The New Sobriety
Everyone’s sober now.
Even if… they drink a little.
We all know what sobriety used to be: sober, in all meanings of the word.
It was a seltzer with lime instead of Bordeaux with a Michelin-starred meal; a trip to the gym on Friday evenings while everyone else hit happy hour. For those with a serious alcohol problem, it was a worthy decision, maybe even a lifesaving one. It could even be fun, when it wasn’t all amends and affirmations. But it had an air of privacy and quiet.
Well, my friend, this has changed. It seems not even sobriety will be saved from enjoying a made-for-Instagram moment, with new hashtaggable terms like “mindful drinking” and “sober curious.” No longer do you have to feel left out or uncool for being sober. You maybe don’t even have to completely stop drinking alcoholic beverages?
This is according to a new generation of kinda-sorta temporary temperance crusaders, whose attitudes toward the hooch is somewhere between Carrie Nation’s and Carrie Bradshaw’s. To them, sobriety is something less (and more) than a practice relevant only to clinically determined alcohol abusers. Now it can also just be something cool and healthful to try, like going vegan, or taking an Iyengar yoga class.
Anonymous? Hardly. No longer is the topic of sobriety confined to discreet meetings in church halls over Styrofoam cups of lukewarm Maxwell House. For these New Abstainers, sobriety is a thing to be, yes, toasted over $15 artisanal mocktails at alcohol-free nights at chic bars around the country, or at “sober-curious” yoga retreats, or early-morning dance parties for those with no need to sleep off the previous night’s bender.
Many will tell you they never had a drinking problem. They just had a problem with drinking.
The ‘Gray Area’
The simple act of waving off wine at a dinner party used to be interpreted as a tacit signal that you were in recovery, “on the wagon,” unless you were visibly pregnant or had known religious objections.
That was fine if you identified as an alcoholic. But what about people like Ruby Warrington, 43, a British style journalist in New York who spent her early career quaffing gratis cocktails at industry events, only to regret the groggy mornings, stumbles and embarrassing texts that have long been considered part of the bargain with so-called normal drinking?
After moving to New York in 2012, Ms. Warrington tried 12-step programs briefly but decided that “Ruby, alcoholic” was not the person she saw in the mirror. Three years ago she started Club Soda NYC, an event series for other “sober curious,” as she termed them: young professionals who were “kind-of-just-a-little-bit-addicted-to-booze.”
These gatherings featured panels on topics like “Sex, Lies, and Alcohol,” as well as New Age icebreaker activities like “deep-eye gazing” and Kundalini disco.
“It just felt to me like there was a huge gray area, and a much wider acknowledgment now of the different categories of problem drinking,” Ms. Warrington said.
She wrote a book called “Sober Curious” that was published in 2018, started a podcast and has staged subsequent Sober Curious events for what she calls the “Soho House crowd” at places like the Kripalu wellness retreat in Massachusetts, where participants also engage in heart-baring, 12-step-style testimonials.
Their fellow travelers band together at early-morning sober Daybreaker raves, held in 25 cities around the country.
Then there are the more than 18,000 Facebook followers of a nonprofit called Sober Movement, which promotes sobriety “as a lifestyle,” who post smiling pictures of themselves cartwheeling in the surf, or rocking ripped, beer-binge-free abs, appended with hashtags like #soberissexy, #partysober and #endthestigma.
Online, sobriety has become “the new black,” asserts a recovery site called, yes, Hip Sobriety.
The old idea that going dry is pretty dry would mean little to the 39,000 Instagram followers who feast on golden-hour beach shots from adventure travel retreats for sober or sober-curious “big life enthusiast” women in, say, Baja organized by The Sober Glow, a sobriety site run by Mia Mancuso, an accountability coach for women who consider themselves “gray area drinkers.”
“Once I removed the option of drinking, a whole new world opened up to me,” said Ms. Mancuso, 42. “I now live a life full of integrity, confidence, and grace, which ironically was what I was hoping to find in all those pretty little cocktails.”
