Virgin Mary bar expands from Dublin to Abu Dhabi17 October 2022
Dublin would probably not be top of most people’s list as a location for their first ever alcohol-free bar. Yet it’s precisely because of the Irish capital’s craic- and Guinness-loving reputation that Vaughan Yates and Sarah Connolly opened their first Virgin Mary bar there in 2019.
‘The culture here is very much a drinking culture,’ says Vaughan. ‘We felt if it could work here it would work anywhere.’
Certainly the sheer incongruity of it did them no harm. The idea of an alcohol-free oasis in the famously boozy Irish capital garnered press coverage around the world.
But the media were also curious about seeing an undeniably high-end cocktail bar with a message that was healthy, but not puritannical.
‘There were non-alcohol bars around [elsewhere], but they were linked to alcoholism and so on,’ says Vaughan. ‘We weren't saying ‘don't drink’ we were just saying ‘if you choose not to drink you can come to our bar’.’
|Vaughan Yates, co-founder of TVM||The stylish interior of the Dublin venue||And Sarah Connolly, joint brains behind the venture|
As a result, the bar’s demographic is enormously wide-ranging; anything from moderating millennials and abstaining middle-aged mums to newly tee-total septuagenarians and, of course, the 25% of the Irish population who don’t drink at all.
From all ages and backgrounds, the only unifying factor is that, for whatever reason, Virgin Mary’s customers happen not to be looking for alcohol at that particular moment.
‘There's a lot of ground to make up [educationally],’ admits Vaughan. ‘We are still a social experiment three years after opening.
The bar is continually evolving – not least to keep abreast of the constant slew of new products launching in the alcohol-free space. And the spread of new and interesting flavours on offer certainly suits the ethos of a venue that has never attempted simply to recreate non-alcoholic versions of classic cocktails.
‘We are very much about creating new styles of drinks - drinks you have simply not tasted before' Vaughan Yates
As part of this exploration of flavours, Sarah and Vaughan introduced a Functionals sub-section to their menu in September 2021. It became so popular that they switched the entire menu to functional drinks and cocktails this October.
The functionals concept is a complex one to sell. Drinkers who are used to the single (and relatively quick) effect of alcohol need the varying (and slower) impacts of functionals carefully explaining to them.
Yet the Bloody Mary team see this sub-category as significantly altering the perception around alcohol-free. Namely, the latter are no longer defined by what they don’t contain (ie alcohol) - but by what they do. The conversation moves from a negative starting-point to a positive one.
‘It's a drink with something,’ says Vaughan. ‘It has benefits. It will boost your mood. It's a much more positive language that's used, and I think that's where the category is going to grow in the long run. Certainly that's where we're seeing demand in our bar.’
Class in the Gulf
As well as organic growth from the Dublin-based business, which now also includes an online shop, consultancy and events elements, the Virgin Mary brand has expanded globally, opening a second venue – in Abu Dhabi – at the end of 2021.
It is – understandably – a somewhat different concept to the mothership in Dublin. The venue is in a shopping centre on Al Maryah island. Aimed largely at young Muslim women, it’s open from 10 in the morning, and, unlike Dublin, there’s a food offering alongside the non-alcoholic drinks. It’s a space, as Vaughan puts it, that ‘gives the guests a space to relax and socialise; with all the relaxing cues they’ll see on Netflix but without any of the alcohol.’
|Elegant and undoubtedly high-end, the Abu Dhabi venture is a stylish addition...||... and is already proving popular with groups of young Muslim women|
Interestingly, Abu Dhabi looks to be just the starting point for the brand in the Middle East. The Virgin Mary team have signed a deal for five venues in Riyadh over the next few years. The first is expected to open by the end of this year, with two more planned for 2023 and Vaughan is understandably excited by the possibilities.
Abu Dhabi is relatively quiet, but the Saudi capital – a bigger city with a wider demographic and bigger spending power - he says, is ‘absolutely buzzing’.
Interestingly, their partner in Riyadh wants to move quickly to the functionals concept.
‘It's an easier proposition to sell,’ explains Vaughan. ‘Especially when you're not coming from an alcohol background. It's not like trying to sell non-alcoholic versions of drinks to beer and wine drinkers.’
The Middle Eastern palate is one of fizzy drinks, fruit juices and coffee, and Vaughan believes the frame of reference should reflect that rather than warping to push drinkers towards unfamiliar cultural reference points.
‘If we want to introduce sparkling we're going to introduce mood-boosting sparkling drinks - we're not going to be selling them as alternatives to champagne,’ he says.
Either way, if the concept can be made to work in venues as diverse as Dublin, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, there’s a feeling that this could very much just be the beginning.
‘There's a huge population globally that don’t drink’ Vaughan Yates.
‘We want to bring them sophisticated, well-balanced drinks with low sugar that are beneficial to them in the long run.
‘It's a massive untapped market.’