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Three drinks, non-alcoholic
More and more alcohol brands, bars, and restaurants are starting to offer nonalcoholic options.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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Why you’re likely going to hear more about being “sober curious”

As more young people opt for wellness-oriented lifestyles, brands are offering more nonalcoholic products.

Alcohol plays a dominating role in American social, political, and economic life — particularly for urban professionals, getting drinks can be as important a form of social currency as it was in college. But the odds are getting higher that liquor stores, bars, and restaurants will start to offer something different — nonalcoholic custom cocktails and brand-name beverages. The thinking is becoming that we don’t need to drink all the time.

Enter Ruby Warrington. The 42-year-old Brooklyn-based British journalist got “sober curious” eight years ago (although she still does occasionally drink) and says she has never felt more in charge of her destiny.

Constant drinks at work and social events caught up with Warrington, who began questioning the command alcohol had over her self-worth, career, and relationships. This is the mindset she refers to as “sober curious,” and it’s the topic of her new book, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol. The book is part guide, part journalism, part memoir, focusing on the big differences that come when we think about how drinking really makes us feel.

Think of sober curiosity as a “wellness” approach to (not) drinking alcohol. The idea isn’t a hard stop to drinking or a 12-step process to sobriety, Warrington said. It’s not a recovery method for alcoholics, either. It’s about recognizing drinking habits and acting on that understanding. Maybe it means cutting out all alcohol, or just not drinking on weekdays. Warrington added that it’s the idea that alcohol determines our fun, intimacy, friendships, and experiences to the point that some Americans have tapped out of the present and aren’t fully living.

As more people apply a wellness-oriented mindset to more parts of their lives, alcohol consumption is also changing — and businesses are reacting. According a report by Bon Appétit, the market for low- to zero-alcohol beverages is expected to grow by 32 percent between 2018 and 2022. This means you’re likely to hear a lot more about sober curiosity from roommates, friends, and alcohol brands.

Rebranding nonalcoholic alternatives for the sober curious

A seltzer, O’Doul’s, a Shirley Temple: Nonalcoholic alternatives that have long been associated with “missing out” are rebranding to meet a growing demand for booze-free options. Nearly 40 percent of global consumers reported a desire to decrease alcohol consumption for health reasons, according to a 2018 report.

As in the case of destigmatizing decaf coffee, beverage makers have a new audience of information-laden young people who are willing to buy seltzers, nonalcoholic beers, and even water in the name of wellness. For businesses, supplying zero-ABV beverages can be likened to the rise of craft beers, said Eric Schmidt, director of alcohol research for the Beverage Marketing Corporation. Young consumers are seeking more control over their bodies and better experiences through the products they buy, he said.

Heineken 0.0 reached the US in January 2019, after the brewery spent years trying to improve the taste of the nonalcoholic beer.
Heineken USA

Consider a common first drink: beer. Nonalcoholic brews provide a useful case study in how mainstream purveyors are framing nonalcoholic drinks for a growing market of sober-curious people. Popular beer brands such as Heineken, Peroni Libera, and Guinness released 0 percent ABV products in the United States recently. According to the same 2018 report, global beers sales were down in 2017 compared to performance in the early 2000s, yet alcohol-free beer performance grew at twice the rate of regular brews. Booze-free beers, manufacturers are suggesting, are a way to not miss out.

“People are more conscious about what they’re putting in their body,” said Ashleigh Phelps, brand manager for Heineken in the US. “We wanted to create a [zero-proof] beer where people felt comfortable waking up the next day and going to yoga or a spin class or parenting their kids. The insight is really health and well-being.”

In the case of Heineken and O’Doul’s, the focus was on the appearance of drinking a zero-proof product. Image-conscious young professionals want zero-proof drinks that can be consumed at happy hours or workplace gatherings without looking like subpar experiences. Heineken chose to keep its traditional green bottle and label to show the 0.0 drink was the same taste as the full-strength beer. O’Doul’s took a different approach and redesigned its packaging from the 1990s version to feature a graphic by a millennial artist. The highly Instagrammable label brought renewed attention to the brand, which some previously considered passé, according to a report by Fast Company. In both cases, the manufacturers made a product that consumers would want to be seen experiencing.

