A crowded bar, a drink in everyone’s hand, the bartender busily taking orders and crafting several cocktails at a time, with music loud enough to make everyone talk at a medium yell. The scene at Cathedral in Ballard on a recent Friday is much like that at any other bar — except no one here is drunk, or even slightly tipsy.
It’s a sober party.
But aside from the fact that everyone’s drinks are mocktails and nonalcoholic beer, the only other signs that this is not a regular boozy Friday night out are the notable lack of any stumbling, slurring and bad, booze-emboldened dancing. Oh, and nary a surface is sticky with the memories of spilled drinks past.
Everyone here is clear-eyed and standing upright.
This Sober Socializing Pop-Up Party at Cathedral was organized by Sans Bar, an alcohol-free bar in Austin, Texas, and DRY Soda Company, a Seattle-based nonalcoholic beverage company, and it’s part of a trend that has risen steadily over the last few years — sober socializing.
More people lately — particularly, younger people — have been opting out of drinking alcohol, launching sobriety movements like the “sober curious” and “no low” (no- and low-alcohol drinks) phenomena, movements that connect people who are exploring their relationships to alcohol, demanding no- or low-alcohol alternatives and looking for sober socializing scenes.
Ironically, this Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Prohibition, which lasted 13 years and banned the sale, purchase and import of alcohol in the United States. However, today’s sobriety movements want nothing to do with the moralizing and proselytizing of the past. They’re looking to be more inclusive by offering alternatives for nondrinkers.
“My vision is you walk into a bar and you say, ‘I want a cocktail,’ [and they’ll ask] ‘with alcohol or without?,’” says DRY Soda Co. CEO Sharelle Klaus, who founded the company when she was pregnant and looking for alcohol alternatives for food pairings and social occasions.
“I think it’s not an impossible [vision], because I see this younger generation shifting and I see people like me that are really looking at ‘sober curious,’ like, ‘I can question this,’” Klaus said. “The younger generation is questioning all of the norms that we have set … They’re not taking anything for granted. Just because it’s always been done this way doesn’t mean that it has to continue to be.”
Embracing what some call a “sober spectrum,” these new movements reframe sobriety to include everyone — from those who identify as alcoholics in recovery and those who are sober as a lifestyle choice, to the “Cali sober,” who abstain from alcohol but use marijuana, or the “sober curious,” who may only drink on occasion or who may temporarily abstain from alcohol as part of a “Dry January” or “Sober October” experiment.
Half of U.S. adults and two-thirds of adults aged 21-34 say they are trying to drink less, according to a 2019 Time magazine story, and businesses seem to be rising to the call. Big alcohol companies are investing in no- or low-alcohol alternatives and smaller companies like DRY Soda Co. are experimenting with elevated flavor beverages that can stand in for alcoholic celebration drinks. More bars are providing creative mocktail and nonalcoholic options outside of the traditional soda water, Coke or lemonade for sober patrons.
Former bartender Julia Ghaith believes the surge in sobriety among the younger generation is about mindfulness.
“Millennials are a lot more aware of themselves and the environment and the world that we live in, and they’re trying to be a lot more mindful,” said Ghaith, 28, who is almost three months sober.
“I was never aware when I was drinking. Two drinks in, and I’m yelling and annoying and I’ve accidentally hit the guy behind me as I turn around, and then I knock my drink over. That’s not a state of awareness, and we’re so interested in knowing what’s going on in our community and in our world, and we want to help the person next to us, and that’s a lot harder to do when you’re drunk.”
Nonetheless, some say the scene for sober socializing is still lacking. Many turn to Instagram to find community and connect with others who are part of the sober movement. Hashtags like #soberlife, #nolow and #sobercurious boast tens of thousands of posts about living sober.
“I don’t identify as an alcoholic.”
Ghaith met the man who would become her husband after she was in a car accident while driving drunk. Shadi Ghaith was her Uber driver afterward. She promised him she would never drive drunk again. For religious reasons, her husband has never had a drop of alcohol in his life.
For Ghaith, however, Shadi’s support made all the difference.
“He was amazing and supportive,” she said. “But I started to see how much he had to deal with when I was drinking. I’m the only person that’s thrown up in his car — I did that twice — and he would take me home and I was blackout, and I wouldn’t remember anything.”
