In 2018, Jillian Barkley, owner of Soft Spirits, found herself in New York City as a freelance art director. Her role was creating promotional interactive experiences for new product launches for tech clients such as Instagram, Google and Sony. It was often a struggle to find decent non-alcoholic cocktails in NYC, so when she discovered a good one, she’d post to her hobby Instagram account, Soft Spirits, updating her followers on the hot spots around town.
Fast forward to the beginning of COVID-19. Barkley was now at home in L.A. and discovered it was just as difficult to find non-alcoholic drinks that she could purchase at a grocery store. After driving all over town to specialty grocers and failing to find decent non-alcoholic beverages, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place where you could see all these products together in one place?” In 2021, she decided it was time to open L.A.’s first nonalcoholic bottle shop, transforming her curatorial Instagram into a physical storefront. Those in the area can purchase curated non-alcoholic beverages on the Soft Spirits website and have them delivered.
What do you offer at Soft Spirits?
Soft Spirits offers an array of premium non-alcoholic alternatives to traditional “adult” beverages like liquor, beer and wine. Aside from products, we provide a hands-on shopping experience. We guide our guests through the shop to provide education and personalized recommendations.
How many people work at Soft Spirits, and what is your official title?
I’m the founder and owner. The shop has three employees, and I run everything creative.
L.A. is known for being a party city. Did you have reservations about opening up a non-alcoholic bottle shop?
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. There was no blueprint or proof of concept for this type of business. Being the first non-alcoholic shop in Los Angeles required a leap of faith. [I hoped] that other people like me were seeking a more convenient way to shop for alcohol-free alternatives, and thankfully there are many.
How did you market this new concept?
I didn’t do a ton of traditional marketing outside of posting on the [Soft Spirits] Instagram account. We’ve never taken out paid ads or anything like that. Instead, I’ve gone back to my roots in experiential marketing. I provide in-store parties, sidewalk tastings, and pop-up bars around town. Allowing the customer to interact with the product directly feels much more intimate than mass digital communication. These events have allowed us to create a community of amazing regulars. That’s the true marker of success.
Can you talk a bit about your spin on the idea of sobriety?
Everyone should do what best serves them, whatever they want to call it. The concept of “sobriety” helps establish clear boundaries for those fully refraining from substance use. I’m not a big fan of the phrase “sober curious” because it tends to describe someone who wants to drink less, not someone who is curious about getting sober. Ideally, modifying your relationship with alcohol wouldn’t require a declarative identity, and you could just drink (or not drink) to the degree you felt comfortable.
NEXT ON THE DISH