Has everyone stopped drinking? It certainly feels that way. Recently, dozens of my former cocktailers-in-arms have leaped onto the wagon for insufferably sensible aims like preserving their marriages or their health—or at least for an extended annual reset in Dry January or Sober October. Celebrities once known for their debauchery, have repudiated booze, and the nondrinkers aren’t sitting at home moping. There are suddenly chic little alcohol-free bars to go to, like Getaway in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; Gem Bar in Pitman, New Jersey; Sans Bar in Austin, Texas; the Virgin Mary, in Dublin (of all places). And there are apparently enough nonalcoholic wines and beers and spirits to make quitting seem like a reasonable proposition. Data company Nielsen claims that the low- and no-alcohol beverage sector has grown by 506 percent since 2015.
I’ve decided to take my own spot on the sober bandwagon, for a few weeks, anyway. It’s not (just) peer pressure: I’m motivated by irrefutable facts. Drinking has been linked to liver disease, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, anxiety, depression, and premature aging. Some 61 million Americans report binge drinking at least once in a month. Alcohol abuse is seven times more common than the abuse of painkillers. In late 2022, I asked addiction specialist Adam Leventhal, director of the Institute for Addiction Science at USC, where he places alcohol on a list of substances of concern, and he suppresses a laugh. “Number one!” Mon Dieu.
The first step is figuring out what nondrinkers are drinking. I am an inveterate book learner, so I open Alinea’s Zero: A New Approach to Non-Alcoholic Drinks. Its photographs are so captivating I’m almost convinced I have the patience to embark on the two-day recipe for a nonalcoholic French 75. Remembering that I barely have the patience to fold laundry, I resist. But luckily, at least six other helpful books for the cocktail-loving sober curious have been published in the past few years. I peruse Julia Bainbridge’s Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, where the Verjus Spritz is a straightforward three ingredients and a garnish. The GT&C, from Elva Ramirez’s Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking, calls for a nonalcoholic gin from Ritual Zero Proof—which starts its life not as gin, but water, with xanthan gum added for heft and citric acid for bite. I happen to open my mailbox to a book called Drink Lightly. The author, Natasha David, is a bartending veteran of Maison Premiere, Mayahuel, and her own place, the Lower East Side’s recently closed Nitecap. She is openly indifferent to inebriation (“I’ve never had a desire to get drunk,” she writes in her book’s early pages) and now spends her days concocting no- and low-alcohol drinks at her research and development lab in Red Hook, New York. I send her a note, asking if she might have some practical guidance on drinking when you don’t drink. She responds ebulliently, with a list of nonalcoholic spirits and, even better, an offer to spend a morning tasting and mixing them by my side.
I cross-reference David’s list with Bainbridge’s recommendations and various “best of” lists, and let Instagram’s algorithmic nudges take care of the rest. Soon, hundreds of dollars of nonalcoholic wines, spirits, aperitifs, amaros, canned spritzes, and miscellaneous are en route to my house from online shops like The Zero Proof and No & Low. While quitting booze might save marriages and internal organs, it is worth noting that it does not save money. Nonalcoholic wine costs in the $15 to $30 range, and the average canned NA aperitif runs the same as an IPA. (Apropos of which—I am entirely excluding the wide world of nonalcoholic beer, hop water, and IPA-like teas from this contemplation, because I’m not a regular beer drinker, and because they are such a large and varied group, they deserve a story all of their own.)
I use the days preceding my orders’ arrival to research the history of drinking. “Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica? It is almost the history of culture.” That’s Nietzsche from 1882. He sounds histrionic, but it’s true. The embrace of booze dates to between 6,000 and 4,000 B.C. Like so many cultural artifacts, it began in Mesopotamia and Turkey and eventually spread west. Ancient Egyptians drank more beer than wine because of their prolific wheat farming; Romans drank more wine than beer because their temperate climate was hospitable to grapevines. In 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Cape Cod instead of North Virginia because they were running out of beer. Periods of temperance, promoted by Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman, et al., and prohibition have alternated with the apotheosis of drinking and the drunk. (See William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Henry Ford II.) Luckily for my teetotaling plans, according to the curators of an aughts-era exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, the concept of moderate drinking was pioneered by my people, the biblical Jews. I’ve never been a practitioner of moderation, but it’s encouraging to know it’s in my genes.
