A new pub enjoys cool vibes and tasty drinks with a difference — there’s no alcohol. Jonathan deBurca Butler samples the atmosphere at the innovative Dublin establishment.
You get a strange sensation walking into the Virgin Mary on Dublin’s Capel Street.
Perhaps it is the solemnity suggested by the name or the cool, crisp cocktail bar decor.
I order a drink, a Mikkeller, which turns out to be one of the nicest lagers I have tasted in years, and plonk myself down in one of the booths near the bar.
About halfway through my lager I have an epiphany, an alcohol-free epiphany, as I suddenly classify that aforementioned strange sensation: Nobody is drunk and nobody is going to be. I immediately feel different and surprisingly less on edge.
“What’s been amazing is the vibe in the bar,” says manager Anna Walsh.
Anna, who hails from Cobh, Co Cork, has spent almost 12 years working in pubs. For the most part, they were trendy, hip, and friendly but last year she decided to take a break from the late nights as she “just didn’t want to work around alcohol so much”.
Last October she was approached about managing the bar. “I had taken some time off working but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. So when they approached me I jumped at it,” she says.
As well as running the bar, Anna is a top-class mixologist who came up with the offering on what is an extensive and enticing cocktail menu. It includes a refreshing Pink Preacher made from raspberry, jasmine, white tea, and alcohol-free muscat.
There’s the clean and slightly spicy Barley n’ Ale with Seedlip Spice ‘94, barley, cacoa, orange, and ginger ale. Both will set you back €7 and in terms of taste, both are right on the money.
Anna admits it was quite a challenge to create something that would stand up against the competition.
“In classic cocktail-making, the alcohol adds flavour, aroma, and mouthfeel,” she explains.
As well as cocktails, The Virgin Mary offers a range of non-alcoholic wines, bubbly, and beer. In fact, there are no fewer than nine types of non-alcoholic beer on offer, something that would have been unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago.
This apparent surge in non-alcoholic product was one of the reasons owner, Vaughan Yates, decided to open the bar. Originally from the well-known English brewery town of Burton-on-Trent, Vaughan has worked in the whiskey trade for the last 25 years and, as such, is in a unique position to assess trends and developments in the trade.
“It became more and more apparent to me that big companies like Pernod and Diageo were investing in non-alcohol products,” he says. “And I started wondering would there be enough to give consumers a choice.
"Was it possible to open a bar with enough of anoffering to give them a variety of flavours and the equivalent of what they would get in an ordinary bar? For me, there most certainly is.”
For Vaughan, the interest from the breweries is a mixture of changing cultural attitudes and changes in legislation.
“Drink-drive laws are changing, and they’re changing for the better,” he says. “People are simply less willing to take risks when it comes to having a drink and getting in a car. If you’ve picked up, you’ve had it.
"That wasn’t really the case in my day. It’s not necessarily a shift towards giving up entirely but there’s a shift towards moderation.”
According to Alcohol Ireland, alcohol consumption in Ireland between 1960 and 2000 went from 4.9 litres per capita to a staggering 14.1 litres of pure alcohol. This, they conclude, was because “alcohol became much more affordable and more widely available”.
Since then, our alcohol consumption has declined to 11.5 litres in 2016. Statistics also suggest that just over 20% of Irish adults don’t drink alcohol at all.
“This is a bit of a social experiment really,” says Vaughan.
“I think there are enough people out there to come in and sustain it. We will drive it. We will change the menu give a new offering and, on top of that, there are more products coming out all the time.
“For me, there are three components to a good night out: the people you’re with, the place you go to, and the drinks. If you give people a good drink they’ll come. Now people might say you’re not really giving us drinks but we are.
"We are just slightly altering one of the components. We’re giving you the same taste profiles all we are doing is removing the alcohol. People will come here and have a good night out.”
As I get up to leave more curious punters walk through the doors and into the gentle vibes. I recognise the epiphanous expression on their faces: Nobody is drunk... and it’s such a bloody relief.