This is the age of the sober curious. Where young people don’t binge drink like they used to, adults practice moderation in the name of wellness, and gin is not gin.
Quentina Siah loves a good cocktail. If you search her on the Internet, a single photo will come up of her elegantly propped on a bar stool with a negroni in hand. A couple of years after that photo, Siah was diagnosed with type two diabetes, a condition that runs in her family, forcing her to swap her beloved negroni for a NO-groni.
“I tried to cut back, but I realized that alcohol and my medication were not friends,” said Siah. “It was hard because all my friends drink, and I’m with a bartender. The upside is there is now always a driver.”
There has never been a better time for a cocktail enthusiast to give up alcohol in some ways. In the past year alone, 23 new non-alcoholic spirit brands were launched in the US and the UK – two countries famous for their drinking culture.
There’s even a name for the cultural movement – sober curious.
The term was coined by New York author Ruby Warrington who in 2018 published Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol. In it, Warrington makes a case for ‘mindful drinking’ where people drink less or drink nothing at all, encouraging readers to be ‘curious’ about why they choose to drink in the first place.
Since the book’s release, sober bars have popped up in New York and London, where patrons are willing to fork over $13 for a mocktail. Non-alcoholic spirits like Seedlip have made their way into liquor and boutique stores, and any bartender worth their salt now must have a couple of mocktails up their sleeves.
The movement has also made its way to social media, where sober and sober curious influencers extol the virtues of sober life where there are no hangovers and, apparently, no regrets.
Photo | Abby Wiseman
Jessica Jeboult is a Vancouver-based sober coach who gave up alcohol after working in nightclubs as a DJ for years. She was in her early 30s and was experiencing such intense anxiety that going to work was becoming impossible.
“It didn’t matter if it was one drink or one bottle. I still felt shame, guilt, embarrassment, and remorse,” said Jeboult. “I knew that it was hindering my life, but I was doing it because I didn’t know any other coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, sadness, or even happiness.”
Like many, Jeboult created a social life around drinking, so she quickly realized who her genuine friends were when she stopped. It was lonely at times, so to help herself through the process, Jeboult started a blog called A Sober Girls Guide.
Scrolling through her Instagram feed and website, there is one word that is curiously absent in her dialogue – alcoholic.
“I always get hung up on the term alcoholic because per the government guidelines, pretty much everyone would be considered an alcoholic,” said Jeboult. “When I was trying to get sober or change my relationship with alcohol, I found all the messages I was receiving were so dark and muted. It was so, ‘if you drink you’ll die.'”
Quitting drinking allowed Jeboult to start on a new career path, ditching the nightlife to coach women who want to change their relationship with alcohol, either through moderation or by giving it up completely. The sober curious are welcome.
“For my coaching programs, all I require is willingness,” said Jeboult. “They don’t have to be sober the whole time, but we set certain goals, and I want them to try and be willing to reach these goals.”
Jeboult is busier than ever as the pandemic has held up a mirror to many people and their drinking habits. While liquor stores experienced a massive increase in sales – upwards of 40 percent in BC last March – Jeboult, likewise, experienced a massive increase in clients.
“I think a lot of people have taken the time to work on themselves and have enjoyed a break from their social obligations,” said Jeboult. “The pandemic has also created a lot of stress, and many are using alcohol to cope more than ever.”
It took me a good ten years to wrap myself around the idea that maybe alcohol was hindering my life instead of helping it. – Jessica Jeboult
Sober Curious? We can offer you a soda
For Siah, the pandemic has been an opportunity to dive deeper into the world of mocktails – crafting vermouth-flavoured syrups from herbs and sourcing non-alcoholic spirits from distributors like Calgary-based Sober Dry and Toronto’s Cocktail Emporium.
In her pursuit to craft more creative mocktails, she discovered Julia Bainbridge’s new book called Good Drinks: Alcohol-free recipes for when you’re not drinking for whatever reason. In it are recipes that range from the incredibly simple to the complicated and labour intensive.
“I’m experimenting with mocktails because I really miss it,” said Siah. “I never really drank to get drunk. I loved exploring different flavours, and it’s frustrating because so many places only offer juice and soda, and I want something more complex.”
Her enthusiasm is rubbing off on her partner, Rob Scope, who has taken over the bar at Red Wagon in East Vancouver. Scope has always had an interest in non-alcoholic cocktails. In fact, the first time he made it into a newspaper was because of a mocktail he crafted 10 years ago. To him, having a good mocktail on the menu is just good business.
“From a business perspective, people who aren’t drinking end up having water and leave,” said Scope. “If you can offer them something fun, then you are offering them an actual experience.”
Scope has two mocktails on the menu that include as many local products as possible, like Mixers and Elixers fruit shrubs, Ms. Better’s Bitters vegan Miraculous Foamer, and Lumette! London Dry Non-Alcoholic Gin. Both cocktails are offered for a tidy $6 – half the price of a traditional cocktail, but more than water.
Photo | Abby Wiseman
From time to time, local distilleries have ventured into making the odd non-alcoholic spirit, but none have been as dedicated as Alayne MacIsaac, owner of Lumette!. MacIsaac, ironically, is also the co-owner of award-winning Sheringham Distillery, which she operates with her husband Jason in Sooke.
“Although I own a distillery, I actually don’t drink that much,” said MacIsaac. “I just can’t keep it up every night because I want to feel good and wake up feeling fresh, but I still want to have the experience when I go out.”
MacIsaac, much like Siah, was fed up with only being offered syrups and soda when she was on the town for a mild night out. She wanted “a big kid option.” Something close to a real cocktail in a real glass, but the options just weren’t there.
MacIsaac started with Lumette! Bright Light, which is floral and aromatic with botanicals like juniper, grapefruit, orange, and mint. She also recently released a London dry version that is more traditional with juniper, lemon, and star anise.
The process for making non-alcoholic, also called alt-gin, is mostly the same as making regular gin. The main difference is that one is distilled in water and the other in alcohol. Water is not as good at extracting flavours as alcohol, so to increase the flavour, MacIsaac uses four to six times the botanicals to make Lumette!.
Does it taste exactly like traditional gin? Not entirely. MacIsaac herself doesn’t recommend drinking it neat, but it adds a layer of botanical flavours that are so difficult to replicate in a cocktail.
So, who is drinking Lumette!? According to MacIsaac, everyone from older people who are no longer able to drink to 20 year-olds looking for a ‘wedge’ drink to slow down while appearing to keep up.
“They feel like they can have a drink and not be looked down on by their friends,” said MacIsaac. “Some are also using to make a low-alc drink with one shot of Lumette! and a shot of gin.”
There is still a long way to go and a lot of education around Lumette!, as the non-alc movement hasn’t entirely hit Vancouver yet. However, 2019 statistics from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research showed that drinking in BC dipped for the first time in nearly a decade. Time will tell how the pandemic has affected these numbers.
Another indicator is that there have been reports, albeit vague on how this data was collected, that drinking amongst youth is down. It may just be a matter of time before ordering a Mojito is as common as ordering a Nojito.
“We weren’t sure how it was going to go with COVID because people are drinking more, but it definitely survived,” said MacIsaac. “We are finding that restaurants are emailing us because people are wanting more than soda and juice, and people are asking for non-alc options when they go out.”
Even if it wasn’t a success, MacIsaac would want to keep a bottle or two around for herself.
“My joke was in the beginning that if it didn’t go anywhere, I’d make a bottle every couple of months and bring it with me in my purse on a night out,” said MacIsaac. “Thankfully, people are buying it.”
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