With my trunk loaded with an imposing assembly of bottles and cans, I head to Natasha David’s office, behind her family’s house in leafy Red Hook, through a lovely meandering run for 11 chickens. (Their eggs are extraordinary.) A wall is lined floor to ceiling with spirits and non-spirits David has collected over the years. There are refrigerators and a collection of glassware and vintage cocktail shakers to rival Bemelmans. We unload my cases and begin.
In the bright spring sun, David pours alcohol-free Eins Zwei Zero Riesling. It’s the first nonalcoholic wine I’ve ever tasted, and it looks and smells just like…Riesling. “It has minerality,” notes David, likely due to being fermented and then de-alcoholized through low-temperature vacuum distillation, which gently evaporates alcohol at around 84 degrees Fahrenheit, while preserving the wine’s aromas and character. Johannes Leitz, the winemaker, tells me that the technology has existed for 110 years, but his own winery’s innovation was starting with such good wine. “We need a really high-quality starting product,” he says.
Noughty Sparkling Rosé, made from organic Tempranillo grapes grown in La Mancha, uses a similar process to remove alcohol while retaining a wine’s fragrance in steam that is reintroduced, along with CO2, at the end. I find it festive and convincing (though it peters out a bit quickly). Semblance’s sparkling Chardonnay has perfect bubbles, and what David calls “a Moscato quality.” Its cocreator, Esther Paik Vess, explains that she sources Central and North California coast Chardonnay, then uses what is called “spinning cone distillation” to remove alcohol, while the wine, mostly unchanged other than its reduced proof, drips into a no-alcohol barrel. David suggests adding two ounces of a Campari stand-in, called Lyre’s Italian Spritz, to a long pour of Semblance on ice. The resulting bitterness and fine bubble are so familiarly festive I’m furnished with a Pavlovian stirring of internal effervescence.
“Some of us drank nonstop at the start of COVID. The pendulum had to swing back. It was just time”
Seedlip Spice 94 was the first spirits replacement to reach the market, back in 2015. Devised in a fever of inspiration involving a copper still and homegrown green peas by a British former adman named Ben Branson, it gave birth to a category that grows more robust by the day. Seven years later, there are enough spirits alternatives to fill a bar rail. With nearly 10 lined up before us, David and I sniff and read labels and taste. Lyre’s Dry London, a gin replacement, smells faintly of a hard-candy necklace—but I like candy necklaces. Another, called Ginish, lists glycerol as an ingredient, which David suspects lends it its viscosity, akin to that of gin—an impressive feat. Amass Riverine, another distilled, botanical spirit replacement, is deeply green-tasting, piney, and slightly coarse. Mixed with tonic, it makes an ideal not-vermouth cocktail, with an enticing, lightly bitter bite. We taste Sobrii and Pentire, two more gin stand-ins, and David makes me zero-proof versions of my customary cocktail: a gin martini with a twist. In several, the alcohol bite of gin is impressively mimicked by capsicum derivatives. I don’t feel at all unwound, the way I do after martinis made of Plymouth. But how many martini lovers would choose a nonalcoholic one as a replacement, anyway? In addition to Riverine, I find Pentire’s Adrift, made from samphire, sage, citrus, and sea salt from the Cornwall coast closest to the craggy, salty, forest nature of my beloved gin. It’s thin, but it tastes good on its own, a point in its favor. We move on to other spirits replacements. Ritual Zero Proof Tequila smells like Jose Cuervo—not appealing in either bottle—but shaken with simple syrup and lime juice, it more than suggests a margarita and leaves me wondering what a dash of prickly pear cactus syrup might achieve. Lyre’s White Cane Spirit, a substitute for rum, though unmoving alone, makes a consummate not-rum and Coke. None of these successful combinations have escaped the owners of the largest spirits companies. Ritual and Seedlip are both partly owned by Diageo, owner of Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker. Nonalcoholic beverages make up 10 percent of Budweiser’s parent company’s sales, and in 2018, the company hired a chief non-alcohol beverage officer.
Normally I’d have pondered such prodigious growth in a food-and-drink trend over a drink. This time I ask around. Allen Hamburger, a coauthor, with his wife, of Alinea’s Zero, tells me that at Alinea and its cocktail bar, The Aviary, the clientele had been demanding nonalcoholic cocktails for years. And most of the trendy diet regimens of the last decade, whether juice fasts or Atkins or keto or Paleo or low-carb, have placed severe limits on alcohol. Plus, alcohol is no longer the only legal way to change one’s mental state. Data shows the legalization of cannabis has contributed to sober curiosity. David thinks that early quarantine binge drinking also added fuel to the sobriety fire. “We’re so health-conscious in general right now. And some of us drank nonstop at the start of COVID. The pendulum had to swing back. It was just time,” she says.