Phelps said Heineken 0.0 creates more opportunities to enjoy beer’s taste. The 69-calorie product comes in the brand’s signature green bottle or can (so it’s indistinguishable from the alcoholic version) and is priced the same. She also added there’s little difference between sipping the zero-proof and regular beer — just the alcohol. Beer lovers don’t have to sacrifice the joy of holding a cold bottle. As Warrington says, adding sobriety into your life isn’t a loss, but a positive gain.

The rise of new social spaces

So if urban professionals aren’t downing $5 cocktails with coworkers on a Thursday, where does their social life go? This was Warrington’s initial worry when she got curious. But the movement is attempting to create new social spaces rather than closing them off.

Warrington co-founded Club Söda NYC, a sober social community, in 2016. Imagine a crowd gathered on the floor for events with titles like “Sobriety and Entrepreneurship” or “Psychedelics and Sobriety.” These are set in trendy hotels, WeWorks, and restaurants, and some come at no cost. No matter what, a booze-free happy hour follows for the sober curious to connect without the need to be tipsy.

“Meditation may not sound as sexy,” Warrington said, “but I think there’s a misconception that engaging in social activities that don’t involve alcohol is boring and uncool.”

A wave of sober-curious settings like Club Söda NYC is accompanied by crop of zero-proof menus appearing in major American cities.

Rebecca Antsis is the food and beverage manager of the Assemblage John Street hotel in New York City, which opened Nymphaea, a botanical elixir bar, in June 2018. Antsis said the concept bar’s elixir menu, created by Ambrosia Elixirs founder and owner Valeria de la Pava, features combinations of medicinal roots and herbs that cost $8 for 10 ounces. Herbal roots are treated over a 16-hour period to extract the most valuable ingredients. Antsis described one of the bar’s most popular elixirs (by revenue), “Oxygen,” as a “minty, fruity plant-blood mojito with a hint of apple and kiwi.”

A pink spirit-free cocktail
The “Balenciaga” drink at Cindy’s.

“Your body registers it as food instead of something synthetic,” Antsis said of the drink. She added that the growing culture of “conscious gathering” can help drive new offerings from social spots such as bars or restaurants. Podcasts and meetups have also emerged, allowing the sober curious to tune in if their areas don’t offer events or to locate conscious gathering spots nearby.

“Instead of poisoning their bodies, [this generation] is actually seeing what their bodies can do if they were at their efficient maximum,” Antsis said of alcohol’s damaging effects. (Alcohol abuse by adults in the US leads to an average of 2.5 million years of potential life lost annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) “[Younger] generations are more interested in maximizing what they are given instead of hastening the pace of entropy for their bodies, which is what aging is.”

Chicago, a city with a large professional population, has also been a hub of sober curiosity. David Mor, a beverage manager at Cindy’s at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, has created a safe nonalcoholic space by replacing the word “mocktail” on the bar’s menus: “When we created the word ‘spirit-free,’ the thought was sophistication and a thoughtful approach,” he says.

Inspired by botanicals and spices such as cinnamon, Mor challenged Cindy’s bartenders to create drinks inspired by their childhoods. His recipe, “Balenciaga,” was influenced by growing up watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and embracing his queer identity. The bright pink drink contains spiced clementine, Seedlip Spice 94 (a distilled nonalcoholic spirit), pineapple, ginger beer, and lemon with an edible orchid garnish. Cindy’s spirit-free drinks are made to order and cost $12. Given that one ounce of Seedlip costs $1, Mor said the price reflects the quality of ingredients incorporated in the drink. Like an elixir, spirit-free drinks are meant to maintain, rather than dilute, the brain and body’s performance.

“Emotionally, when it has alcohol in it, your mind is not who you are at 100 percent,” Mor said. “I think it’s so important to offer a category of drinking that doesn’t make you feel limited. Garnishes, interesting approaches, and quality ingredients create a feeling of inclusion without pressure.”

