When Andy McMillan first quit drinking five years ago, his main worry was that his social life would change for the worse—that his friends would stop inviting him out, presuming he wouldn't enjoy hanging being the sober guy at the bar.
That didn't happen, he says. But while he didn't feel left out, entering the non-drinker's world of club soda and ginger beer often left him feeling underwhelmed.
"Occasionally, I would ask a bartender to make me something," says the co-founder of Portland's XOXO Festival. "But very often they're just combining whatever fruit juice they have behind the bar and throwing in a Collins [mix] splash and they're like, 'Here you go!'"
Things were starting to change, though. Zero-proof bars—businesses that function like normal taverns but do not sell alcohol—were beginning to pop up in other cities, part of a larger movement around sobriety in the service industry. The past two years of Feast have featured popular Zero Proof dinners, planned around sophisticated non-alcoholic cocktails prepared by sober chefs and bartenders, and diners packed the tables.
In January, when McMillan announced his intention to open Suckerpunch, Portland's first entirely zero-proof bar, the response was similarly overwhelming. Within days, hundreds of people signed up for the bar's mailing list, and a preview event at Roseline Coffee in February sold out in advance.
Alongside ready-to-serve beverages like kombuchas and housemade sodas, the main feature at Suckerpunch will be mixed drinks, which are as complex and whimsically named as any cocktail. The menu from the first tasting, which McMillan developed with Matt Mount of Merit Badge catering, included the Straight From the Fire, a mix of roasted corn tea, smoked pecan wood maple syrup and barrel-aged bitters, and the Island Boy, which blends Montinore Estate Verjus and Som turmeric drinking vinegar with yuzu syrup, fresh lime and galangal.
McMillan is currently looking for a permanent space in Southeast Portland and will continue to host preview events at Roseline Coffee that will be announced on the bar's social media pages and mailing list.
WW spoke with McMillan about why Portland needs a booze-free bar, and how to approach non-alcoholic beverages as their own dining category and not just substitutes for something else.
WW: When you first stopped drinking, what would you order at bars?
Andy McMillan: I would go to bars and order a bitters and soda or a root beer, if they had a good root beer. There's sort of a lack of weight or substance in a lot of stuff that bars will just kind of throw together from whatever they have if they're not an actual zero-proof bar. You have to approach it from a totally different mindset. We were talking about this when we did our tasting a couple of nights ago. We're basically making small meals. Approaching it like you're cooking or concocting something that's brand new and that hasn't really ever been done before is a much better way of thinking about it than, "We're just trying to make something to sub out the thing that people actually want, which is to come here and drink alcohol."
Was there a point where you were like, "I wish there was something better being offered me"? Or did you go somewhere where there was a better non-alcoholic beverage program?
There has been both a significant improvement in zero-proof menus in bars and restaurants in Portland, and then also zero-proof bars around the country are opening and doing a really good job of making original drinks that don't include alcoholic ingredients. It was really nice to be able to go to Eem and order a drink with my meal and feel like I'm drinking alongside everybody else, and that as much thought has been put into this as has been put into the rest of the menu.
I think the origin story for Suckerpunch is a few different things. We started our own non-alcoholic bar program at the festival that I run here [XOXO] in 2015. It's this sort of combination of working on it through the festival and quitting myself shortly after we started doing that, and then seeing these spaces appear around the country and starting to see this sort of coalesce as a movement.
What kind of feedback do you get from people working behind bars and in kitchens?
I've been contacted by a lot of people who are just very excited that it's happening at all, and one of the louder groups is definitely chefs and service industry folks. That feedback is coming in two different ways: appreciation that it is opening, and a lot of excitement about being able to have a space like that, because so many folks in the hospitality industry are sober or in recovery or struggle with alcohol addiction issues.
And then the second thing is that they all want to work at it, because there are so many sober bartenders or folks who work behind bars who have to do the sip-and-spit because they don't want to be drinking alcohol or they can't drink alcohol. I'm very excited about being able to hire sober bar staff for this and to give those people a space where they can feel safe and enjoy working in a space like this where there isn't alcohol around.
I think it's very important for people to have a space to go to that isn't centered around alcohol consumption that puts a particular amount of effort into making sure that the drinks are something substantial and good. There's a few other opinionated things happening on the menu, too. One of the questions I get most often is whether we'll have non-alcoholic beer and wine. The answer is no, mostly because that stuff is not very good but also because it's triggering to folks who are in recovery. Also, no CBD products or anything marjuana-adjacent.
Is there anything that you'll always order if you see it?
Shirley Temples get a bad rap. I went to Tusk for Valentine's Day a couple years ago, and I was in the frame of mind of like, "We're gonna do whatever the fuck we want tonight! We're getting everything." I ordered a Shirley Temple and the face on the server when I ordered it was just priceless. Like, yeah, I know it's got a ridiculous name, and I know it's named after a kid, but it's delicious.