David and I move on to tasting the final category: sui generis aperitifs designed as their own experiences. These are universally possessed of exquisite product design, either premixed and fizzed and ready to go in beautiful little cans and bottles, or in spirit-sized bottles with directions to add seltzer or tonic. Each of them is made of a mix of fruit juices, water, herbs, roots, and other botanicals, many of which are used in traditional herbal medicine. Ghia’s canned Le Spritz is pleasantly bitter, with rosemary, ginger, orange peel, and gentian zinging off one another so actively one has to sip slowly. Gnista’s Barreled Oak is après-ski in a bottle, salty, slightly sweet. David mentions golden raisins—a perfect description. Another bottled bitter, called Figlia, is lovely on its own, but on ice with seltzer is a more flavorful, complex––bitters and soda.
A number of these are brimming with what are called “adaptogens.” Put in the simplest terms by Joel Evans, director of the Center for Functional Medicine in Stamford, Connecticut, adaptogens are compounds that help the body to adjust to changes. “What that means,” he explains, “is when hormones are low, adaptogens will raise them. And when they are high, they will lower them.” If this sounds to you like snake oil, you’re not alone. Evans himself was skeptical until he understood the biological mechanism at work. “The same compound can stimulate different receptors, and the receptors determine whether the body should adapt to increase or decrease hormone levels.” Adaptogens act specifically upon the body’s automatic stress response, smoothing out the peaks and valleys to help achieve internal equilibrium. As though reviewing over-the-counter cold remedies, Evans takes me through a long list of plants and their extracts—ashwagandha, L-theanine, rhodiola, cordyceps, Siberian ginseng, and more—along with the physiological impact of each.
Before I leave, David pulls out a dark glass bottle, emblazoned with a pastel-hued deco beach scene. “Try this”
A trim glass bottle of plum-hued Rasāsvāda, labeled a “Spirit Restorative,” relies on pu’erh, schisandra berry, chamomile, and wormwood for its calmative effects. De Soi, cofounded by Katy Perry and Amass’s Morgan McLachlan, comes in festive bottles and little cans, mixed with a number of Evans’s favorite adaptogens. De Soi Golden Hour, which contains L-theanine and maca, is a lively early evening pick-me-up, while Purple Lune, with gentian, ashwagandha, and green tea is a stilling and potent digestif. Curious Elixirs (“Booze-free craft cocktails”) come in seven varieties, with my personal favorite, No. 3, providing a replacement for the taste of a gin martini—if not its reliable sedation. A mixture of carbonated water and various juices and extracts, Curious Elixirs are, like De Soi, forceful enough to agreeably hold one’s focus. I also find myself loving a mysteriously opaque ebony-black bottle of Aplós, which is infused with hemp, and has the milky white herbality of Arak. One glass with tonic didn’t have a noticeable effect, but after two, I felt CBD-calmed. David and I sip Kin Euphorics High Rhode Social Magic, which tastes of hibiscus, gentian, and orange, and both find ourselves double-checking the label for actual old-fashioned booze, since we both feel buzzed. There was none in sight, only ample adaptogens, like L-theanine, the neurotransmitters GABA and 5-HTP (a precursor to the happy hormone: serotonin), and nearly as much caffeine as an espresso.
Before I leave, David pulls a dark glass bottle from one of her fridges, emblazoned with a pastel-hued deco beach scene. “Try this,” she suggests, nonchalantly. “I could slowly sip this all day.” It’s Casamara Club Como, a stunning combination of sparkling water infused with orange, chamomile, peppermint, licorice root, grapefruit, juniper, clove, and cardamom with a touch of orange blossom honey and sea salt. It is thrillingly and subtly bitter, more spritz than spritz, and very grown-up. I return home, not at all drunk, and promptly order 24 cans for immediate delivery.
The following day I invite a friend over for a late afternoon aperitif. Channeling the élan of Natasha David, for him, I pour two ounces of Kin Euphorics over ice into a highball glass, add an ounce of something called Brooklyn Brewed Sorrel, then a tablespoon of cherry simple syrup and fizzy water. I drink a Casamara Club on ice with a slice of orange. We sit on the porch and sip and chat. I’m less rushed than I ever am with my first glass of wine. I doubt this is my permanent state, but I can say that, for the moment, anyway, I do not need a drink.