Some not willing to eschew liquor completely are trying what Rosamund Dean, Ms. Warrington’s compatriot, called “Mindful Drinking” in a 2017 book: a half-measure approach to sobriety where you drink less, perhaps think about it more.
“People invest so much of their identity in their lifestyle choices, and it’s the same with drinking,” Ms. Dean wrote in an email. “Everyone is either a wine-guzzling party animal or a clean-living health freak. Personally, I believe the middle ground is the healthiest place to be.”
It started five years ago as a dare: go a month without drinking (a concept that has flourished in Britain and beyond, with Dry January). “As someone who doesn’t really go on diets and cleanses, I didn’t go into this challenge with the best attitude,” said Lorelei Bandrovschi, 32, an erstwhile branding consultant in Brooklyn. “I was like, ‘rules, no! Restrictions, no!”
A half-decade later, that challenge has become a second career. Ms. Bandrovschi runs Listen Bar, an alcohol-free bar open one night a month downstairs at Von, a bar on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. It’s not that she is sober, exactly. “I do drink, but I also mostly don’t drink,” she said.
Listen Bar promises a “rowdy” time, hard to imagine via an alcohol-free cocktail called a Ghost Me Maybe, consisting of grapefruit, rosemary, and Thomas Henry slim tonic. Where is the buzz, to use that 1990s, Tina Brown, Manhattan-a-go-go word?
“’Buzz’ is an interesting word, because we have so much buzz and hype from people being excited,” Ms. Bandrovschi said. Anyway, Listen Bar tries to compensate for liquor-fueled abandon with activities like dominatrix lessons ($15) and a spinning “daredevil wheel” that prompts attendees to get out of their comfort zone by, say, trying a high-fashion catwalk around the room.
On a recent night, the crowd skewed young and female, and the general vibe recalled an office holiday party, minus any leers from sloppy Sam in accounting.
“There’s a layer that feels a little less intimidating and intrusive,” said Sara Posner, 34, the founder of a branding studio. “Sometimes when you’re at a bar and you know are drunk and they are trying to talk to you, there’s like, ‘O.K., I’m going to keep my distance.’”
“In this case,” she said, “it’s something new that everybody is doing for the first time, and they’re kind of like, we’re all in this together, so let’s talk to each other and get to know each other: ‘Why are you here?’”
Over in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, a D.J. named Tasha Blank runs the Get Down at House of Yes, as well as other nightclubs in New York, where no drinks are allowed on the dance floor. In Greenpoint, an alcohol-free bar called Getaway opened in April, featuring an Art Deco-inflected interior and a menu of nonalcoholic cocktails made from ingredients like tobacco syrup and rhubarb shrub.
In Austin, Tex., a substance abuse counselor named Chris Marshall operates an event called Sans Bar, featuring sober glow-in-the-dark disco, karaoke, and ’90s-rock singalongs. Mr. Marshall, 36, began a national nine-city Sans Bar tour this past January and plans to expand.
While he stopped drinking more than a decade ago with the traditional 12-step approach, of which he remains an advocate, Mr. Marshall welcomes alternatives like Smart Recovery, SheRecovers and Tempest, available to people who, he said, “sit in meetings hearing words like ‘powerless’ and ‘defects’ and cannot identify with that.”
(A spokeswoman for Alcoholics Anonymous wrote in an email, “A.A. doesn’t have any comment on other methods for getting sober. There are lots of different options for getting sober. A.A. is not trying to convince anyone that A.A. is the only way to stay sober, we have just found a way that works for us that we share with others.”)
“When I got sober in 2007, there were two options: alcoholic or not,” Mr. Marshall said. “There wasn’t Instagram or Facebook, and meetings were the only space for people to frankly discuss unhealthy drinking.
“Perhaps if I had today’s options floating around my Myspace page,” he added, “I may have stopped drinking before things progressed to massive anxiety, broken relationships, and physical dependence.”
