Ready to schmooze without the booze?
Local duo redefines nonalcoholic libations without sacrificing ambiance; photos by Michael Hanlon
The funny thing about living through a pandemic is watching waves of people responding to unprecedented stress at the same time. In the beginning, a popular joke was that having a drink in the middle of the day was no longer considered a faux pas while living through a global health crisis. In the beginning of 2021, I started to see more and more folks popping up online to share that they were practicing a Dry January. It seemed like collectively a lot of people worldwide had suddenly been forced to come to terms with their relationship with alcohol outside the scope of social gathering.
One of those people trying a Dry January was local Meg Hartman.
“I think it’s important that you think about the reasons that you’re drinking. When the pandemic shut everything down, I was drinking every day to reward myself for getting through the day. I realized there was a point where it’d been two months and I’d had a drink almost every day. And since [January] I have been evaluating my relationship with alcohol and thinking ‘Do I really need this? Do I want it?’ And when I do drink, I am not drinking to escape.”
Meg is one half of the team behind AltBar, Rochester’s newest recurring alcohol-free alternative gathering. Together with her husband, Bob Hartman, she facilitates pop-up events with zero-proof cocktails, nonalcoholic beers, and a place to connect with others.
It was difficult to miss the popularity of these new events if you were tuned into the Rochester food and drink scene. Their first pop-up at Fuego Coffee in December of 2021, which ran on a prepurchase ticket registration, sold out four days before the event with zero paid advertising. After several more successful pop-ups at other local hot spots, the Hartmans shifted to an open admittance model at their new regular spot in the Commissary at Sibley Square.
“We are seeking to create a nonalcoholic experience, so we want to make a place that is open and welcoming for people of all sorts of walks of life that doesn’t have alcohol at the center of it. So many of our social gathering spaces are alcohol centric, we want one that’s intentionally not alcohol centered. So, to do that, we sell nonalcoholic cocktails, nonalcoholic beers, and other beverages that are nonalcoholic to give people an opportunity to gather and be fully present with each other,” says Bob when asked how he would describe the objective behind AltBar.
I was impressed to hear that all the buzz around AltBar was purely organic between word of mouth and a well-curated social media presence. Rochester is a densely populated area of top-notch craft cocktails, whether you’re looking for a frozen daiquiri with handmade garnish or a perfectly poured cocktail over locally made clear artisanal ice. You’re likely to find both of those things within 500 feet of each other, if not from the same bar. My partner, Sam, and I kept hearing about AltBar from our friends with the finger on the pulse, and we quickly realized that this was not an event that only satisfied folks who were committed to sobriety.
“We can make good drinks that are enjoyable and complex. They have a depth, and they have different notes and flavors, just like an alcoholic cocktail would,” says Meg. Bob explains how he was inspired by a nonalcoholic bar in Austin, Texas, called Sans Bar. Sans Bar founder Chris Marshal began to share the secrets to his success online through a virtual class that the Hartmans took to learn more about the concept. Meg’s career in marketing quickly stirred up interest in the community, and Bob began to experiment with making drinks.
“We kept waiting for someone to do it here,” Meg remarks. “We kept thinking ‘it’s happening in other cities. Rochester feels like a place where this should happen, too.’ We’re always on trend and we are a great food and beverage area, but it never happened. So, we made it happen, and we made it work.”
Despite being so warmly welcomed by the Rochester food and drink community, there still appeared to be some stigma about a nonalcoholic event that guests needed to digest on their own terms. I had a little laugh when my boyfriend told me he felt guilty drinking a beer while I was getting ready for us to attend a pop-up in April. It was identical to an encounter Meg told me about when we spoke. A guest guiltily confided in her that she had a few drinks at a bar before coming to the event. “I know I shouldn’t have done that,” the guest told her. Bob and Meg are very transparent that their events aren’t strictly for sober folks, and that there are plenty of reasons for all kinds of people to enjoy a mocktail.
“One of the demographics we are going after are people who are drinking and want to extend their night.You know, you go to a bar and you’re having a good time with your friends, but you don’t want to drink too much, or you want to drink so much that you can’t be fully present with your friends. This is an opportunity for you to extend the night.”
It might seem to some that there are plenty of sober spaces to socialize, and to be fair I also was getting stuck on this stumbling block. Why not a coffee shop? Or a date night at the movies?
“Chris Marshall says [that] some of the country’s greatest events happened in taverns, some of the greatest history was being made around bars. We want to have that experience for people even without alcohol. Also, just from the drink experience, you drink with your eyes first, so having something aesthetically pleasing elevates the experience. We’re all about trying to elevate the experience and have it be a complex, sophisticated experience versus just a one-note Shirley Temple.”
If there’s one thing that AltBar drinks aren’t, it is plain. Sam and I took it upon ourselves to try nearly the entire menu of drinks, a perk of the nonalcoholic experience I hadn’t considered beforehand. Some of the drinks contain classic liquor alternatives to mimic the flavors of well-loved cocktails, and others are a totally unique drink experience that would be impossible to recreate with spirits. Each drink was served artfully in a way that made the experience feel special every time. That fizzy feeling of being handed a pretty little thing you’ve never tried before and rotating the glass around in your hand to hear the ice click against the sides before taking a first sip isn’t all about an alcohol percentage. That butterfly feeling can come from receiving an ephemeral drink thoughtfully crafted right in front of you and not the booze.
No ice cube left unturned at this hospitality focused food and drink experience
Grace & Disgrace, the new brainchild of local powerhouses Megan Goodney and Ralph Vincent DiTucci, refuses to settle for what you expect it to be. If you don’t know them by name you’ve surely seen something they’ve had a hand in around town: Bar Mecca, Cristallino Premium Ice, or perhaps a bar to which they’ve offered advice. Goodney and DiTucci are ready to pour their collective knowledge of luxury libations and unparalleled hospitality into their new event space. “It allows us to do classes where we can teach food and cocktails and host certain people. It allows us to do events both on premise and off premises. We’re treating it almost like a theater company where we’re selling it by reservation only. So, you get tickets, and then you come to the show. Sometimes the show is t-shirts and jeans and cocktails, and sometimes the show will be Lamoreaux ravioli and foie gras and duck fat wash bourbon,” DiTucci says, refusing to define Grace & Disgrace as something that only caters to one type of patron. “But it is to be able to offer a lot of different programming all at a high level between ourselves in town, friends and partners, and people from out of town who will also come do shows with us.”
Goodney and DiTucci have been quietly building out a small tasting room at their Bar Mecca location where Cristallino Premium Ice manufacturing also takes place. In order to really focus on fine-tuning the experience for every person in attendance, the space is currently set up to host fifteen people at a time.
I asked what the appeal is to their super small and highly curated new business model. “To be able to curate this unforgettable experience for people is something that you don’t really have the ability to do at just a bar,” Goodney shares. “Both of our values in hospitality revolve around making sure people have an indulgent experience and an unforgettable time.” You can find out more about experiencing Grace & Disgrace at graceanddisgrace.com.