'Sober Curious' Could Be What You Need to Drink Less Without Quitting Entirely

'Sober Curious' Could Be What You Need to Drink Less Without Quitting Entirely

The first time I remember hearing about the concept of not drinking in January, it was with my basketball buddies after a rec game in the East Village in New York City. This was a winter night more than a decade ago, over a table of chicken sandwiches. One guy, who worked in commodities, was explaining to a group of us how, after the excesses of the December holiday season, he liked to take the month off from drinking. To detox. To refresh. To healthify. It felt like a strange secret from a better, more progressive place—particularly coming out in this postgame huddle. That night, the sweaty dude was just full of rarefied wisdom.

Nowadays the concept of a sober January doesn’t feel so exotic. In fact, as known by its pop-lexicon title, “Dry January,” it’s practically a brand. According to a YouGov poll, 23 percent of Americans over 18 had plans to attempt a booze-free January in 2019. That would correspond to an astounding 58 million temporary soberers.

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I have what I consider to be a pretty good relationship with drinking. Plainly: I’m a fan. I wasn’t a young drinking prodigy. It was when I moved to New York, at 21, that I fell in love with bars and the things that can happen in them. I met some of my best friends that year. I also puked more that year, quite possibly, than in the rest of my life combined. Over time, I’ve calibrated my intake choices and minorly dabbled in drugs, from gateway to stronger stuff. It’s all brought me back to the same initial conclusion: In drinking, I have all the vice I ever need.

And yet I’ve been swept up, too: I’ve attempted Dry January three years running. Meanwhile, beyond episodic fads, sobriety has morphed into a lifestyle, the sober curious, a term popularized by the author/podcaster Ruby Warrington via her 2018 book of the same name. These people don’t just do Dry January—they hang out at sober bars, download sobriety podcasts and apps, and consume content from self-branded sober gurus. “I feel like alcohol is the new cigarettes,” says Warrington. “Smoking was completely socially acceptable 20 years ago. Fast-forward a couple of decades and people will drink and use alcohol much differently.”

Ruby Warrington.
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As Dry January has boomed and cross-pollinated into sober curious, it’s also become divisive. If you have partaken, you know. Some people get it. But turn down a drink during the month of January and someone will declare, as if they’ve caught you: “You’re doing Dry January?” You have to be ready—aesthetically, morally, spiritually—to defend your decision.

To me, that makes total sense: The rapid permeation of the sober-curious wave has given it a slight tinge of mass psychosis. We’re talking about millions of people, largely people who don’t believe they have a drinking problem, giving up the sauce. Why would anyone willingly stop drinking?

Well, okay: You stop drinking because it is, almost surely, not all that great for you. In 2018, The Lancet published what it called “the most comprehensive estimate of the global burden of alcohol use to date.” Its widely publicized conclusion contradicted years of prior research and general common wisdom and declared, dramatically, that, actually, there is no safe level of drinking. That even one drink a day correlates to an increased chance of health problems. And that more drinking correlates to, yes, more problems.

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While some criticized the study’s observational tactics and other research points to the potential benefits of moderate alcohol intake, its conclusion resonated widely. Perhaps that’s because sobriety is attaining an increased cultural cachet. Sober curious is part of a more general move to open up decision-making trees in various aspects of modern life. People used to be either something or not that thing. But you can temporarily quit meat, or only do gluten when you’re partying. It’s not just all-or-nothing. Nowadays there are all sorts of gradients. There are so many reasons to choose sober-ish.

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To learn more, I belly up to the bar at Redemption in London, where the food is vegan and the drinks are non-alcoholic. And there are sober bars like this across America and, of course, an app, Loosid, to help you find like-minded sober folks. Zoey Henderson, head of ops at Redemption, tells me about how her cocktail menu has moved away from “homemade kombucha, shrubs, tinctures, and essences” and toward an influx of nonalcoholic “plant spirits” and bottle brands that replicate gin and rum flavors in cocktails that are a combination of “mixology and alchemy.”

The Redemption bartenders, Henderson explains, are using “older recipes and herbal tonics that give you all those wonderful, positive reinforcements that you look for in a drink. They make you feel a bit buzzy. They make you want to dance.” She specifically recommends Redemption’s hibiscus sour, “a powerful botanical elixir.” And as for what a night out at Redemption is like, it’s “exactly the same” as a social outing with alcohol, Henderson says, “except the toilets stay cleaner, nobody gets rowdy, glassware is smashed a lot less—all the positives, none of the negatives!”

