They say that timing is everything. Such an ideology especially rings true for the inception of Soft Spirits, Los Angeles’s first non-alcohol bottle shop.
The store’s proprietor, Jillian Barkley, moved to the West Coast from New York City two years ago, as she says, “just on instinct.” Around the same time that her freelance business ventures in experiential marketing were coming to an end in Manhattan, Barkley’s romantic relationship was also running its course. As the now 35-year-old acknowledges, it was the ideal time to make a change. “I wouldn’t have to sever ties in any significant way,” she says.
When she first arrived in L.A., Barkley took a position working as a set designer for an interactive theater project, but the pandemic put an end to that project even before it began. The city went into lockdown on the date of the production’s planned premiere. Barkley was forced to pivot.
She continued to freelance as a creative director in the experiential marketing industry, though social distancing mandates during the pandemic curtailed many of those would-be opportunities. Around the time that the pandemic shifted into high gear, Barkley was into her second year abstaining from alcohol—she celebrated her third year of sobriety at the end of last month. Although the non-alcoholic spirits industry was beginning to blossom at that time, there wasn’t a storefront that catered to the category, at least not in California. Barkley was forced to shop online for various products, slowly building out her home bar cart with unique, zero-proof products; however, such a prospect was costly (thanks to exorbitant shipping fees). It also required a bold leap of faith, since there was no way taste test a product before committing to its purchase.
Inspired by her experiential marketing campaigns, in which brands invested in pop-up shops and curated art installations to spark more physical interactions with customers, Barkley decided to create a brick-and-mortar storefront that specialized in the non-alcoholic products that she was researching and buying for herself online. “I built the thing that I wished existed for me early on in my sobriety,” she laughs. “I realized there are a lot of people like me where alcohol isn’t serving them, but they still want to feel like they’re having an adult beverage.”
There was no precipitous moment when Barkley realized she needed to give up alcohol. In fact, she didn’t need to give it up at all. Her sobriety wasn’t born from feelings of dependency. Instead, she simply realized it wasn’t serving her anymore. “I wasn’t getting much benefit from it and it started to feel more detrimental and less positive,” she explains. “I decided just to take a break.”
That break, which began with a single month, has now extended to more than three years. In that time, Barkley discovered that she missed certain aspects of drinking…just not the alcohol itself.
“What I found that I missed wasn’t the effect of alcohol, but the ritual and celebratory aspect of drinking,” she explains. “I missed going to happy hour with friends or having a glass of wine with dinner or a glass of champagne at a wedding. And I always wished there was something more out there for me other than having a glass of Coca-Cola.”
Technically, the idea for Soft Spirits was born when Barkley still lived in New York. In its fledgling form, Soft Spirits existed as an Instagram account through which Barkley created a guide to the bars and restaurants throughout the city that offered unique and/or simply high-quality, non-alcoholic cocktails. A couple of years later, Barkley was constructing a business plan to potentially transform that social media account into a physical shop, albeit in Los Angeles.
“By offering those properties in a way that’s healthy and doesn’t come with the side effects of alcohol, it’s super valuable.”
Located on Sunset Boulevard in the city’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, Soft Spirits celebrated its grand opening on October 9, and across its 600 or so square feet of shop space, the store offers, as Barkley declares, “everything you need to make a perfect cocktail without the alcohol.” That includes a collection of non-alcoholic beers; zero-proof canned cocktails; non-alcoholic spirit substitutes; alcohol-free wines; and a bevy of non-alcoholic beverages that are decidedly spirit-inspired, even though they don’t conform to or taste like any pre-existing spirit type.
For example, Barkley is excited to introduce customers to Gnista, specifically the Swedish company’s product Floral Wormwood—a complex liquid made from rhubarb juice, beet syrup, and dried spices and fruit. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before,” she says. “It has the mouthfeel and viscosity of a traditional spirit but it’s a completely unique flavor. It’s really interesting.
“That’s the challenge with this category,” she continues. “Before you ever drank whiskey, would someone have been able to describe it to you? It could definitely resemble an Amaro,” she adds of Floral Wormwood, “but I don’t want to set people’s expectations. I want to encourage people to have an open mind when they’re exploring these new things.”
Similarly, Barkley is excited to introduce customers to the functional, non-alcoholic spirits created by Three Spirit, a London-based company that recently debuted a trio of beverages created to spark specific moods or states of being based on their active, natural ingredients. “I love how they’ve used functional ingredients,” she says. “Their flavors are great but they also have functional properties. The Livener, it brings you up. If you’re having a Night Cap, it helps you to relax.”
As Barkley acknowledges, those are some of the experiences that people are seeking when they drink alcohol, which is what makes the products crafted by Three Spirit so noteworthy. “By offering those properties in a way that’s healthy and doesn’t come with the side effects of alcohol, it’s super valuable. You can have a more enlivened experience; you’re not just mimicking alcohol. People who really appreciate cocktail culture and like to have more fun, may be more intrigued by these new things that they’ve never tried before.”
Barkley’s number one goal with Soft Spirits is to offer a lineup of curated, premium products in the non-alcoholic space. “Not all of these products are created equal,” she acknowledges, “and I want to make sure I’m providing a variety and also products that I believe in and can stand by.”
In the time that Barkley moved to Southern California and eventually committed to opening Soft Spirits on Sunset Boulevard, a few non-alcoholic bottle shops opened in New York City. Barkley initially watched from afar, observing the positive response that those establishments generated and also the early success that they generated. Those factors instilled more confidence in her that she could do something similar in California.
“I feel very fortunate that I got here at the right place and the right time,” she says. “People here have an above-average awareness of what they’re putting into their bodies, so LA seems like a prime market [for a non-alcoholic bottle shop].” In fact, Barkley’s research showed that the majority of online sales of non-alcoholic spirits and zero-proof beverages were conducted by consumers who live in California.
“I love the idea of making this an accessible and exclusive space for people who don’t drink or do drink but want to add something new to their bar cart,” she says.
As she moves forward with the new enterprise, Barkely knows she’ll make mistakes. She knows she’ll learn some business lessons the hard way. But she also knows that many people have an interest in what Soft Spirits is selling, and she trusts the intuition that brought her to the West Coast to begin with.
“I certainly feel like I’ve let my instincts guide me through a lot of my life and I’ve let that guide me with this,” she says. “I do feel lucky to be the person to fulfill this need in Los Angeles.”
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