There’s a question customers often ask when they see the bottles lining the walls of Sipple: Is any of this stuff good?
The Houston shop has an awe-inspiring selection of around three hundred nonalcoholic elixirs curated from a market that has ballooned into a $1.2 billion industry. For a former boozer like me (I gave up alcohol more than ten years ago), Sipple is like a candy store. The chic labels and exotic flavors are at once familiar and entirely novel, touting supplements like “nootropics” and “adaptogens.” But in a hard-drinking state like Texas, the knee-jerk response to a store like this can be skepticism.
“People thought we were crazy,” said Danny Frounfelkner, a former sommelier who runs Sipple with his wife, Helenita. So many retail space owners scoffed at his business plan that it took nine months to secure the nearly six-hundred-square-foot store near Rice Village. But within two months of opening in October 2021, the business was profitable. “People are realizing, you can drink things other than alcohol, and you should,” Frounfelkner said.
More than 30 percent of Americans don’t drink for religious, health, or personal reasons. Spirit alternatives, zero-proof cocktails, and nonalcoholic beer and wine have been trickling into the market for the past decade, fueled by wellness trends, social media, a more vocal and visible recovery scene, and a younger generation that’s less interested in puking into bushes. Movements like Dry January and Sober October—month-long abstinences from alcohol—have caught on in America over the past few years. Now, it seems like the inevitable consequence to the rise of binge drinking—from mommy wine culture to bro-ish overconsumption—might be its fall.
The beverage industry has snapped to attention: even old-school brands like Heineken and Budweiser have launched nonalcoholic beers far superior to O’Douls. Celebrities such as Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, and Blake Lively have gotten in on the action. Aside from the stalwarts and the bold-faced names on Us Weekly, a coterie of independent upstarts have swarmed onto the scene, and Frounfelkner aims to offer the best. “I wanted drinks that tasted amazing but still looked good on your bar cart,” he said, standing near a display shelf with products grouped to mimic different cocktails. Next to a small black sign that read “Negroni” sat three bottles: Cut Above gin alternative, Roots Divino alternative vermouth, and Wilfred’s orange and rosemary aperitif.
Frounfelkner spent more than twenty years in the service and hospitality industry after growing up in Napa Valley. But during a dark stretch of the pandemic, he began to worry about his consumption. He stopped drinking, and had a hard time ordering at bars that often offer sugary drinks, seltzer, and iced tea as alcohol-free alternatives. So he opened up Sipple and filled its shelves with more interesting flavor profiles, from bitter and savory to honeyed and fruit-forward and mushroom-infused.
Customers can sample the goods—a nice gesture for newcomers who may be overwhelmed and wary of dropping upwards of $40 on a bottle. Helenita set up a taste test for me in the store’s cozy back room, used for events.
“We love these guys, they’re from Austin,” she said, pouring a dark reddish-amber liquid from a bottle labeled Tenneyson. I sipped, and made a startled noise. Citrusy. Gingery. Peppery. Umami? I was prepared to like the drink, but not this much.
“We’re not trying to taste like anything else,” said Tenneyson cofounder Graham Wasilition when I reached him by phone. Much of the nonalcoholic space leans toward imitation: fake gin, fake champagne, fake tequila. Those drinks can be good, but the fastest way to become disillusioned is to expect a drink stripped of alcohol to taste like its original. Not gonna happen.
Wasilition wanted to create a beverage that was sui generis. He joined forces with friend and fellow entrepreneur Michael Bumgarner to create a beverage company that made nonalcoholic drinks for the curiously un-sober. Both men still imbibe, though having become husbands and fathers, they’re more mindful. They called the company Tenneyson after the English Belle Époque poet (the extra e was to secure the domain name).
Tenneyson’s flagship flavor is Black Ginger, the delightful concoction I tried at Sipple. It comes in a brown bottle inside a sophisticated orange box, but the selling point is taste—a drink you can savor. The ingredients include two types of ginger, Valencia orange, sweet orange, gentian root, dandelion, black pepper, and caffeine-free yerba mate. It’s the first nonalcoholic product I’ve tried that I would confidently serve to my drinking friends.
Austin has become the nexus of nonalcoholic innovation in the state. Aside from being home to Tenneyson, the city houses a sober bar called Sans Bar, as well as dozens of percolating beverage companies like Crisp & Crude canned cocktails, Surely de-alcoholized wine and canned spritzers, and Kin Euphorics, run by Jen Batchelor and supermodel Bella Hadid.
But the nonalcoholic trend reaches across the state. Dallas-based Starla offers three types of full-bodied wine (white, red, and sparkling rose) in carefree, girlish bottles, while the Dallas craft brewing company Community Beer developed Nada, a tasty nonalcoholic IPA. Over in Lubbock, restaurant The Nicolett offers a nonalcoholic cocktail list. “I’ve noticed a trend where people start with nonalcoholic [drinks] and switch to wine,” The Nicolett’s bar manager Caitlinn Mier said over the phone. One of its most popular cocktails is the NA Old Fashioned, made with Austin-based Spiritless Kentucky 74, bitters, bergamot, and blood orange spritz.
Frounfelkner only sees this trend growing. “The smart people running bars will take notice,” he said, as we sat across from each other in Sipple’s back room. One vision of the future might be something he saw in Berlin, where a bar served drinks “leaded, unleaded, or half-leaded,” or like Death & Co, a bar with locations in New York and Los Angeles that lists all their beverages with the ABV (alcohol by volume), so no customer has to hassle a bartender or use cutesy words like “mocktail.”
None of this comes cheap, and sticker shock is a common experience among Sipple’s customers. How come they’re getting no booze but paying the same amount? Frounfelkner explains it thusly: “Is there any price difference between Coke and Diet Coke?” He watches realization dawn in the customer’s eyes. Good point.
Twelve years sober, I’m still undecided how much I want to surround myself with sparkling elixirs and zaftig bottles again. While I was working on this story, a friend who’d been struggling said, “I can’t decide if these nonalcoholic drinks would finally help me stay sober, or start me on another slide.” Who could say? Like booze itself, it’s a matter of taste and personal experience. What I love about places like Sipple is that they expand the communal experience for an underserved part of the population.
Members of one Muslim family have become regular customers at Sipple. They didn’t even know what beer tasted like, or whether they preferred rum to tequila. Frounfelkner asked the father, “Do you feel like you’re finally invited to the party?”
He smiled. “I always felt like I was invited to the party,” he said, raising a bottle, “but I just never had anyone to dance with before now.”