Last October, shortly after quitting her job as a bartender, Ghaith decided to stop drinking altogether.
When she began her sober journey 84 days ago, on Oct. 20, 2019 — a date she now proudly displays on her @nolowmovement Instagram account — she didn’t identify as an alcoholic, but she wanted a community where she could explore sobriety and be accountable to someone to stay sober.
“I thought, if I’m going to be accountable to someone, I’ll just be accountable to this Instagram page,” she said.
Ghaith says her struggle was with moderation.
“I didn’t really feel like going to [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings. I don’t identify as an alcoholic. I just realized that my relationship with alcohol wasn’t healthy,” she said. “I wasn’t able to just say I’ll just have two drinks at any point. There wasn’t a point in my life where I was able to moderate it. It’s none or 10, so I decided none.”
As she shared her story on Instagram, she began connecting with people whose stories were similar to her own through the “sober curious” and “no low” movements.
Some have criticized the “sober curious” movement as controversial, saying it might create confusion about what constitutes alcoholism and discourage people struggling with alcoholism from getting professional help.
But Ghaith’s friend Britney Saxton, a 29-year-old Seattle bartender who identifies as an alcoholic, says Ghaith and the “sober curious” movement have helped her get sober.
“We just want to feel included.”
Nursing a no-alcohol coffee stout at the Sober Socializing Pop-Up Party, Saxton smiles at Ghaith as she describes how seeing her friend get sober helped her get to 51 days sober and counting.
“She might not label as an alcoholic, but I definitely do. I know that I am and I know that I have a problem,” said Saxton. “It did get to a point where I was blacking out drunk and I could still coherently talk to another bartender and order a drink without them realizing how drunk I was, and that’s not OK. It didn’t sit well with me. I’ve dealt with enough. I was just done being in the middle of it.”
And Saxton was right in the middle of it. Working as a bartender in the Seattle area, Saxton has particular insight about drinking culture and the challenges of staying sober in drinking environments. She says people who are drinking often seem uncomfortable around people who aren’t drinking.
“You can see that there’s something that they are uncomfortable with,” she said. “You can see that they’re questioning [you] and that’s a negative on my end. I feel so ‘not cool,’ for the lack of a better statement. The only way that I’ve been able to navigate through it is I just remember that this is what I want to do for me. It’s not about you, and I don’t care what you think or if you think that I’m not cool.”
Many in the sober community hope to see more totally sober nightlife events and environments, like the Sober Socializing Pop-Up Party and Austin’s alcohol-free Sans Bar, in the near future.
Saxton says environments where a lot of drinking is happening can be stressful for people in recovery or who identify as alcoholics.
“There are times when I’m just craving a shot,” she said. “I just need a shot and I’ll be good. Or the fact that someone is drunk and they’re just being obnoxious, they’re so annoying and I just want a shot. Or somebody just being loud. I work there, so everything about stress in that environment is a huge thing that makes me want to drink.”
Sober environments and drinking environments have different energies, Saxton says, but people who aren’t drinking still want to experience social environments that feel like a bar or like nightlife entertainment, just without the alcohol and the stresses that often come with it.
Describing a night out with her friends, Saxton said she and Ghaith were left out of a toast because they weren’t drinking.
“I got upset because we weren’t included. It had nothing to do with the drinking. I don’t want to [drink]. It was just not feeling included. We could do soda-water shots. Put a berry in it and call it pretty,” Saxton said with a shrug and a smile.
At Cathedral, Ghaith and Saxton linger by the bar toward the end of the night and order more drinks — another nonalcoholic stout for Saxton and a Seattle Freeze for Ghaith.
The bartender, Sans Bar’s Chris Marshall, greets Saxton energetically as an old friend and fellow sober-movement Instagrammer.
Marshall leans in to ask Saxton which of his cocktail creations is her favorite. “You’re the expert,” he says, as he mixes up the Seattle Freeze — a mimosalike cocktail with almond orgeat, citrus juice and Element Shrub blood-orange saffron.
Around them, a line forms. Sober patrons wait patiently for them to finish the conversation, talking and checking their phones while the two sober bartenders enjoy a moment.
The dance floor remains conspicuously empty, but the bar is crowded, conversation is lively and the nonalcoholic drinks flow steadily until the end of the night.
And not a single person broke a glass or threw up on anyone.