoholic wines, non-alcoholic beers, and mixers to create cocktails at home.
Barkley is particularly excited about three brands she carries at Soft Spirits:
“It’s an alternative to an Aperol. It’s really nice to make a Spritz with. When I was drinking, Aperol Spritz was always like a summertime tradition for my friends and I.”
“They are one of the functional beverages, so it just makes you feel kind of nice and warm and fuzzy when you drink it…[Spritz] is supposed to make you feel enlivened and [Lightwave] is more of a nighttime kind of sleepy.”
“Athletic Brewing has really, really nailed the flavor profiles and drinkability and experience of beers… Athletic Brewing has a Mexican beer, like a cerveza, which I really love because I love to make micheladas.”
To help introduce more people to soft spirits, Barkley also plans to program monthly tastings for the public. She says, “I want the shop to be a space that inspires new ways of creating drinks for everyone who stops by, whether or not they consume alcohol.”
Soft Spirits, 3208 ½ W Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake.
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