Conscious gathering also means new sales. Businesses like Cindy’s, which have alcoholic and nonalcoholic menus, can reach even more patrons with fewer marginal costs. Liquor licenses in Chicago, for example, cost more than $5,000, and in California, a license costs more than $13,000. Purveyors don’t suffer a loss, though, filling the gap of alcoholic sales with spirit-frees containing high-end ingredients. In the case of beer manufacturers, companies like Heineken are selling even more bottles for the same price as their signature brew.

Who is sober curiosity for?

In the Gooped-up world of wellness movements, exclusivity remains a problem — and so does reality. The cost of fancy elixirs and spirit-frees far outstrips that of a bottle of three-buck Chuck a group can share while watching reality television. And the health benefits of the wellness movement at large are ever more opaque.

Wellness also isn’t the same as sobriety, which is a real, difficult, lifelong choice that people with addiction make every day. Warrington echoed this sentiment, noting that sober curiosity is not for people with alcoholism, who should seek treatment through therapy and rehabilitation. For frequent drinkers, she added, cutting out alcohol cold turkey can also increase feelings of vulnerability in social situations. Being sober curious isn’t a recovery method, and experts actually discourage people in rehab from drinking nonalcoholic beers.

But the beauty of sober curiosity, supporters say, is it can be as highbrow or lowbrow as you may want it to be — and as health-oriented. If booze-free happy hours in a Brooklyn coworking space don’t feel like your cup of tea, that doesn’t mean a low-carb bottle of zero-proof beer can’t accompany a football tailgate.

“I find it exciting to be finding about these drinks,” said Jenna Good, 40, who got sober curious after reading Warrington’s book. Warrington captured the exhaustion Good said she carried through the party-filled holiday season until sober January.

Three months later, Good said she’s rediscovering herself and feels “lighter,” more work-focused, and appreciative of small things. “I feel like there’s this person that’s been under the blanket of alcohol for the last 20 or so years,” she said. “Now it’s time to see what I can do and who I can be without hangovers.”

Good described herself as a party girl who’d never gone to a wedding sober. Now, she still enjoys and drinks wine sometimes, but she’s also trying out new yoga studios and dinner dates with friends, choosing which new restaurants to visit based on their zero-proof beverage menus.

“You will never regret not drinking,” she added. Good says she’s comforted by the fact that she could still drink if she wanted, but she’s in control of that choice. “There’s always that moment when it’s hard to make the decision ... but you can have that in your mind and just trust that feeling and then, like magic, you’re really glad you’ve made that decision.”

Sober curiosity may be one of the most accessible paradigms to come from the wellness movement; it’s totally free to go to a bar, restaurant, or party and not drink anything. It’s also cost-effective to make the experience about you, not what other people are doing, Warrington said. The idea is checking in with yourself and finding where the desire to drink is, and then asking where that pressure comes from.

A sober-curious space doesn’t have to mean no one drinks; it just means it’s no one else’s business if you don’t. In this way, conscious gathering could help address issues such as drunk driving or alcohol-related sexual assault, Warrington said. For her, accountability could increase if the power of alcohol were to decrease.

Sober curiosity is changing gendered drinking habits, too. The gap in drinking behavior between men and women has practically disappeared, according to a study in the journal BMJ Open. The same study found the ratio of men to women consuming alcohol, drinking in a way that’s problematic and potentially experiencing alcohol-related harm decreased significantly by the late 1900s. In the US, where binge drinking is a prevalent behavior, a NIAA study found a convergence in male and female drinking behaviors doesn’t mean females are binge drinking at the rate of males. Women are actually more likely to try alcohol abstinence, and if the drinking gap is closing, men might be, too.

Warrington said sober curiosity surprisingly didn’t come at a social or physical loss, though. She said in the years since her last drink, she’s felt healthier than ever, with better sleep, acute focus at work and deeper intimacy in all her relationships. She even posted on Instagram that her eyes looked bigger.

The author said she felt her high and low emotions to a fuller extent when alcohol didn’t mask them.

“My intense and difficult emotions I’m grateful for,” she said. “It feels like I’m really living.”

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This story has been updated to clarify details of Nymphaea’s business operation and to correct a misinterpretation of a study regarding alcohol and the gender gap.

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