“To find the drinks I liked, I used to have to drive around the city”: A Q&A with the owner of Toronto’s first stand-alone non-alcoholic bottle shop

“To find the drinks I liked, I used to have to drive around the city”: A Q&A with the owner of Toronto’s first stand-alone non-alcoholic bottle shop

The new Kensington Market store focuses on wine, spirits and beer that have all of the flavour and none of the booze

The owner of Bevvy's, a non-alcoholic bottle shop in Toronto, Cristian Villamarin

Lax(ish) liquor laws introduced during the pandemic ushered in a wave of new bottle shops across the city–great places to stock up on top-shelf spirits, trendy wines and craft beer. Now, just in time for Dry January, a different type of bottle shop has opened up: one stocked entirely with non-alcoholic drinks.

Bevvy’s is a new place in Kensington Market to pick up bottles of alcohol-free wine, chilled cans of zero-proof beer and tequila with none of the bark or bite. The store and selection is thanks to Cristian Villamarin, a triathlete and former restaurant worker who decided to create a brick-and-mortar hub for all things booze-free. Here’s how, and why, he did it.

Related: How to stock the perfect booze-free bar cart for Dry January

Why the interest in non-alcoholic drinks?
I started switching to non-alcoholic drinks during university. I was working in a restaurant at the time, and there’s a lot of drinking in the industry. Alcohol was everywhere—we would go out after work and drink late into the night. But I’ve always been very self-conscious about my body and my health, so I decided to use November—when everyone was working on their moustaches—to take a break from drinking, and it became a habit. When I wasn’t drinking, I found people would ask me a million questions: Why? Do you have an alcohol problem? Flash forward to two years ago. I was competing in an Ironman in Victoria. Usually, when you cross the finish line, someone hands you a beer, and you get tipsy right after drinking it because your body is drained. That day, someone handed me a non-alcoholic beer from Athletic Brewing, and I fell in love.

And now here you are with your own store!
About a year ago, I noticed that the market for non-alcoholic products was changing. There were so many new zero-proof drinks that are complex in flavour and diverse in profile—but they weren’t available at the grocery store; you had to track them down. To find the drinks I liked, I’d have to drive around the city, stopping into coffee shops and various specialty grocers. The LCBO doesn’t even have a non-alcoholic section—they’re spread out around the store. Last time I bought something there, the cashier asked if my purchase was intentional—like I had accidentally grabbed something non-alcoholic. People think that non-alcoholic products don’t taste good or that they should be cheaper because they don’t contain alcohol. In reality, a lot of work goes into them. They deserve to be showcased.

Inside Bevvy's, Toronto's new non-alcoholic bottle shop

So you’re giving them a top shelf to sit on. What products do you currently stock at Bevvy?
I have non-alcoholic beers, cocktails, spirits, wines, drinks infused with adaptogens and fancy sparkling waters. One of my advisers is Vela co-owner Amanda Bradley, who used to work at Alo, so we approach beverages like any bottle shop or restaurant does—we do a lot of tasting. I also try to connect with sommeliers and chefs to get their opinion on the products we’re considering bringing in. A lot of the time, people are blown away by how good the drinks are.

I guess that’s why you offer tastings at the store.
Yes. Bottles of good non-alcoholic wine and spirits are often $30 or more. I want to make sure people are happy with their purchases, so we offer in-store tastings of our products. It’s important, especially if you’re doing Dry January for the first time. Imagine if someone picked up a non-alcoholic beer at the grocery store, hated it and swore off all non-alcoholic beers. These products all taste different—people need to find what works for them. So we have spirits and wines to try. The spirits don’t necessarily taste good straight-up, so I’ll let customers try a sip but then I’ll make them a cocktail with it. That’s when they say, Now I get it, and buy a bottle. Every Saturday, we’ll bring in a spokesperson for a different brand. Customers can come socialize, sample products and connect with the brands. This week, someone from Collective Arts will be here.

Bottles of non-alcoholic wine

Free Spirits' non-alcoholic spirits

Related: Booze-free beers, a phony negroni and 10 other actually good non-alcoholic drinks for Dry January

So who are your customers so far? Folks who are sober-curious? Or staunch abstainers?
It’s a mix of both. We have a lot of older people coming in who aren’t drinking as much as they used to. Right now, we’re getting a lot of people who are doing Dry January. Other people are just curious—they didn’t even know products like these existed.

I read that 82 per cent of people who purchase non-alcoholic drinks also drink alcohol.
Yes! That’s the nice thing about this category. You can drink alcoholic and non-alcoholic products—it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There’s always the option of adding alcohol to these drinks or alternating them with alcoholic beverages to dodge a hangover. We’re starting to see that people are more self-aware; they care about their health and wellness and have realized that they don’t want to feel like crap in the morning. I usually suggest a switch to non-alcoholic drinks halfway through the night—it helps to hydrate your body so you can still feel great in the morning. There are even non-alcoholic beers with electrolytes.

It makes sense—the older I get, the harder even just one martini hits me.
I’m a triathlete, so I track my body using a smart watch. And when I drink, I can see how my deep sleep is interrupted. In the past, we haven’t really had that data to see the effects of alcohol in the moment. I still enjoy being social and having drinks, but I always bring multiple different drinks to keep my palate entertained—a few cans of actual wine and a few Athletic beers. I love wine, and I’ve taken a wine fundamentals course, so I appreciate it. I do try to live a sober-ish lifestyle, but I enjoy an occasional glass of good wine or a celebratory drink here and there.

Cans of Athletic Brewing Co.'s beers

What are your plans for the space?
Ideally, we’d open more stores across the city. First, we want to see where our customers are coming from and open a location closer to them—maybe a west-end store or something in the east. We’d also love a patio, a place for someone to drink something delicious and non-alcoholic while enjoying the sun and the Kensington crowds. We want to be more involved with the community and maybe get out to marathons or other athletic events to introduce people to the category. We’d also love to get out into the restaurant community and help usher in more educated beverage programs. Why serve only soda when people are willing to pay for a bottle of non-alcoholic wine or beer? Why not offer something that makes you money and delights the drinker?

Exactly—just because I’m not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean I just want a soda. I’m an adult; I like to drink adult things. What are your favourite products at the moment?
I really like Wander and Found’s sparkling wines. They’re perfect for a celebration. I’m also into Loxton’s Sauvignon Blanc—it’s a good representation of the grape and lasts beautifully in the fridge for a few days. And as I mentioned before, I’m a fan of Athletic Brewing—their selection of beer is really changing the space. Or if you’d like something more local, Harmon’s makes delicious beer.

It sounds like you’re set up to be the perfect picnic-essentials stop—especially if Toronto doesn’t renew the alcohol in parks program.
You bet—and everything is available chilled.

A black ball cap that says soberish