Let’s face it: After a long, hectic day with the trials and tribulations of modern life, there are few things more appealing than to unwind with a glass of wine or a G&T on the sofa once the dishwasher is stacked and the chores are finished. At weekends, we like to let our hair down with some friends, whether that’s down the pub, in a trendy bar or at a dinner party at home.
The UK is famous for its pub culture, enjoyed and admired by tourist from around the world. We’ve got atmospheric pubs, cosy bars and cool restaurants, all serving a wide array of alcoholic drinks. Drinking is so much part of our culture and social life that we barely stop to think about it. Those of us who decide to drink less or even stop altogether are the odd ones out – and society doesn’t make our lives easy. Ask for an alcohol-free drink at one of the above-mentioned drinking establishments and you’ll be met with blank faces and the option of choosing between cola, lemonade, fruit juice or water. However, all this may be about to change!
Why would you not want to drink?
I won’t bore you with all the health reasons to shun alcohol (of which there are many), but I can tell you that – just for starters - your liver, your heart, your brain, and your gut would thank you, if you let off the booze. But you know that already. We all do, and yet we drink – often too much – anyway. Why?
“Because it tastes good!”, I hear you cry. It does, admittedly, but is that why we drink? Think back to your first alcoholic drink. Did that taste good? Probably not; most of us have to keep trying until it grows on us. Odd, if you think about it. Again, why?
Alcohol also seems to help us relax (see above), bestow confidence upon the shy, give us courage, loosen our tongue, and help us sleep. But in the end, we always pay the price, in a variety of ways. While we still think we’re completely in control, we may already be talking too loudly, slurring our words or sway – embarrassing. Worse, we may be so relaxed that we think it would be fun to dance on the table – in front of our colleagues and perhaps even the boss. Our tongue might be slightly too lose, and we end up spilling the beans about our personal life in front of the neighbours or offend them by telling them what we really think of them. Alcohol causes accidents, arguments and makes us vulnerable to crime. What’s more, when we wake up the next day, we may not even remember what happened!
Even with moderate – and in our society ‘normal’ – alcohol consumption the aftermath is not great. A dry mouth, a headache, sensitivity to noise and light, and crushing fatigue are the classic symptoms of a hangover. It isn’t fun, and it will affect our mood and performance the next day. Which we will try and improve by having copious amounts of caffeine – also not good – or even another drink.
Now imagine staying sober, not necessarily forever, but at least more often: Alcohol-induced sleep is not refreshing. Sober sleep is. You’d wake up without a hangover, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ready to face the day. Going out and staying sober means you can drive yourself home after a night out and can give late-night public transport a miss. The next day, you’ll remember exactly who you talked to and what you said. Your mood will be stable (alcohol is a depressant, did you know?) and you’ll be able to focus and concentrate, perform better at work, as a mum, when exercising, and in anything else you are striving to achieve.
Sober is now cool
Back in 2017, Laura Willoughby, a former politician who decided to give up alcohol and now wants to inspire others to enjoy alcohol-free drinks, launched the “Mindful Drinking Festival”[ https://mindfuldrinkingfestival.com/]. It has been held in the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane every year until the pandemic hit. Interest is steadily growing. Whereas in 2017 there were 2,500 visitors a day, by 2020 more than 10,000 wanted to sample non-alcoholic distillates, mixed drinks, beers, and sparkling wines.
The UK, home of the pub crawl, is sobering up. Alcohol consumption among Britons has been falling steadily for several years, and Brits are "sober curious." Twenty-one percent of 18- to 60-year-olds don't drink any alcohol at all, and among 18- to 24-year-olds the figure is even over 25 percent.
As a result of the new desire to stay sober, the selection of non-alcoholic spirits continues to expand.
"Seedlip," the first non-alcoholic distillate, hit the market in 2016, and there are now around 70 competitors. "Seedlip Garden", with flavours from peas, rosemary and thyme, is delicious with tonic. Even though the drink’s creation doesn’t involve juniper, its taste comes pretty close to a classic gin and tonic.
A separate gastronomic genre has already emerged in London, so-called “sober bars”, where no alcoholic drinks are served. James Watt, founder of craft beer brand "Brewdog," wants guests not to have to compromise on quality, taste and experience when they choose a drink with little or no alcohol. Currently, "Brewdog" has five non-alcoholic craft beers in its range. At the beginning of January 2020, the first "Brewdog Bar AF" opened in London's Eastend with 15 non-alcoholic beers on tap. In its first month, the new beer bar counted 20,000 guests. More branches followed, not just in sober London.
In December 2021, Laura Willoughby’s company “Club Soda” [https://joinclubsoda.com/first-alcohol-free-off-licence/] opened the first completely alcohol-free off-licence in London.
There’s a wide range of “Quit Lit”, too (see some suggestions below): a mixture of memoirs, self-help and science books on life without alcohol, not to mention the wide array of recipe books for alcohol-free cocktails or “mocktails”.
Something is definitely happening! Gone are the days when water or orange juice were the only options for those who chose not to drink. You can now choose from a variety of alcohol-free drinks, not just in sober bars, but even the menus of more and more regular restaurants and bars, the supermarket shelf and online. Bonus: Those drinks also look like the real deal, sparing you annoying questions such as: “Are you pregnant?”, “Are you on a diet?”, “Are you driving?” – “What’s wrong with you?”. In Western culture, alcohol is the only drug we constantly have to justify not having!
So, what sort of thing do sober people drink?
High-up on the list are botanicals, alcohol-free distillates resembling gin, vodka, rum or whiskey. Once you start googling these drinks, you’ll be amazed at the selection. Most manufacturers list mocktail recipes, illustrated by mouth-watering photographs. The gins, when served with tonic, are particularly close to a G&T.
Brewers were probably the first to try and recreate an alcoholic drink that didn’t contain alcohol. They have had the longest time to perfect their product, and it shows. There are now excellent non-alcoholic beers that are so good that even seasoned drinkers cannot tell the difference.
Mocktails, too, have been around for a long time – think Virgin Mary. Many see cocktails as a particularly dangerous alcoholic drink, as they often taste like juice, but pack a real punch. The resemblance to fruit juices makes them fairly easy to recreate. After all, juice tastes like juice, too.
Alcohol-free wine and champagne, however, may still need a bit of work. Or perhaps you just need to taste your way through a range of them, until you find one that hits the spot. They’re out there though, and vintners are working hard on perfecting non-alcoholic wines.
Like the brewers, distillers and bartenders, they are well aware of this growing trend and not about to lose out. So, watch this space. Delicious alcohol-free wines are probably just around the corner.
Take the alcohol-free challenge
Okay, Dry January is long behind us, but the warmer weather is a great time to do this challenge because we really need to stay hydrated and alcohol, as you probably know, has the opposite effect. Can you last six weeks without alcohol? Here’s how to pass the time:
· Sample interesting-sounding botanicals, alcohol-free wines or beers to find your favourite tipple
· Get your hands on a mocktail book and shake up a storm of guilt-free drinks
· Tick-off your alcohol-free days – you’re not going to want to break the chain
· Measure your waist at the beginning and end
· Keep a mood and sleep journal, rating both on a scale of 1 to 10 each day
· List the advantages of clear-headedness as you discover them
· Feel smug because you’re trendy
And who knows? Perhaps you’ll then fancy staying sober – or sober more often – way beyond the holidays!
Annie Grace: This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life, 2015
Catherine Gray: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, 2017
Clare Pooley: The Sober Diaries: How one woman stopped drinking and started living, 2017
Ruby Warrington: Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, 2018