SALT LAKE CITY — In a culture that celebrates alcohol, an oxymoron of a business is emerging: the boozeless bar.
From Austin, Texas, to Brooklyn, New York, people are gathering to sip artisanal beverages that look and sound like traditional cocktails, but with zero alcohol content.
At Getaway, a "dry" bar in Brooklyn, for example, patrons can choose from mixed drinks with names such as “Daters Gotta Date” and “A Trip to Ikea,” or house-made cordials like the fig-and-cinnamon shrub.
Getaway and other alcohol-free bars are capitalizing on the "sober curious" movement that has emerged as people have become increasingly health conscious and medical research has shown there is "no safe amount" of alcohol consumption.
“I think a lot of young people today, and even middle-age people, are thinking about having a healthy old age. They’re looking for ways to not have some of the problems that previous generations have had with their health,” said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who says sober bars are a “great idea.”
The businesses meet a need long ignored in the bar scene, providing a lively and sophisticated social setting where people in recovery from alcohol addiction can escape the relentless pressure to drink.
They're equally attractive to people who just aren't interested in drinking because they don't like the way alcohol makes them feel, and those who don't drink because of their religious faith.
There's no way to know exactly how many Americans are re-evaluating their alcohol consumption, but it's enough that even manufacturers of alcoholic beverages are taking note and producing no-alcohol or low-alcohol drinks, including a beer alternative called "hop water."
Alcohol sales have declined in the U.S. for the past three years, in part because younger Americans want fewer calories and carbohydrates, and they worry about pictures of them inebriated showing up on social media, Business Insider has reported.
Could the boozeless bar herald a new chapter in America's alcohol-soaked history? Some people think so. As the founder of the global "One Year No Beer" challenge has said, "Quitting alcohol isn't just for alcoholics."
But Koob warns that people with a history of substance abuse might still want to think carefully about the type of dry bar that they visit.
In her 2015 book "Drinking in America, Our Secret History," Susan Cheever said that Americans' attitudes about alcohol swing back and forth like a pendulum. "In the 1830s, we were the drunkest country in the world," she wrote; a century later, drinking was prohibited.
The 21st century, however, arrived with a conundrum. Although "there are more laws and more stringent social controls on drinking than there have ever been in our history, we are drinking enough to make to make alcoholism a significant health problem," Cheever wrote.
The problem is such that nearly 67 million Americans binge drink every month; among seniors, the rate is 1 in 10, a study published July 31 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society said. For women, binge drinking means they have four drinks on a single occasion; for men, five.
And the problem is especially acute in Utah, a state that, ironically, has the nation’s lowest overall drinking rate.
Of Utahns who drink alcohol, 39.9 percent report binge drinking, compared to 31.4 percent of people across the nation.
"While we have a lower overall population that drinks, of the population that does (binge) drink, they do so with higher intensity and frequency, so that impacts the harm," Anna Buckner, alcohol epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health, told the Deseret News last year.
The World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society consider alcoholic beverages a carcinogen, in the same class as arsenic, asbestos, plutonium and tobacco.
All this amounts to a nation of drinkers that is starting to question whether drinking is worth its costs, which include more than 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. each year, and an alcohol-related car crash every two minutes, according to federal statistics and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
On its website Rethinking Drinking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that people who should consider stopping drinking altogether include people who take medications that interact with alcohol, women who are thinking about becoming pregnant or have a mental or physical condition made worse by drinking.
'One long gradient'
But even people who drink moderately or lightly will feel and perform better if they stop drinking altogether, says Andy Ramage, a former soccer player and oil broker in the U.K., who quit a lucrative career to preach the benefits of alcohol-free living.
In a podcast, Ramage told ultra-athlete Rich Roll how an experiment with a couple of friends turned into a global movement called "One Year No Beer" and a book he co-wrote with Ruari Fairbairns, "The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge."
Ramage told Roll that conventional thinking is that there are two kinds of people: alcoholics, and everyone else. “In my opinion, there is one long gradient, and anyone who drinks is on that gradient," he said.
"My message is all about these people in the middle," he added. "And we're trying to give them the experience of what life is like without the booze."
The "One Year No Beer" website says it's a myth that alcohol makes you sleep better, or helps you to relax, and Ramage promises people that "going alcohol-free will be the best thing you've ever done. It will transform your life in so many ways."
"If you want to be an even better athlete, take a break from alcohol. Guaranteed. If you want to be an even better parent, take a break from alcohol. Guaranteed," he told Roll.
Another convert to alcohol-free living is Justin Kan, a technology entrepreneur who told CNN Business that at a recent dinner he noticed that about half the people present weren't drinking. This was remarkable, he said, because drinking has historically been part of Silicon Valley culture.
But when Kan tweeted his intention to stop drinking and launched a chat group to connect with others, he was surprised when 1,000 other people joined, CNN Business reported.
Now, he tweets regularly about how happy he is and how good is he feeling.
Today is my 101st day alcohol free, which is officially the longest stretch since high school.— Justin Kan ❄️ (@justinkan) July 19, 2019
I’ve been feeling great - I’ve been able to meditate and workout every day, have more energy during the day, and been able to get in touch with my full range of emotions.
