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Don't Call It a Mocktail Bar

Ione Bitters has opened a new bar specializing in non-alcoholic beverages

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Briana Beford spends an inordinate amount of time rotating glass jars. At any given time, she has dozens of slowly infusing aromatic and digestive bitters and shrubs lined up on shelves.

"I see them every single day because I take those bottles and move the material that's inside the alcohol to make sure they get properly infused," Beford said. "[I'll] go to the shelves and taste them and make sure it's balanced, that the flavor profile we're looking for is there."

Beford and soul-sister Melissa Wilson Nodzu are the team behind Ione (i-oh-NEE) Bitters, a young company focused on crafting small-batch bitters for home mixologists or a few select local bars.

When Ione began, Beford stored the jars in her basement, but recently she and Nodzu launched the next phase of Ione—the Free Spirits Lounge and Merc.

Located on Vista Avenue on the Bench, Free Spirits is Ione's official House of Bitters. The small space serves non-alcoholic cocktails made with almost exclusively made-in-house ingredients. Customers can also "take and make" by picking up bottles of bitters, shrubs, rimming salt or any other ingredients necessary for the home mixologist. The result is something unusual in Boise: a non-alcoholic lounge.

"The long and short of it is that it's on trend and we're the only ones without one," said Beford. "You can go to Portland, you can go to Seattle—even Spokane has two alcohol-free bars. Spokane! Two!"

Nodzu said that the purpose behind an alcohol-free lounge is to recreate the intimate, adult-oriented atmosphere found in a bar, but without the potential for hangover.

Beford anticipated the obvious follow up—the fact that every bar has some drink without alcohol in it. She pointed out that it's usually something like an aqua fresca—fruit juice, a lime garnish and seltzer.

"That's great, but you just charged me $6 for a sodastream," she said. "While I appreciate that, it doesn't even support what they do in the real world. Like, these are craft bartenders who couldn't come up with something better, something bigger. You have all these things at your disposal, whether it's bitters or juices or teas, all these things to produce these beautiful cocktails and you couldn't think of one thing that didn't have alcohol in it?"

The menu at the Free Spirits lounge is nearly indistinguishable from any other craft cocktail bar, with elements like creative names, lists of botanicals and ingredients. The only thing missing are actual spirits. However, the Melissa Mule or Dirty Mountain Girl are toast-worthy replacements for their alcoholic counterparts.

"It's a lot harder to make drinks like this than it is to use alcohol," said Nodzu. "Alcohol masks the flavor of a lot of things."

Bartenders' reliance on alcohol makes it possible to gloss over more subtle flavor pairings. The Ione duo has a combined background with farmers markets, naturalism, brewing and, of course, bitters, which makes it easier "to see outside the alcohol lens," said Breford.

Spending $10 for a cocktail that doesn't have alcohol in it might seem expensive, but the Ione founders have no qualms about it being worthwhile.

"The time we put into designing drinks is the same bartenders are designing their drinks except we actually make everything," Beford said, pointing to the jars that now sit behind the bar. "We have a ginger bug that's over a month old that gets babysat every day, bitters that are 3 months old that get babysat every day, and those are the things that bartenders don't have to do," she said. "That's how I came up with our tagline, 'mixology is medicine.' We are mixologists for all intents and purposes, we just don't mix with alcohol."

Asked whether they would ever consider bringing alcohol into the picture, the founder shrugged.

"We've thought our drinks all the way to that point," said Beford. "You can take and make and we will tell you what spirit goes best with everything. But aside from how difficult it is to get a liquor license in this city—and we've talked about beer and wine, and being a 'low proof, no proof'—we don't know if that needs to happen."

The Free Spirits Lounge is small. A converted tattoo parlor-turned-sewing-shop-turned-bar, it can accommodate a dozen people at most. Future plans to expand, including an ADA bathroom and a patio that will effectively double the capacity, are already in the works.

Since the initial opening in the first week of November, more than a hundred people have wandered in each week. That's impressive, given that Free Spirits is currently only open Thursday-Saturday. The plan is to be open full time in early 2020.

"I'd really like it to take off to where people can come here and have the experience and the connection that you get when you go out drinking with friends, but without the hangover and the alcohol," said Nodzu. To that end, "After 4 [p.m.], no kids are allowed. It's an adult environment, it's lounge time."

Just don't make the mistake of ordering a "mocktail."

"We hate that name," said Nodzu. "They're alcohol-free beverages, or virgin cocktails, or free spirits."

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