As we ease our way into 2023, discussions around alcohol use are swirling; many people have just wrapped up “Dry January”, and the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse and Addiction released updated guidelines on how many drinks are healthy, lowering them to two drinks per week to reduce health risks. Amongst these conversations are more general questions – what is the sober movement? What’s a “mocktail”? Do non-alcoholic bars exist? We spoke with Regent Park entrepreneur Gail Lynch, CEO and Experience Designer of ZERO Cocktail Bar, about building a non-alcoholic bar and her experience as a Black woman entrepreneur.
Gail immigrated to Canada from Barbados many years ago, and has been working in the field of training and development for the past 30 years. During the pandemic, she wanted to do something to protect her mental health, and she knew that it needed to be something tactile. And so, Gail grabbed some 2 by 4s, got to work, and ZERO Cocktail Bar was born! Previously, non-alcoholic drinks were generally limited to pop, soda water, or mocktails. “I am against the word mocktails,” says Gail. “Non-alcoholic drinks deserve to be as delicious and intentional as alcoholic drinks, and I’m making those accessible.”
Initially, Gail was doing a lot of the work to make bar mixes and products herself, as there wasn’t much else available. “I experimented with lots of different flavour profiles, and made lots of syrups and shrubs,” she recalls. “But luckily, I was growing at the same time as the industry.” Soon enough, the zero proof industry was expanding and opening up new possibilities. Gail can now make a zero proof Negroni because of the availability of non-alcoholic Gin, aperitif and triple sec; previously, she would have had to spend more than eight weeks making her own.
The growth of the non-alcoholic industry is reflected in the emerging prominence of Dry January and the sober movement in general. While the origins of Dry January are murky, it has picked up in popularity year after year. “Every month has a dry theme now,” says Gail. “January is the big month, but the sober movement has a theme or highlight for every month.” So what does the sober movement represent? “It’s about many things, and it’s different for everyone,” says Gail. “It could be recovery or needing support, or someone who just doesn’t want to drink this month or who wants to cut back. I’ve been sober for decades and will continue to be.”
Right now, ZERO Cocktail Bar is a one woman operation without a permanent home base, but Gail has plans to hire additional employees. She runs her events at pop ups throughout the city or at the CSI Community Living Room in Regent Park. “My current goal is to get the word out,” says Gail, and it’s clear that it’s working. “I get calls every day asking if the bar is open – people are definitely looking for these spaces.” For New Year’s Eve, ZERO Cocktail Bar hosted a non-alcoholic party at the CSI Community Living Room, and it was a hit. “People were excited to be there, having amazing non-alcoholic cocktails, and we had a live saxophone player and some great music.” She looks forward to eventually hosting more events, and working towards true equity – when both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are available with the same level of intention. However, keeping that goal in mind, Gail will still continue to host exclusive non-alcoholic events, as she recognizes that being around alcohol can be difficult for those in recovery, and everyone deserves a space to enjoy delicious drinks.
When it comes to being a Black woman entrepreneur, Gail notes it’s not the easiest. “Being an entrepreneur is the loneliest journey you could ever go on,” she says. “It’s like an immigrant’s journey – a wave of ups and downs.” As part of the “ups”, Gail credits being in a community with access to space as a big benefit, and also notes the helpfulness of government support such as entrepreneurship programs. The numerous organizations and groups dedicated to Black women business owners and entrepreneurs have also been great. “Networking is so important, as is collaboration,” Gail notes. “And if you don’t see any options around you, go talk to your elected representatives!” On the more difficult, “downs” side of things, Gail pointed to concerning signs that Black entrepreneurs continue to be ignored and put at a significant disadvantage. For example, she notes the Black Opportunity Fund, a loan available to Black business owners, “isn’t really geared towards entrepreneurs like myself. There are so many hoops to jump through just to apply, when I’m already coming from a disadvantaged position.” Other groups, like the government and banks, have demonstrated issues as well; “The federal government’s Black entrepreneurship strategy seems to be on hold, and my bank continually delays and ignores me.” Gail would like to see more accountability for groups to follow through on their promises.
However, at the end of even the worst day, “as soon as I make a cocktail, my frown becomes a smile. I love connecting with people over zero proof cocktails,” Gail says. Be sure to check out Gail’s cocktails yourself at one of her many events! Every Friday evening, from 6-10pm, you can find her mixing drinks at the CSI Community Living Room. She also hosted a Zero Proof Mixology class on February 14th. Keep an eye on her website and Eventbrite to catch future events!