The 'sober curious'
Ruby Warrington, a British journalist, helped to publicize the descriptive "sober curious" in her 2018 book of that name. Warrington believes that anyone who drinks regularly is "probably, kind of, just a little bit addicted," and she is among women who are stepping forward to say that drinking makes them feel physically bad, despite alcohol's reputation as a picker-upper.
Many people who drink do so from social pressure, they say, and it's time for women to challenge the myths, especially since rates of drinking in American women are on the rise, as noted in a Babble article entitled "How Mommy Drinking Culture Has Normalized Alcoholism for Women in America."
Sam Thonis, co-owner of Getaway along with Regina Dellea, said he first thought about the need for alcohol-free bars in conversation with his brother, who has struggled with addiction.
"We were talking about, hey, wouldn't it be great if this whole concept could still exist without the alcohol, and I don't think that much would be lost," Thonis said.
"I don't think people go out to bars because of the alcohol. You can get it for cheaper at home. They go to bars because they want to socialize, they want a certain atmosphere, they want to talk to the bartender."
Getaway, which opened in April, has a sign that says "0%" outside the door, and that's true right down to the bar's vanilla, which is not extracted with alcohol. "We have bitters, but they're glycerin-based," Thonis said.
Getaway's decor, however, could pass for a traditional bar, and as such, Thonis said only a few people have come in with children. The drinks, which Thonis and Dellea worked with a mixologist to design, are $13, although the bar also offers less expensive drinks such as coffee, tea and Bleinheim ginger ale.
Unlike Thonis, who was in media before opening Getaway, Chris Marshall, the owner of alcohol-free Sans Bar, in Austin, Texas, came to bar ownership from a background as a substance abuse counselor.
"There's a big difference between Sans Bar and things happening in New York, no disrespect to what they're doing," Marshall said.
For one thing, Sans Bar has a brick-and-mortar location in Austin that is only open on Friday nights. But it's also branching out with "pop-up bars" in a dozen or so cities across the nation, a concept that Marshall borrowed from churches.
“There are a lot of churches in the South that don’t have a physical space. They’ll use schools, movie theatres, a lot of things, to convert a space into a church. I thought, if that’s possible with a churches, then it’s possible with a bar,” he said.
Also, the staff of Sans Bar are all trained in mental health and addiction, and Marshall sees the Sans Bar experience as more of a classroom that teaches people how to enjoy themselves without alcohol than a traditional bar. The main focus is on forming relationships, he said, adding, "We're less party and more people."
At first, Marshall said, he thought Sans Bar would primarily attract people in recovery from substance abuse, which is one reason he decided to open on Friday evenings, an especially difficult time for people with alcohol issues. But he soon learned that there was a lot of interest in the concept from people who only drink occasionally or never had the desire.
The atmosphere is also conducive for people who suffer from anxiety or social anxiety and need a more welcoming atmosphere than traditional bars, Marshall said.
Can they last?
Koob, at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said the concept is great, but that people with a history of alcohol abuse disorder should be careful because going to a bar-like setting, even one where alcohol isn't served, could trigger a relapse.
"Relapse is also a mixture of a whole lot of things, one of which is you may just be having a bad day, and the thought of alcohol starts creeping into your consciousness as a short-term solution for not feeling so good. In social psychology, we call it misregulation, where you try to fix something and it actually makes everything worse," Koob said.
For people at serious risk of relapse, a cue such as sitting at a bar could be dangerous, and those people might want to go to an alcohol-free bar like Sans or one supported by a recovery group, he said, adding, "If you’re struggling with alcohol use disorder then you need to approach with caution."
But if people go repeatedly without having a problem, and they're making new friends who don't drink "and this is indeed supported by a recovery group, then you're probably fine."
And, Koob said, "For people who just want to have fun without alcohol, I think it's a great idea. The more options we have, the better choices we make."
Before opening Sans Bar, Marshall said he talked to several people who had tried to run a sober bar, but failed. One of the lessons he took away from those conversations is that while there may be a market for this type of bar, the market isn't enormous, at least not yet.
“It’s an idea that a thousand, maybe a million, people have had in sobriety, but no one solved the problem, which was, how do you replace liquor sales in bars?”
The failed businesses had been open seven days a week, which Marshall said didn’t work because the concept was too new, and the sober-curious movement had not yet taken off.
"It’s still too new, in my view, to go seven days a week. And to go full-scale,” he said.
For Thonis, the answer to “how do you replace liquor sales in bars?” is giving people something great to drink.
Getaway doesn’t use the term “mocktails,” Thonis said, because “Those are fake; those are for kids.” Getaway’s cocktails, he said, are more sophisticated. For example, Thonis’s favorite, called “Paper Train,” is a blend of lemon juice, tobacco syrup, vanilla and San Pellegrino Chinotto.
The bar is open from 5 p.m. to midnight, every day but Monday, and while Thonis is enthusiastic about its potential, he acknowledges that traditional bars have an advantage: "Alcohol has a certain effect; you have one drink and then you want another."
"Ultimately, it's going to come down to, do non-drinkers want to spend money on a night out?" he said, adding, "I absolutely think there's a demand for this. It's on us to figure out what the right model is."