Drinking alcohol-free just got interesting. The Virgin Mary, Ireland’s renowned well-being bar, has created a brand-new mood-boosting cocktail menu, to continue its socialising revolution and take Irish bar culture to a new dimension. Here, Nicola and Sarah Connolly, co-owners along with Vaughan Yates, tell Hospitality Ireland about their first steps and their next moves.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in December of 2022.
Tell us about your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.
Sarah: I grew up in the glory days of the eighties and nineties, on Rathfarnham’s Ballyroan Road, but went further afield, to Alexandra College in Milltown, for school, along with my sister – and now business partner – Nicola.
Looking at where I am now, I didn’t take the most natural route to hospitality when I began my journey in UCD School of Psychology in 2000. It was the field of human behaviour analysis that really piqued my interest, and after gaining my BA in psychology, I decided to apply my love of sociology and creative writing to the area of communications. Once I’d acquired a postgraduate diploma in PR, advertising and applied comms, I got my first ‘real’ job in the comms department of CocaCola HBC Ireland. Over the next ten years, I built my corporate communications expertise in senior roles, namely with Unilever UK & Ireland, Merck Sharp & Dohme, and Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.
In 2015, I set myself a new challenge: to move beyond corporate institutions, launching my own venture in Unwritten, a communications consultancy specialising in the drinks industry. This sparked my entrepreneurial spirit, and in 2019, I was excited and nervous – in equal measures – to be launching the world’s first alcohol-free cocktail bar group alongside my partners/family, Nicola and Vaughan Yates: the Virgin Mary Bar Collective.
What first drew you to this industry?
I was initially drawn to the dynamic nature of the FMCG industry and loved my days with consumer brands giant Unilever, so when I got the opportunity to join a drinks pioneer like Pernod Ricard, I quickly became hooked on this industry, which had social occasions with friends and family at the heart of its product offering. Ireland’s pubs have an indelible history of craic and community spirit, and I was proud to become part of the hospitality industry that our small but powerful nation is renowned for.
What made you interested in the world of non-alcoholic beverages?
Several reasons: firstly, the appeal of driving a completely new and untapped category in the drinks and hospitality industry was incredibly exciting; secondly, I’ve always had an interest in well-being, having studied for a diploma in naturopathic nutrition in my twenties; and so the opportunity to offer people an alternative way of drinking that supports their wellness needs in a familiar social environment is something I became passionate about.
Why did you think that there was a market for this?
With the growth in wellness trends and a shift away from sugar-laden soft drinks, we were seeing a movement emerge amongst younger consumers, especially, where they are looking for interesting drink options that offer complexity and a wide diversity of flavours that appeal to their palates and healthful lifestyles. Consumers were also becoming more mindful and seeking balance and moderation when it came to their social lives and drinking habits. With Gen Z now drinking 20% less alcohol per capita than millennials did at the same age, we wanted to offer an alternative that supported premium social occasions without the need for alcohol, and after just over three years in operation, we have seen that mindful drinking is not just a trend, but a global movement that’s here to stay.
How was setting up the Virgin Mary Collective in the early days – challenges, etc.?
Before opening the doors to TVM Dublin in May 2019, the team undertook extensive research into the mindfuldrinking movement and the products available in the emerging alcohol-free/AF category. With a combined total of over 50 years’ experience in the beverage industry between us, we know great drinks, and we wanted to push the boundaries of what was possible. This brought its own unique challenges, as with such a new category, there was only a small selection of products that met our quality criteria. AF innovation has improved significantly since then, which is continually exciting to see. One of the beauties of operating an AF bar is that we didn’t need a licence, so that was one hurdle we were delighted to avoid.
Tell us about the Virgin Mary bar – the ethos, service, atmosphere, etc.
In 2018, we saw a distinct market opportunity for championing a cultural shift in the way people socialise, and we wanted to create a space that fully championed an entirely new way of drinking, so the idea for an entirely alcohol-free bar and the Virgin Mary bar concept was born. TVM was never meant to be a ‘sober venue’. Of course it’s for people who don’t drink, but it’s also for those who sometimes don’t drink, or those who are simply seeking a new way to socialise.
We set out to create a venue with the look, taste and buzz of a bar, just simply without the alcohol, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. The PR generated by our opening was truly incredible. People were fascinated by the idea of an alcoholfree bar opening in what could arguably be called the drinking capital of the world, but that only spurred us on further.
The name didn’t hurt either! The bar is, of course, called after the world’s most popular alcohol-free cocktail, the Virgin Mary, and our complex menus are an expression of our commitment to pushing boundaries in the drinks industry – not just in Ireland, but worldwide.
