Low-Non-Bar, located in the heart of the Nihonbashi financial district, has all the trappings of a classic Tokyo watering hole. The sophisticated space features a warm, dark-wood interior, flatteringly soft lighting and a white-jacketed barman pouring impeccably mixed drinks. The only thing missing is the high-octane liquor that forms the base of most cocktails.
As the name suggests, Low-Non-Bar, which launched in early March, specializes in alcohol-free mocktails and handcrafted tipples containing less than 4% alcohol. Owner Eiji Miyazawa came up with the idea after giving up alcohol for health reasons more than four years ago.
A bartender by trade, Miyazawa is the founder of Orchard Knight Inc., which operates seven establishments in Tokyo and Nagano Prefecture. However, once he stopped drinking, he realized that the lack of beverage options can make abstainers feel awkward in social situations at bars and restaurants.
“While drinkers might enjoy five cocktails in a sitting, nondrinkers struggle to get through one or two because their choices tend to be limited to oolong tea or orange juice,” he observes. “I thought it would be great if there were a bar where everyone could be on the same wavelength and experience the same atmosphere.”
Fueled in part by the wellness movement, the trend toward low- and zero-proof beverages has been gaining momentum among younger generations overseas for nearly a decade and is now sweeping across traditionally heavy-drinking Japan. According to data from the Japanese health ministry, in 2017 only 16% of men in their 20s and 25% in their 30s drank two or more servings of alcohol on three or more days a week, half the number in both groups from a decade earlier.
These days, Tokyoites seeking upscale booze-free offerings have more choices than ever. In July, bar 0% opened in Roppongi, offering cocktails developed by bartender Shingo Gokan of The SG Club in a slick space that resembles a futuristic airport lounge — replete with mirrored surfaces, colored lights and silver beanbag chairs. The Nepalade, a lively lemon-raspberry drink spiked with Nepalese timur pepper, comes with Bose sunglasses fitted with tiny Bluetooth speakers that direct soundscapes into your ears as you imbibe. The experience, says founder Masumi Yamamoto, is intended to provide guests with a personal oasis of calm.
But it’s not just boutique bars taking this step: The Andaz Hotel in Toranomon began beefing up its mocktail program a few years ago in response to an increase in requests. At the stylish rooftop bar, “sober curious” customers can order seasonal fruit-based concoctions prepared by genial head bartender Yasutoshi Yoshiwara, as well as nonalcoholic versions of any of the cocktails on the menu. When constructing virgin cocktails, Yoshiwara pays extra attention to presentation so that guests “can start enjoying the drink with their eyes.” The autumn menu features a polyphenol-rich, burgundy-hued drink made with nonalcoholic wine from Yamanashi Prefecture and crowned with a garland of fresh dill and rosemary, and a delicate blend of elderflower tea, grapefruit and pear, topped with a single pink blossom encased in a spherical ice cube.
Back at Low-Non-Bar, Miyazaki makes use of a growing selection of local and imported zero-proof spirits and wines, in addition to an array of house-distilled elixirs and original infusions. The eponymous signature cocktail, presented in a delightful bird-shaped flute, combines mixed berries and red pepper with zippy orange and ginger shrub, highlighting the fresh ingredients. A matcha mocktail mixes muscat grapes with Natural Gin, a juniper- and herb-based alcohol-free distillate produced by a Japanese botanicals company, Distill Plants. And an enticing ruby-red drink made with homemade bitters, Nema — a nonalcoholic whisky-flavored “gin” flavored with two varieties of roses from Nagano Prefecture — and espresso is a dead ringer for a coffee Negroni.
For those who crave the taste and mild buzz of a low-alcohol cocktail, there’s no shortage of options. An elegant tipple based on the bar’s own banana-enhanced rum is perfumed with sandalwood and lemon. An alchemy of the cocktail’s aroma and bartender Hirosaki Takahashi’s smile reminds me of a trip to Hanoi I took long ago; I savor the memory, knowing that, at least with this drink, I’ll have no regrets in the morning.