Dry Gets Juicy
And while we’re talking about today’s options. …
It starts with a tingle of citrus, with notes of hibiscus and orange peel, then swells with a hint of syrupy bitterness, which, along with its blood-red color, calls to mind a negroni.
In place of the familiar ethanol kick, though, High Rhode, the creation of a New York distiller called Kin, delivers licorice, gentian root and caffeine, along with Goop-ish additions like “nootropics” and “adaptogens” and a priceless mixture of sensuality and virtue.
“We weren’t interested in making another bubbly water or a flavored ‘mockery,’ just as we weren’t interested in drinking them at our favorite bars,” said Jen Batchelor, 34, the founder of Kin, issuing a subtle dig at the reviled term “mocktail.” “We wanted to feel more, not less — to wake up fresh and ready to take on the day, in full consciousness, clarity, peace of mind.”
She calls her spirits “euphorics,” and, in a sense, High Rhode is to liquor what CBD is to marijuana: a buzz-free buzz, vaguely akin to a CBD “body high.” (Imagine dropping an Advil with a mug of green tea in a warm bath.)
Ms. Batchelor enjoys wine with a meal maybe once a month. “I’m pretty resolute in my decision to consume with intention, or not at all,” she said. But she is well cast to sell the idea of sobriety chic. An Ayurvedic herbologist and entrepreneur, Ms. Batchelor grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her father was a bootlegger who made his own sidiki (basically Gulf-style bathtub gin).
She recently opened Kin House, an invitation-only sober destination in a West Hollywood bungalow, as well as a speakeasy-style tasting room in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, inspiring Vogue to call her “the poster girl for L.A.’s zero-proof party scene.”
Ms. Batchelor envisions High Rhode as a bracing alternative to an Aperol spritz for young professionals just like herself in those moments where “it’s 4:30, you’re looking at your calendar and you’re like, ‘Oh no, I have a drinks date in an hour and I’m just exhausted from the day, and I don’t want to reach for that extra coffee, but I still want to feel a little something to recalibrate.”
These creators want to shatter the perception that alcohol-free booze alternatives are, by definition, “penalty-box in nature,” said Bill Shufelt, a founder of Athletic Brewing, in Stratford, Conn.
Started last year with a mission to create a nonalcoholic beer that would pass muster with actual beer snobs, Athletic features a head brewer and co-founder, John Walker, who won awards during his time with Second Street Brewing, a highly regarded craft-beer brand in Santa Fe.
Mr. Shufelt said that three-quarters of Athletic’s customers are not sober, but rather belong to “a demographic we theorized was latent”: light drinkers like athletes and harried parents who cannot spare the energy for hangovers.
With beer sales sliding for five straight years, according to the Beverage Information Group, global beer brands are exploring alcohol-free as a potential growth area. This past winter Heineken unveiled 0.0, with a Now You Can advertising campaign showing responsible adults enjoying its no-buzz brews in work meetings, or even while sitting behind the wheel.
In January, Coca-Cola began test marketing a line of nonalcoholic cocktails, Bar None, with names like Bellini Spritz and Spiced Ginger Mule.
And sober foodies need no longer feel left out for ordering a Diet Coke at critically lauded restaurants. Patrons at Cote, Daniel, and French Laundry can now order nonalcoholic substitutes for a negroni or a dark-and-stormy from Curious Elixirs, a new line of individually bottled alcohol-free craft cocktails. They are also available at nightclubs like House of Yes and Avant Gardner in Brooklyn (tagline: “shaken, not slurred”).
“I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of gin joints and been lucky enough to help start a few of them,” said John Wiseman, a veteran of New York nightlife who started Curious in 2016. “But it got to be that I was just drinking too damn much. So I cut back on booze dramatically and started tinkering in the kitchen.”
His Curious No. 3 blend is inspired by classic cocktails like the Bee’s Knees and the Cucumber Collins, but substitutes ashwagandha, the trendy plant-based Ayurvedic supposed stress reliever, for vodka or gin, along with mocktail staples like lemon or cucumber juice.
