In August 2020, corporate marketer and consultant Douglas Watters was sitting on his bed when a name popped into his head: Spirited Away. With no prior beverage experience — but a burgeoning passion for zero-proof drinks — Watters couldn’t shake the notion he’d found the ideal name for an alcohol-free spirits shop. With his wife’s encouragement, Watters ran with the idea and Miyazaki-inspired name.
Just over two months later, Spirited Away opened for business on Manhattan’s bustling Lower East Side. Ironically, Watters says the fast-track from concept to retail was helped by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on local businesses.
“I had plenty of time to like walk around my neighborhood and look at all of the vacant spaces,” Watters told us. “And unfortunately a downside of the pandemic is lots of businesses have gone under, so there was more vacant space to choose from.”
At just 300 square feet, Spirited Away is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront in a neighborhood that — pandemic notwithstanding — normally bustles with tiny independent shops. The store is rimmed with whitewashed brick, and colorful bottles and cans stand out on minimalist racks and shelving. A handful of plants and geometric designs dot the walls, illuminated by track lighting from above. It’s an attractive setup that lets the products take center stage.
But given the size and location, convincing passersby to stop can be a challenge. So Watters and a handful of part-time staff members have relied heavily on sidewalk tastings to grab attention.
They’ve also seen a large influx from word-of-mouth marketing, especially given the alcohol-free spirits industry’s rapid growth and tight-knit community. The Dry January trend also spurred an influx of customers, many of whom had little prior experience with non-alcoholic drinks.
Watters estimates the store currently carries between 60 and 70 aperitifs, ready-to-drink beverages, mixes, and liquor substitutes. While Watters built the store’s initial inventory by reaching out to brands, he’s now receiving more inbound interest from companies capitalizing on an alcohol-free boom. Watters tries every product himself before it hits shelves, meaning he can be increasingly picky about which bottles make it to customers.
Spirited Away’s customers generally fall into two camps: Those looking for alcohol substitutes, and people interested in exploring entirely new flavors. For the former category, Watters will often point to brands like Lyre’s or Ritual, which specialize in non-alcoholic takes on whiskey, gin, and more. For the latter group, Spirited Away staff might recommend something like Ghia, a Mediterranean-inspired bitter apéritif that hit the market in mid-2020.
And while Spirited Away is NYC’s first alcohol-free spirits and bottle shop, it’s no longer alone in that category. In early 2021, Boisson opened in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, sharing the same dedication to carrying exclusively alcohol-free products and beverages.
Watters says the growing alcohol-free space is a welcoming and collaborative community. He’s been in contact with entrepreneurs across the country working to open their own specialty shops. And brands have been integral in helping retailers gain a foothold in the space, allocating products for sampling and investing in customer education.
“Even with brands you would think would be really cutthroat and competitive with one another, that’s not the case,” says Watters. “They’re all lifting one another, and it’s very much a rising tide lifts, all ships type of environment.”
Spirited Away is located at 153 Ludlow Street in New York City. It is open daily from 11am to 7pm.