As a Midwest college town, Iowa City has historically been a heavy-drinking community within a heavy-drinking region.
“The University of Iowa has long been known as one of the top party schools,” said Dr. Paul Gilbert, a professor in the College of Public Health who studies alcohol-related disparities. “But it doesn’t have to dominate anymore. I think there are more options downtown and around the Ped Mall that don’t revolve around just going to the bar.”
This shift has been a concerted effort on behalf of the city and the Iowa City Downtown District. The Partnership for Alcohol Safety, a joint project of the university and the city, has been meeting for about 10 years, and Gilbert got involved when he moved to Iowa City in 2015.
“They are specifically focused on expanding the range of options so that socializing and nightlife doesn’t mean you always have to go to a bar.”
Unimpaired Dry Bar is one of these options. The first dry bar in Iowa City has had great success since its grand opening in October 2021. They offer everything a traditional bar would — including a fun atmosphere and expansive drink menu — minus the alcohol, according to events and engagement manager Angie Chaplin.
“It has the energy, it has the music. People will often walk in not knowing we’re an alcohol-free establishment,” she said.
When Chaplin first found Unimpaired, she was looking for somewhere to socialize without the pressure to drink. “I’m two years sober and I’m very, very social, but the two don’t often go together,” she said.
Unimpaired has been embraced by student organizations through the Campus Activities Board at the University of Iowa — for karaoke nights, painting nights or other themed events. Underage students, as well as fraternities and sororities, “still want a social environment, but they want it to be safe and want it to be inclusive of health choices,” Chaplin noted.
This summer, Unimpaired will debut their first sober Hawkeye tailgating club, which Chaplin is particularly excited about as the mother of an Iowa football player.
Dr. Gilbert thinks the trend of embracing nonalcoholic drinking, which is moving from the recovery community to the mainstream, has some connection to the pandemic. He mentioned that early on, rates of drinking started going up, which is a common response to stress.
“We’ve seen that with other things like natural disasters, wars and humanitarian crises,” he added.
The quickest indicator of this trend is sales tax data released by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which reported that Iowa reeled in $452,010,794 in total revenue in 2021, up around 13 percent from 2020. Johnson County ranked the second highest in profits from sales.
“But at the same time, I think after the initial uptick, a lot more people were starting to reflect on the role of alcohol in their lives and reevaluating how much they want to be drinking,” Gilbert said. The two often seem to go hand in hand; as drinking rates rise, people also become more curious about the effects of alcohol and what it does to their overall wellbeing.
Alternatives to alcoholic beverages tend to fall into three categories: nonalcoholic spirits that mimic alcohol, like Seedlip liquor and Monday Gin; low-ABV drinks like Haus Apéritifs, near-beer and kombucha; and, of course, nonalcoholic sodas, juices, teas or energy drinks.
Aerin Black, the front-of-house manager and beverage director at The Dandy Lion in Iowa City, says they had originally designed a nonalcoholic menu two years ago, and at that time there wasn’t much of an appeal for it. But recently, they’re seeing an increased demand, “so we’re getting excited to plan to offer a formal nonalcoholic beverages section again, with cocktails in mind.”
Black looks forward to the innovations in mixology these drinks will represent, moving away from “the idea of a mocktail, which in the past has usually been just a Shirley Temple or a virgin Bloody Mary,” they said.
Beyond nonalcoholic cocktails, we may even see completely new options in the area, predicts Jenny McMillen, a home mixology enthusiast. She moved from Hawaii to Iowa City and already makes her own mocktails at home, using local tonic syrups from Joanna’s Premium Tonic Syrups mixed with coconut water or ginger ale. She also brews kombucha and jun, a fermented drink similar to kombucha which substitutes green tea and honey for the typical black tea and sugar.
She’s noticed kava — a drink that promotes relaxation and is considered sacred in Hawaii (and other Pacific Island cultures) — beginning to catch on in the Midwest.
“Kava, in Hawaii, has gotten so many people to stop drinking alcohol, or to help people who are already trying to resist alcohol,” McMillen said. This is because it’s an adaptogen, so it balances your nervous system, with none of the downsides of alcohol. “Kava and kombucha — it doesn’t have addictive qualities, but it has those aspects of bringing people together. It calms you down, lets you relax,” she said.
Joe Reilly, Iowa City’s nighttime mayor, agrees that locals’ tastes have evolved.
“People are looking for activities,” he noted. “They’re looking for games, a gamification of their experience. They’re looking for a space that is a whole vibe.”
Looking for a place you can socialize sans alcohol? These spots have dedicated non-alcoholic menus or their bartenders are happy to whip something up.
Wild Culture Kombucha
210 N Linn St, Iowa City
328 S Clinton St Unit A, Iowa City
5300 Edgewood Rd NE, Cedar Rapids
The Dandy Lion
111 S Dubuque St, Iowa City
203 N Linn St, Iowa City
How about for your home bar? Many area liquor stores have already caught on to the non-alcoholic and sober-curious movement, and carry options ranging from NA spirits to wine and beer, as well as more unique options like aperitifs and CBD drinks.
Benz Beverage Depot
501 7th Ave SE, Cedar Rapids
3330 16th Ave SW, Cedar Rapids
125 S Dubuque St, Iowa City
401 E Market St, Iowa City
This article was originally published in the 2020 issue of Bread & Butter magazine.