Jan 10, 2022 - Food and Drink

Beyond Dry January, D.C. locals find ways to stay sober

A ladder coming out of an empty wine bottle.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

For sober people such as Laura Silverman, 36, attending social events such as karaoke or happy hours can feel alienating.

Silverman is the founder of Booze Free in D.C., an online space and what she calls a “travel guide” to help sober and sober-curious people navigate D.C. and build a visible community of people who choose not to drink—a movement she isn’t alone in.

Why it matters: January is a popular time for people to try an alcohol-free month or “Dry January,” but some locals, such as Silverman, say the alcohol-free (or sober curious) lifestyle doesn’t need to stop after the month ends.

By the numbers: Over the years, various studies have pointed to D.C.’s affinity for alcohol.

  • The CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 2015 showed D.C. leading other jurisdictions in its percentage of binge drinkers — which are those who drink 4-5 drinks at a time in the past month — at 24.4%.
  • The same study put Virginia at 17% and Maryland at 14.7%.

What they’re saying: Derek Brown, bartender and the brains behind Shaw’s Columbia Room, has made non-alcoholic options visible in his bar.

  • Brown has spoken openly about his own journey into sobriety. “Basically, there was a point in my career where I realized I was drinking too much,” he says. It wasn’t uncommon within the industry, he adds, but he realized he was using alcohol to hide aspects of his own mental health issues.
  • Getting sober was “a little scary for me because I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do as somebody who had made some of the aspects of my life about alcohol in some way,” he says.

Using his skills as a bartender, Brown has worked on recipes that offer people a choice: cocktails with or without alcohol. His second book, "Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails with 60 Recipes" is coming out this month.

  • “These are delicious, great cocktails–they are on par with cocktails with alcohol,” he says.

The intrigue: And there’s a taste for it. At the Columbia Room, Brown estimates that 2% of drinks sold prior to the pandemic were non-alcoholic.

  • Since reopening for customers after a hiatus earlier in the pandemic, the bar sells around 20% non-alcoholic cocktails, although the entire menu can be made non-alcoholic. The Columbia Room is currently operating a pop-up, Disco Mary, where patrons can enjoy apothecary cocktails with or without alcohol.
  • It also gives options to people who might be curious about switching to non-alcoholic drinks. “I found that putting the choices front and center made people feel more empowered,” he adds.

Options for sober people and sober-curious people are expanding in the area. Silverman reviews them in a column for District Fray Magazine, including D.C. Denizen’s zero-proof drinks.

  • Binge Bar, an upcoming non-alcoholic bar and events space by Gigi Arandid, has teamed up over the past year with Silverman and different spaces around D.C. to offer zero-proof mixology classes and pop-ups.

Samantha Kasten, in Alexandria, started Umbrella Dry Drinks last month and has also been hosting zero-proof events and pop-ups.

  • In February, she’ll be hosting a month-long pop-up at Old Town Alexandria’s Seedling Collective where patrons can try zero-proof cocktails Kasten has designed, and purchase non-alcoholic spirits that Kasten sources from other zero-proof creators and sellers.
  • “I’m really kind of getting a gauge for how the community is going to respond to this concept,” says Kasten, who has been sober for three and a half years.

The concept for Umbrella Dry Drinks was created after Kasten took a 10-week course through Sans Bar, a zero-proof bar in Austin, Texas, where she learned how to run an alcohol-free business.

  • “That lit a huge fire inside of me to start this and get this going,” she says.

Sober people “want to feel included in the party,” she adds.

  • Umbrella Dry Drinks is “a space where everyone feels welcome and included and has a really delicious drink in hand."

The bottom line: There are spaces for sober and sober-curious people in D.C. beyond January, but Silverman, Brown, and Kasten say attitudes around zero-proof options could go further.

  • “I want to see a world in which those options are available to everybody. And that people aren't judged based on their choices,” Brown says. “You don't have to explain your life story to order a drink. And that would be a wonderful world."
  • For Silverman, the world includes zero-proof options in dive bars and more casual settings. “A scene isn’t made up of one person,” she says.

And for those trying Dry January and unsure what they’ll do after this month, Kasten offers a piece of advice: Take it one day at a time.

  • And remember: “There are cool, inclusive spaces and cool spaces that will support you,” she says.

Editor's note: This piece has been corrected to show 2% of drinks sold prior to the pandemic were non-alcoholic (not 2% sold since October) and to clarify that the bar now sells around 20% non-alcoholic cocktails.


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