Food News

This Phoenix Beverage Expert Shares His Passion for Nonalcoholic Drinks. Meet the 'Sober Somm'

Nathan Claiborn is stirring up the scene for nonalcoholic beverages in metro Phoenix.
Nathan Claiborn is stirring up the scene for nonalcoholic beverages in metro Phoenix. Geri Koeppel
Dry January doesn’t have to mean an austere month of water and tea. Being a designated driver shouldn’t force a diner to order a Coke to pair with a chef-prepared meal. And when friends who don’t drink alcohol come over, no longer do they have to sip on club soda and lime.

Nathan Claiborn is stirring up the scene for nonalcoholic beverages in metro Phoenix. The certified sommelier has a long history as a server and beverage director in Arizona and New Mexico, including stints at upscale restaurants like FnB and the now-closed Rancho Pinot. He also wrote a wine column for this very publication in 2013 and '14.

However, Claiborn left the business and “eliminated alcohol” from his life in 2017. He says the late nights, weekends, and physical and psychological toll of the hospitality industry weren’t conducive to raising a child.

Now, he’s reinvented himself as the “Sober Somm” and has a business distributing nonalcoholic products to retailers, restaurants, and potentially, resorts.

“I’m just seeking out really thoughtfully made products that are in the nonalcoholic space that would make sense on beverage programs and wine menus all around town,” Claiborn says. “And I want people to pay more attention to this category.”

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Ghia works well in making a nonalcoholic margarita thanks to its citrus and botanical components.
Geri Koeppel
So far, Claiborn has just one product in his portfolio — a versatile, subtly bitter, low-calorie aperitif called Ghia, which is made with unfermented riesling juice, botanicals, and citrus — but he’s working on expanding to offer about half a dozen nonalcoholic drinks in all.

Unlike other nonalcoholic products that aim to replicate the taste of booze, Ghia has a unique, complex, pleasant flavor, thanks to ingredients like yuzu, lemon, ginger, elderflower, acacia, orange peel, and rosemary.

“It’s a beverage that makes your mouth think,” Claiborn says.

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Nathan Claiborn, the Sober Somm, squeezes limes for a Ghia-rita mocktail. The drink is made with Ghia, lime, and agave syrup.
Geri Koeppel
Although many Valley bars and restaurants offer nonalcoholic beers and some have mocktail menus, robust alcohol-free drink lists aren’t nearly as popular here as they are in the coastal big cities. Most places still don’t do enough to cater to non-drinkers, Claiborn says.

His mission is to change that. Claiborn currently sells Ghia to acclaimed Scottsdale restaurant FnB and The Living Room in DC Ranch for their bar programs, and bottles are available at retailers Arcadia Premium, Monsoon Market, the newly opened Neighbor Market in the Churchill, and Tracy Dempsey Originals. Ghia also is available in cans pre-mixed with ginger ale, lime and salt, or soda. The cans are sold at Arcadia Premium, Garage East in Gilbert, and Tracy Dempsey Originals.

To showcase how to use Ghia to create alcohol-free martinis, margaritas, and piña coladas at home, Claiborn will host a mocktails class at Tracy Dempsey Originals from 2 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, January 14 (registration is required).

In December, Claiborn hosted a tasting a the food and wine shop in Tempe.

"He did a little bit of the Ghia in a miniature martini glass, and he topped it with club soda and a little squeeze of lime,” Dempsey says. “It’s really delicious. It has a lot of ginger; a lot of botanicals going on in it. I loved that it’s riesling based. It’s very herbaceous.”

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Ghia & Olive, a drink made with a bar spoon of olive juice, provides a booze-free take on a classic martini, with a botanical twist thanks to Ghia.
Geri Koeppel
Although he left the hospitality industry to become a real estate broker, Claiborn still has the discerning taste of a trained sommelier and doesn’t believe those who abstain from booze should be relegated to drinking tea, sugary sodas, or a sad mixture of cloying juices.

“I don’t want punch,” he says. “I want to put that on a T-shirt.”

After researching online, Claiborn took the dive into alcohol-free beverage distribution.

“This past summer, I said, ‘I really think Phoenix is ready for these products to come to market,’” he recalls.

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Ghia is sold in cans already mixed or in a 500-milliliter bottle for mixing at home to make cocktails like the "Ghia Piña No-lada."
Geri Koeppel
Although nonalcoholic drinks are just a drop in the bucket compared to alcohol sales, the number of people who say they plan to participate to some extent in Dry January is growing. A survey by Morning Consult in early January 2022 revealed 19 percent of adults said they’d try it, compared to 13 percent in 2021. And more than a quarter of Millennials in 2022 said they’re game.

To meet this small but growing demand, more and more nonalcoholic beverages are coming to market all the time. Data from NielsenIQ reveals more than 70 new nonalcoholic beverages hit the shelves in 2022, and the market grew more than 120 percent in the past three years.

The local craft beer creatives at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. just brewed a batch of the only locally made nonalcoholic beer, appropriately called Arizo[na].

“We fermented it with a special yeast strain that doesn’t produce alcohol, resulting in an IPA that showcases the flavors of Arizona (and actually tastes like an IPA) while staying under 0.5 percent," the brewery’s head of marketing, Zach Fowle, wrote in an email.

Claiborn is pleased to see the nonalcoholic market bloom and the number of sober curious drinkers grow, he says.

For people who have “stepped out of the alcohol matrix,” Claiborn notes, it would be nice to have the same thought and care put into nonalcoholic drinks as the rest of the beverage program.

“Those of us who have curious palates and like to eat out at restaurants would love it if people would pay attention to us,” he says. And by launching the Sober Somm, he's set out to do exactly that. 
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Geri Koeppel is a professional writer, voracious reader, devoted traveler, and an amateur cook, wine drinker, birder and tennis player. She's lived and worked in Detroit, San Francisco, and Phoenix.
Contact: Geri Koeppel

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