One of the last times I went out with friends for a night on the town, I was the designated driver. Happily, because as much as I love getting dressed up and going out with friends, I have zero interest in drinking anymore. Not because I’m an alcoholic, either—it’s just that lately I’ve found I prefer clear-headed me over tipsy me.
I had a great night with my friends. A few of them cut themselves off fairly early on too, and we found ourselves chatting it up with the lot of us damn-near sober. It occured to me that we probably would have all been just as happy hanging out in the same locale, wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music, and drinking the same flavorful drinks—minus the liquor. We just wanted to hang out somewhere other than anyone’s house and feel like grownups for a few hours.
I didn’t know it then, but apparently my passing thought about a dry night out wasn’t an original one. Turns out, according to CNN, one of the hottest new trends in New York City at the moment is “sober bars”—night club-like venues where patrons enjoy all the perks of a night out on the town, but without alcohol involved.
When you think about it, it seems sort of obvious. Why has this not been a thing before now? Of course, if you want an alcohol-free evening out, you can always still go out but just choose to abstain, which is what I’ve found myself doing more and more, but what if you don’t want to be around alcohol at all? Or drunk people? I personally don’t mind socializing with people who’ve been drinking (as long as their communication skills are more or less intact), but I have friends who are very much bothered by the smell of alcohol as well as being around people who are drinking.
And, it used to be, if you didn’t want to be around alcohol or drunk people, you simply didn’t go out. I have friends who are alcoholics whose urge to drink is triggered by being around alcohol and intoxicated people, so they’re forced to choose between a nightlife and sobriety. That kinda sucks.
So I love the idea of a place that has all the trappings of a nightclub—flattering lighting, great music, and people—but minus the potential for drunken shenanigans. In New York, the new sober bars still offer fun drinks, but since alcohol is no longer the draw, libations are often infused with health-boosting ingredients like ginger and herbs, or ingredients like adaptogens and nootropics, thought to destress and improve cognitive function respectively.
Sober bars didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, on the whim of someone who thought they had an interesting idea. They came about in response to a downward trend in alcohol sales and a general observation that people want to go out whether they’re drinking or not. Companies like Heineken and AB InBev (which owns Budweiser) noticed a decline in sales and realized that to stay competitive, they needed to offer non-alcoholic alternatives.
Same goes for nightclubs. Investors have observed that people who are choosing not to drink aren’t necessarily opting out of a nightlife altogether. We’re seeing a shift in our culture where people are going about their usual routines but simply drinking less or not at all, often for reasons other than alcoholism. Studies have yet to be done to definitively answer the “why,” but in the meantime, at least in New York City, sober bars are filling a gap in the market.
I know for me and my circle of friends, our decline in drinking can be attributed to a variety of factors. Some of us find the empty calories a waste, some of us want to avoid feeling hungover in the morning, some are simply vigilant about what they put in their bodies, some are alcoholics, and some, like me, just enjoy themselves more when they’re sober. But it’s not only us women in our late thirties and early forties choosing to abstain. Millennials, college-age kids, and high schoolers are drinking less, too. In the U.S., teen drinking is down to its lowest levels since we began keeping records.
Companies are also starting to shift in their attitudes toward alcohol in work-social settings. According to CNN Business, tech companies and startups in particular have been known for their fondness for alcohol-laden bonding and schmoozing. But that’s starting to change, largely in response to the bad publicity that can come from “unflattering alcohol-fueled incidents.” Zenefits reportedly banned alcohol on its premises after finding beer cups, cigarettes, and used condoms in its stairwells.
Google also adjusted its policies after organized walkouts due to sexual harassment accusations. From Google: “Harassment is never acceptable and alcohol is never an excuse. But one of the most common factors among the harassment complaints made today at Google is that the perpetrator had been drinking (~20% of cases).” Sober bars are a practical, fun solution for companies who want to entertain clients and partners or bolster office camaraderie while avoiding the potential for bad publicity.
Of course, plenty of people still drink, and they always will. Sober bars aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea (probably literally actual tea because, non-alcoholic), and it’s not like we’re going sober in droves and companies that produce alcohol products will all suddenly go belly up. But it’s still pretty cool that, for those of us who are “sober curious,” there may soon be a place for us to hang out that’s every bit as fun as a bar or nightclub, minus the hangover the next day.
So, what I want to know now is, when will these places will start popping up places besides New York City? I’d go for a girl’s night out or a date night to a sober bar in a hot second. Can we have them everywhere ASAP please?
In the meantime though, I will content myself with being the designated driver.
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