No drink? No problem. The ‘sober curious’ movement may be here to stay.

Why We Wrote This

In a culture in which drinking goes largely unquestioned, the sober curious movement is gaining ground and encouraging people to reexamine why we imbibe. 

Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press/AP
Union 32 Craft House is busy with customers in the late afternoon July 17, 2019, in Eagan, Minnesota. While alcohol use has increased nationwide in recent years, sober curiosity has also swelled, and with it, options like dry bars and zero-proof drinks.

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It’s a consumption paradox: Americans are drinking more, but at the same time, interest in the sober curiosity movement is swelling. Dry bars, zero-proof tipples, and even alcohol-free Mardi Gras celebrations have gained steam. 

Made popular by a 2018 book of the same name, “sober curious” suggests a mindful reexamination of why one imbibes. In practice, that could mean ordering off the mocktail menu. Or aiming for moderation. Or simply questioning drinking culture.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the movement coincides with Americans’ growing obsession with wellness. By extension, those who are sober curious have tended to frame not-drinking as a personal health choice, rather than a moral one, as a more socially acceptable approach.  

As sociologist Jamie L. Mullaney says, onlookers may be more inclined to accept explanations for not-doings because “we’re increasingly tuned in to the ways in which excess – whether it’s food or substances or even technology – can impact health.”

Megan Zavieh is perfectly fine ordering water at the bar, thanks. No, she’s not pregnant. And no, she hasn’t battled with booze. Ms. Zavieh has seen how easily alcohol seeps into the social and work life of the legal profession, a norm that starts in law school. At the umpteenth conference cocktail hour, fellow lawyers have confided to her that they too wished alcohol were less ubiquitous.

“I’m never the one who wants to get drunk,” says Ms. Zavieh, a mom of four in Georgia and the founder of Zavieh Law. As a runner, she’ll forfeit drinks ahead of races to boost her fitness, and loves the way abstaining makes her feel. As a legal ethics attorney, she’s seen how problem-drinking can lead to lawyers “dropping the ball on their clients.”

Ms. Zavieh says she’s no teetotaler. But she advocates for an appraisal of the legal profession’s relationship with alcohol, and for accommodating abstainers with more options. While talking about consumption in moral terms “kind of falls on deaf ears,” she takes inspiration from the growing diversity of meal options available for people with food sensitivities.

“It seems like we’d have a bit more of a receptive crowd to talking about alcohol consumption in the context of health,” she says.

Ms. Zavieh had been “sober curious” long before learning the term. Made popular by a 2018 book of the same name, “sober curious” suggests a mindful reexamination of why one imbibes. In practice, that could mean ordering off the mocktail menu. Or aiming for moderation. No matter where imbibers first learned to say “cheers,” they likely didn’t learn to question drinking culture.

A health, not moral, choice

Observers like Ms. Zavieh see the bubbling up of this “sober curious” era coinciding with Americans’ growing obsession with wellness. By extension, framing not-drinking as a personal health choice – rather than a moral one – may seem more socially acceptable.

Research by sociologist Jamie L. Mullaney bears this out. In her 2005 book, “Everyone Is NOT Doing It: Abstinence and Personal Identity,” Dr. Mullaney explored commonalities between dozens of people who abstained from “expected doings.” Whether opting out of sugar, smoking, or sex, her interviewees offered a range of reasons for abstinence – and confronted a fair share of bewilderment.

“We expect a lot of abstainers,” she says. “We want them to account in some way.”

Yet even when personal reasons for abstinence were complex, Dr. Mullaney found that people often framed their abstinence simply in terms of health when asked to explain their behavior.

“The fact that others back off with their questioning when abstinence is framed in terms of health suggests to me that it is a legitimate contemporary cultural frame,” adds Dr. Mullaney, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Goucher College in Baltimore.

She says onlookers may be more inclined to accept explanations for not-doings because “we’re increasingly tuned in to the ways in which excess – whether it’s food or substances or even technology – can impact health.”

Paradoxically, the swell in sober curiosity comes as Americans up their libations. A federally sponsored study in JAMA Psychiatry found that alcohol use rose by 11% between 2002 and 2013. Women, racial minorities, older adults, and people with lower levels of education and income experienced the greatest spikes in high-risk drinking. Separately, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge-drink nearly once a week.

That said, U.S. teens are consuming less alcohol overall, Pew Research reports. And alcohol manufacturers are getting curious – and creative – about the sober market.

Faced with declining beer sales, alcohol brands like Heineken and AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) have begun to adapt by investing in low- or nonalcoholic drinks. Beverage startups like Seedlip, a U.K. purveyor of nonalcoholic spirits, are weighing in, too. Urban centers have seen a rise in “dry bars,” even if their zero-proof pours are as pricey as cocktails.

The increasing bounty of virgin drinks seems to mirror the mainstreamification of what used to be niche food, like vegetarianism or veganism.

“I think about living”

Societal trends notwithstanding, Dr. Mullaney makes clear that abstaining is a privilege for those who can actually choose.

“We cannot ‘abstain’ from doing things that we cannot do or that we are prevented from doing,” she writes in her book. That’s why some in long-term recovery from substance use repel the idea of sober curiosity as a fad.

“I don’t think about not drinking. I think about living,” says Chris Marshall, founder of Austin’s alcohol-free Sans Bar. With the help of 12-step groups, Mr. Marshall has been in long-term recovery since becoming sober over a decade ago.

“There’s nothing trendy about choosing to stay sober, because for me and millions of other people, this is life and death.”

While he worked as a substance use counselor, Mr. Marshall witnessed several clients make great strides toward sobriety, restore family relationships, return to jobs, only to relapse as they’d “fall back to the same social circle.”

“As a counselor, I could only help until about 5 o’clock every weekday,” he says. 

Anyone can attend Sans Bar, even if it means staying sober for just one night. Mr. Marshall welcomes what he calls a “sobriety spectrum,” acknowledging a flexible space between those who must abstain completely on one end and those who are sometimes sober on the other.

In addition to the Austin location, Sans Bar has sister bars in Missouri and Massachusetts, and Mr. Marshall has taken the project on a national tour. He attests to the drinks’ deliciousness – his current favorite is the “I Love You So Much,” Sans Bar’s spin on a piña colada. But he says the real aim is cultivating an alcohol-free community capable of “heart-to-heart connection” on a Friday night.

In March, Mr. Marshall brought Sans Bar to Missouri through a pop-up event offering an alcohol-free alternative to Mardi Gras sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse St. Louis, an organization focused on youth prevention. More than 300 people turned up.

“It far surpassed our expectations,” said NCADA’s executive director Nichole Dawsey, who’s noticed an uptick in St. Louis’ nonalcoholic scene. “At one point I looked around and realized I didn’t know anybody. For an executive director of an agency, that’s kind of a big deal.”

NCADA chose to stick with the Sans Bar model of avoiding nonalcoholic drinks that appear to mimic beer, though there are varying opinions within the recovery community on the efficacy of zero-proof drinks and dry bars.

“Sober bars are a relatively new phenomenon,” says George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “So I’d say there’s no consensus simply because it hasn’t been studied.” For someone in recovery, frequenting dry bars could test self-regulation, says Dr. Koob, but the community that’s gained can also be a powerful reinforcer for sobriety. 

Plus, the sober curious movement could help destigmatize those for whom sobriety isn’t a choice. Like Sans Bar’s founder, Ms. Dawsey supports sober curiosity in the spirit of inclusivity.

“This movement – not a trend – it’s about darn time,” she says.

For resources on alcohol use, consider Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline and treatment locator at findtreatment.samhsa.gov and 800-662-HELP.

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