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Looking for a social space with great non-alcoholic drinks? Zero-proof bars are gaining popularity. We check out Suckerpunch in Portland.
When I first quit drinking, I still went to the same bar to see my friends. I’d order cranberry juice mixed with club soda. The music was loud. Everybody else was getting drunk and having a better time. It sucked. I’m not alone. When people are used to going to a bar and drinking with their friends, quitting leaves a hole. What do you do at night? Where do you socialize? And so, we have the slow rise of the mocktail bar. A few have opened worldwide, including a new mocktail bar in Portland. These bars provide an adult space for people to get together and drink inventive nonalcoholic drinks.
In Portland, Oregon, where I live, we now have Suckerpunch. I checked it out one Friday night with my friend Gretchen. The place was immaculate, fresh-smelling, and well-lit for a bar. The music was low enough to hear each other, so there were no sore throats at the end of the night from yelling to be heard. All 27 chairs faced the U-shaped mahogany bar, so we could watch the bartenders fix the drinks. I enjoyed being out in public at night in the absence of alcohol. Gretchen, who has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward alcohol, appreciated that the bar was free from misbehaving drunks.
The Origins of Suckerpunch
In 2012, Andy McMillan co-founded XOXO, an experimental festival held in Portland for independent artists who live and work online. As part of the festival’s effort to welcome folks of every stripe, XOXO had a dedicated mocktail bar. The bar was one of McMillan’s favorite parts of XOXO. He toyed with the idea of opening a nonalcoholic bar in Portland, and by the summer of 2019, he decided to go for it.
He worked with a friend to devise three exciting drinks and did a popup on the last weekend of 2020. “We did four seatings over a Saturday and Sunday night,” McMillan told me. “And afterward, we got phenomenal press. After that first weekend, we put 2500 people on the waiting list for a table. The concept was solid. Portland was ready for this.”
The pandemic stomped on everybody’s plans and laughed at their dreams. Suckerpunch did what it could; it came up with popular nonalcoholic cocktails to go and developed a Christmas kit in 2020 for curbside pickup and citywide delivery.
Finally, in February 2022, Suckerpunch opened a longer-term location in the Goat Blocks building in a central Southeast Portland neighborhood. Portlanders are loving the first mocktail bar on the West Coast.
Who Goes to a Mocktail Bar?
People in recovery are an obvious demographic for a mocktail bar. “There’s a particular dance there with creating a space that feels familiar and feels like a bar and has that kind of energy,” McMillan said. “And also understanding that a lot of stuff about bar culture or drinking could be challenging or triggering for folks who are in recovery.”
The Suckerpunch staff is constantly processing feedback from its customers, especially those in recovery, about how to make the space safe and welcoming.
But the mocktail bar’s appeal is much broader. “A lot of folks are self-selecting out of drinking as much or drinking at all,” McMillan said. He and most of his employees are in their late twenties to thirties. Some notice that drinking alcohol takes a more considerable toll on them than it used to. “You get to a point in your life where even if you do drink and you feel like you’ve got a good grip on it and you’ve got a good relationship with alcohol, your body stops being able to deal with it as well as it could when you were in your twenties,” he said.
The bar hosts many first dates. It’s a place where people can get to know each other without alcohol or loud music distorting their impressions. The same goes for friends like Gretchen and me, who want to catch up without having to yell or put up with barroom drama.
The desire to avoid alcohol touches many groups. “I would say it’s been a very diverse space from the beginning,” McMillan said. “Sobriety is popular in vegan circles. Sobriety is also very popular in queer circles.” McMillan also sees lots of pregnant women.
Benefits of a Mixed Demographic at a Mocktail Bar
Suckerpunch is for people aged eighteen and over. It’s catching that pre-21 age group who want to go to a bar and stretches up to people in their sixties.
McMillan is from Northern Ireland, where he grew up going with his parents to the pub and socializing with people of all ages. “My parents are so up on Tik Tok and all the stuff because the place they go to socialize is where everyone goes,” he said. “It’s intergenerational. Everybody goes to the same place. So it has weird side effects: the 60-year-olds know everything that the 20-year-olds know because they’re all hanging out and talking to each other. And there is something nice about that.” He’s seen a similar dynamic at Suckerpunch.