Another unique element of the bar that people have commented on is the atmosphere. It’s welcoming and easy, and, most importantly, consistent. This is no doubt down to the fact that everyone is on the same energy wavelength, seeing as alcohol isn’t involved, but it’s also one of those intangible combinations of factors.
TVM Dublin also serves as the company’s innovation hub, where they consult for drinks brand houses and hospitality venues around the world.
Tell us about opening a second and third bar – how did these come about?
We were incredibly fortunate to have our first franchise open less than two years after we unveiled TVM Dublin. MBT Restaurant Management, a renowned venue owner in the Middle East, saw an article about our launch and contacted us not long into our first year of trading. They acquired the franchise for TVM in Abu Dhabi, with the aim of introducing a new mindful-drinking paradigm in the UAE. Located in the beautiful Galleria Al Maryah Island, TVM AD has been bringing a fresh social vibe to a host of cosmopolitan mindful drinkers in Abu Dhabi since December 2021.
Alongside our extensive cocktail list, we have added on a new flair to the concept, with food pairings that have been carefully crafted to fit the local culture.
What makes a great bar (especially one without alcohol)?
Well, it has to start with the drinks. All our cocktails embody the TVM signature style, which is clean, complex, and exceptionally balanced. This is no mean feat, however, with our team dedicating months to building drinks in order to hit that sweet spot, just as craft bartenders do when creating alcohol-led cocktails. Add to that our mood-boosting ingredients, and you’ve got drinks that are bursting with flavour and feeling! People are still so pleasantly surprised that our cocktails are as multilayered and complex as those with alcohol – all without the flavour vector of ethanol. We are proud to be offering a flavour journey that is on par with some of our mostadmired cocktail bars around the world.
Secondly, it’s our customers. Many people ask us what our customer base is like, and, in the broadest sense, it’s ‘the sober-curious consumer’, the common denominator amongst them being a mindset, rather than a demographic. This is one of the main reasons why this concept has such global appeal. It’s inclusive across all ages and types of people – it’s not simply for the teetotaller. We’ve been delighted to see that many of our customers will join us as part of a night out, where they are also enjoying alcoholic drinks at other venues. They may want to be mindful of their consumption or just enjoy a different vibe for a while. Whether it’s Dublin or Abu Dhabi, our customers are some of the most supportive and friendliest people in the world!
What are the changing trends in the trade – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
Functional cocktails are, without doubt, the next big thing in AF socialising. Adaptogens, nootropics and endorphins all come under the umbrella term of ‘functional drinks’, which are generally non-alcoholic drinks with perceived health benefits. Adaptogens, or adaptogenic substances, are herbs and roots which are said to have a range of health benefits, from treating insomnia and reducing stress to providing extra energy. Nootropics are supplements which are said to improve cognitive function.
We favour drinks that are full of active plants, adaptogens and nootropics, so that you can choose your mood. In fact, in October of this year, we launched the world’s first mood-boosting AF cocktail menu, filled with natural highs. This latest innovation continues our mission of revolutionising the way people socialise, taking global bar culture to a new dimension. The one-of-a-kind menu, created by TVM beverage director Alex Morrell, has been expertly designed to take visitors on a flavour journey filled with natural highs, to stimulate the mind, body and palate. It means TVM Dublin will now be the only bar in the world to serve a fully mood-boosting, or adaptogenic, menu. For example, we add damiana – an ancient Mexican herb that has been used for centuries by people as an aphrodisiac and heart-opener – to our Love Potion No. 9 cocktail. It’s the perfect first-date drink!
We love to push the boundaries of what is possible, using natural highs to create a euphoric experience for everyone who visits us – all without the hangover!
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Like everyone in the hospitality industry right now, we are rebuilding after the tumultuous effects of the global pandemic. We are facing challenges with staffing shortages, along with increases in operating costs due to the inflation of raw materials and energy, but we are confident in the continued and rapid expansion of the AF industry, with global consumption of the category now expected to grow by 31% by 2024 [IWSR].
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
We are in talks regarding multiple newvenue openings over the next two to five years, and we have our own line of products in the pipeline for 2023 – products that will liberate the way people drink and connect. Our goal is to continue to grow this unique offering as our customers experience the benefits of a night enjoying drinks with natural highs alone. We firmly believe this is the future of socialising.
THE VIRGIN MARY COLLECTIVE IN A NUTSHELL:
How many bars?
Two operating venues, with a third to open by the end of 2022 or beginning of 2023.
How many staff members?
Three owners and three employees.
Percentage breakdown between food and beverage?
Ninety-eight per cent (98%) beverage in TVM Dublin!
Tiki Street (our most popular drink since our launch in 2019).
Ingredients: Natureo Syrah, hibiscus, pomegranate molasses, allspice, vanilla, lime, black cardamom.
Mood-Booster: Rhodiola rosea, to increase focus, combat anxiety, and restore balance.