Another group of people sliding into sobriety are those on restrictive eating plans. Well-known lifestyle diets like keto and Whole30 famously restrict or eliminate your alcohol choices. I have two very smart scientist friends in Boston: Rachel, who is a physician and scientist at Harvard, and Greg, a scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Both are paleo. “I use paleo more as a framework for a low-glycemic-index diet, which is the diet that has the most data behind it as being good for overall health,” Rachel explains. “I do still drink, but being on a paleo/low-glycemic-index diet has made me more conscious in general about what I take in and how I feel after eating/drinking things.” For Greg, paleo helps him maintain “an overall healthy lifestyle” and “control in the amount of alcohol I consume.” And even when drinking, he stays paleo via grape-based Ciroc. “Thank God,” he says, “for Diddy.”

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While Greg gets loose on grape vodka, many more are relying on a buzz from a different botanical source, popularized by West Coast rappers like Snoop Dogg. Though the legalization of marijuana has not impacted the sales of spirits, it has illuminated a spectrum of usage that ranges from “cross-fading” (spirits and weed) to “Cali-sober” (weed only). Writer Katie Heaney recently chronicled her Cali-sober journey, detailing how smoking marijuana has helped take the edge off cutting back on alcohol. As Heaney told me, “I don’t necessarily relate to the more wellness-y aspects of sober curiosity. I think it’s great if anyone wants to drink less. But I think that’s a decision most people have to come to on their own, for their own reasons. For some people, having a like-minded community might really help with that, but it’s just not my thing.”

However, data on overall alcohol consumption for the past several years does reveal year-on-year declines, so people are drinking less, especially millennials. Annie Grace, another author/influencer/podcaster, credits social media for this trend and says young people “don’t want to be embarrassed on a platform that lives forever. I certainly am glad there was no photographic record of what I did in my early 20s.”

It’s not just about embarrassment, though. As The New York Times put it in a recent sober-curious story: “Beyond the health risks, the booze that flows freely at fraternity parties or holiday mixers has started to look to some women like a tool of oppression in the age of radical consent.” Grace adds another factor in the decision-making of millennials and Gen-Zers: “Their experience with their own parents drinking. It seems that they feel alcohol is their parents’ drug.”

Instead, the kids want to get high on . . . wellness?! You know, yoga, meditation, adult coloring books, wheatgrass shots, CBD everything, and so much more. “Once a person begins the journey into health and wellness, alcohol often sticks out as a sore thumb,” says Grace.

I personally didn’t dip a toe into the sober-curious pool, via Dry January, because of sober bars, sober gurus, diet, weed, or youth. It wasn’t thanks to the sweaty hoops player either, but through the wisdom of someone even more impressive: my girlfriend.

If I were ever to try it, trying it with her seemed like the most palatable option. I thought cutting out one twelfth of my yearly alcohol intake seemed like a pretty good idea. I’d save money, lose weight, focus better, blah blah blah.

I succeeded, with pluck and guile, in my first attempt. I found that all the clichés were true. I did want to socialize less. I did want to eat more ice cream. I also found out that, after the first week or so, it got easier. That once I got even a little bit of a head of sober steam, the booze cravings weren’t crowding my brain. I slept better! I also felt, slightly, like I was living in stasis.

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There are many reasons to stop drinking, either temporarily or altogether. For me, the reason is this: I need to check with myself that, while I love drinking, I do not need it. And not to get carried away here, but if you’re not questioning everything in 2020, as the world tilts on so many axes, maybe you’re not thinking hard enough. We should be analyzing our relationships with our coworkers, our romantic partners, our families, our best friends. We should be thinking about our booze.

We can do that in January. Or we can do it whenever. And if it’s January and we’re not feeling good about our fast, we can just—stop! Years ago, I was with a pal at breakfast, contemplating getting a doughnut. I hemmed and hawed and muttered to myself how it was “bad for me.” He looked at me and he pointed to his brain and he said something I’ve honestly never forgotten: “It’s good for the mental, though.”

Yes, even one drink is bad for you.

But even one drink can be damn good for the mental.

Use these tips to thrive whether you’re doing Dry January or leaning into sober curious.

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