What Makes a Good Alcohol-free Drink?
McMillan is not a bartender himself, but he’s developed a lot of principles about what makes an excellent mocktail and what to avoid. First off, no imitations. “The idea of opening a zero-proof bar only to serve nonalcoholic knockoffs of classic craft cocktails just seems like a completely wasted opportunity,” he said. “There are so many other ways to approach thinking about and building considered and complex nonalcoholic cocktails, it should not start with trying to mimic liquor in the drink or using any of the spirit parities.”
McMillan likes every drink to contain something unfamiliar. Suckerpunch succeeds at this. When we visited, Gretchen and I had no idea what half the ingredients on the four-cocktail menu were. But I figured I was game as long as it was alcohol-free and vegan. I chose the Ritual Howl, which contained Pathfinder, habañero, El Guapo Love Potion #9 bitters, and mandarin soda. Other choices included the One-Cent Magenta, with Three Spirit Livener, black cherry, blackberry, tarragon, smoked salt, cacao, and Lapsang mist, or the I’m OK to Go, with Wilderton Earthen, Smith Tea Golden Light, ginger, honeycomb cordial, red beet, pistachio oil, and dill oil.
Drinks should not rely too heavily on sugar, fruit, or vegetable juices. “That’s another undeniable place that people go with nonalcoholic drinks. If you want a juice, got to a juice bar,” McMillan said.
The Performance Element at a Mocktail Bar
All of the drinks at Suckerpunch have a performance component to them. That’s why the space was designed with all 27 chairs facing the bar. Each drink has a finale with the glass set on the bar for a final pour or other flourishes.
The performance is interactive. “Being a bartender is a very social job,” McMillan said. “But this is at a whole other level. We don’t have many guests come into Suckerpunch and passively sit in the corner. Especially when they’re sitting up at the bar, people get into it.”
Everybody wants to know about the mocktail bar concept and the drinks themselves. Zero-proof spirits are unfamiliar to many guests. “We always keep bottles on the bar to let folks try things neat.”
Partnerships with Local Brands
Suckerpunch sources the best ingredients wherever they find them. But McMillan is thrilled that some of the best are in his backyard. Some of their drinks incorporate the flavors of Portland’s Steven Smith Teamaker. They use kombucha from Camellia Grove Kombucha, “who, for my money, makes the best kombucha in North America. They’re doing phenomenal work here in Portland as well,” McMillan said.
He’s especially enthusiastic about zero-proof spirits from Wilderton in nearby Hood River, Oregon. Brands like Wilderton don’t produce nonalcoholic whisky knockoffs. “These spirit alternatives don’t have any context in alcohol at all,” McMillan said. “They’re unique and bring weird flavors previously inaccessible to zero-proof.”
For example, according to the Wilderton website, Wilderton’s Earthen spirit contains “a heady combination of white peppercorn, pine-smoked tea, and cardamon that create smooth, sultry, and spicy notes of exotic spices, wood, and smoke with a warm lingering finish.” What the heck is this stuff? A mysterious botanical extract.
Suckerpunch is also experimenting with an ingredient called verjus, the nonalcoholic byproduct of winemaking. McMillan described it as a way to bring some acidity into drinks. They source theirs from Montinore Estate in Forest Grove, Oregon.
Learning From the Pandemic
It’s been a hard few years for businesses and individuals in so many ways. One of the most significant changes McMillan has seen from the pandemic is that people don’t want to go out as much, and certainly not as late. He’s seeing bars close at nine and ten instead of midnight or later. He said, “We all became homebodies and we were stuck at home for two years. Personally, I don’t want to go out late anymore. I just don’t. I used to. Is that because I’m getting older? Is that because of the pandemic? I don’t know.”
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The pandemic also highlighted people’s mental and physical health. And with that, many people looked at their increasing alcohol consumption. The time is ripe for a gentler adult gathering place, free from alcohol and loud music. A few nonalcoholic bars have popped up around the world, from Berlin to Tokyo to Dublin to New York and now Portland. Maybe this trend will continue to spread. If you are looking for a fun evening out, tasty things to eat or drink—and more great things to do while you explore Portland—let Wander with Wonder be your guide.