For those who want something even closer to gin, Seedlip, an alcohol-free distiller located on a farm in North Lincolnshire, England, is offering Spice 94, a clear liquid blend that contains botanicals like Jamaican allspice berry, cardamom, and citrus peel (although no juniper). It can be mixed with ginger ale or used as the core ingredient of a counterintuitive-seeming concoction: the virgin martini.
After all, James Bond never had to worry about likes. And in a virtue-signaling culture, perhaps more status can be accrued advertising a gin-free martini than one made with Grey Goose.
It has not been lost on Ben Branson, Seedlip’s 36-year-old founder, that in our current moment, “suddenly, someone who doesn’t do things becomes a better person — ‘I don’t eat meat,’ or ‘I don’t have dairy,’ or ‘don’t smoke,’ ‘I don’t drink alcohol,’” he said. “I believe we are now defining ourselves more by what we don’t do, rather than what we do do.”
Indeed, one of the less questionable aspects of a wellness movement in which everything is either “clean” or “toxic,” with acolytes dutifully sprinkling activated charcoal into their kefir and throwing celery into the extractor, is the conviction that introducing a certifiable poison into one’s bodily temple may be suspect.
Gin Is a Gendered Issue
At a politically fraught time, clarity of the mind is a potent weapon, and the #MeToo movement has also helped give abstinence from alcohol an extra kick.
We’ve come a long way from the early 2000s, when bawdy women of “Sex and the City” swilled rose-colored cosmopolitans as a symbol of female emancipation — at last, the girls could party just as hard as the boys.
But these days, many women are citing sobriety as a pillar of their feminism.
“The longer I am sober, the less patience I have with being a 24-hour woman — the stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus,” the author Kristi Coulter wrote in a 2016 essay published on Medium.
“I start to get angry at women, too,” she added. “Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. But for being so easily mollified by a bottle. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless.”
According to a federally sponsored 2017 study on alcohol use in the United States published by JAMA Psychiatry, high-risk drinking for women — defined as consuming four or more drinks in a day on a weekly basis — went from 5.7 percent to 9 percent, a rise of nearly 58 percent. For men, high-risk drinking went from 14.2 percent to 16.4 percent, a rise of 15.5 percent. (The study also observed a “generally much greater” increase in drinking among minorities and poor people, perhaps because of what they described as “increased stress and demoralization.”)
Beyond the health risks, the booze that flows freely at fraternity parties or holiday mixers has started to look to some women like a tool of oppression in the age of radical consent. (“Can drunk sex ever be consensual?” a recent CBS News article asked.)
Students of history will note that women, like Carrie Nation, who famously smashed up taverns with a hatchet, led the temperance movement of the 19th century, which eventually set the stage for Prohibition in the 1920s.
“Historically, women have been taught they can’t express anger; we’ve been taught to internalize anger, pain, shame, because anger in a women has equated to crazy, has equated to being unlikable and undesirable,” said Erin Khar, whose sobriety memoir involving heroin, “Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me,” will be published next year.
Ms. Khar has taken issue with the #MommyJuice memes that have proliferated on social media with harried women juggling the pressure of careers and family looking for salvation in goblets of chardonnay.
To her, there is nothing funny about the idea that booze is somehow necessary to get through life, or one’s due. “What the #MeToo movement has done is created an opening for women to speak the truth — whatever that truth is,” she said. “And I see more women being vocal about alcohol and substance-use issues.”
Ms. Batchelor agreed that the teetotal — even if no longer total — is political. “At the end of the day, alcohol is a civil rights issue — alcohol is a women’s lib issue, an LGBTTQQIAAP issue, a race issue, the list goes on,” she wrote in an email that invoked the phrase “freedom to choose.”
“For 6,000 years the choice has been ‘water or wine’ — figuratively, of course, we’ve fermented every living plant on earth and still we net out at ethanol,” she wrote. “Now there’s a third choice.”