Sober October has passed. Dry January awaits. But for a growing cohort of young New Yorkers, cutting back on alcohol has become an all-year affair.
While in the past staying sober on a night out meant ordering something like a seltzer and cranberry juice, New Yorkers trying to drink less booze are now being met with a growing menu of options.
Gothamist explored the city’s alcohol-free nightlife offerings, where event planners, business owners and patrons are envisioning a more lucid nightlife experience.
On a recent Saturday night, a dimly lit, crowded spot on 13th Street and Ninth Avenue served up spicy margaritas and espresso martinis to well dressed 20- and 30-somethings.
They looked and tasted just like typical spicy margaritas would — a little sweet, a little sour and fairly spicy from the fresh jalapeño. But the drinks came with an added perk: no hangover the next day because they were alcohol-free.
“If you didn’t tell me there wasn’t alcohol in it, I would probably think there was,” attendee Caitlyn Calcagno said. “It’s good. It’s really good.”
The margarita was one of several cocktails on the menu at Absence of Proof, a sober pop-up bar that sets out to give people an option for a boozeless night out. Other offerings included nonalcoholic beers and canned cocktails with “functional ingredients” advertised to be health-promoting instead of hindering.
For “Sober October,” Absence of Proof held a weekly event series at the coffee shop Kobrick Coffee in the Meatpacking District. November’s iteration was “Friendsgiving.” The events had all the makings of typical nights out in the city: curated playlists, elaborate drinks and the chatter of young people.
The concept was born when 24-year-old founder Elizabeth Gascoigne quit drinking earlier this year. She said she quickly realized her options for nightlife alcohol-free socializing were slim to nonexistent.
“I stopped drinking in January and I was definitely all in with the New York party scene before January,” she told Gothamist. “I felt like I wanted to still experience New York nightlife, but without alcohol, and there was no place that I could do that. So I was like, well, if you can see it in your mind, you can feel it in your hand — so let me just create it. And here we are.”
Absence of Proof is tapping into a growing movement of young people who are drinking less, but still want to partake in New York City’s iconic nightlife. In the last few years the “sober curious” movement, which invites people to re-evaluate their consumption of and relationship with alcohol, has become more visible throughout the city.
The term was coined by Ruby Washington, author of “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.”
Like most of the guests there, Victoria Szafarski bought a ticket to the event after seeing one of Gascoigne’s viral videos about it on TikTok. Szafarski said she used the first of her two drink tickets to order the pumpkin espresso martini.
“Listen, it’s fall, I’m basic as hell — I know my strengths and weaknesses,” Szafarski said. “So good. It was so sweet and I love sweet drinks.”
Szafarski said she had taken a monthlong break from alcohol in September, but when October came around, she didn’t feel the need to go back to drinking. At the event, she said she was thrilled to connect more authentically with others who thought the same.
“The biggest difference is, as the time is ticking on, conversation is still staying really, really nice and mindful, and thoughtful,” Szafarski said. “Like it’s just been better conversation versus I think when alcohol’s involved… things are said, inhibitions are lowered, you’re not having as much meaningful conversation.”
The science behind the sober
Research shows that alcohol use among young people has been declining for more than a decade, with that behavior shifting toward older age groups.
“For about the last 15 years we’ve been documenting what we have termed the reversal,” said Dr. Katherine M. Keyes from the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “In high school and college age young people, alcohol use has been declining for well over 15 years approximately, annually. Those same cohorts, as they move through developmental periods into adulthood, are accelerating their drinking faster during that transition to adulthood.”
Women, Keyes said, are the group most affected by this shift and are increasingly experiencing alcohol’s well-researched and documented negative effects.
“There is a market for companies that want to cater to that group of women who are looking to reduce their alcohol use,” Keyes said. “And so, you know, alcohol-free bars and initiatives like that are great ways to, I think, market to that audience of women who might be interested in reducing your alcohol use.”
According to Nielsen, nonalcoholic beverage sales are growing. Between August 2021 and August 2022, total dollar sales of nonalcoholic drinks in the US stood at $395 million, showing a year-on-year growth of 20.6%.
In the East Village, sober bar Hekate Café & Elixir Lounge opened in September on 11th Street and Avenue B, offering one of the busiest nightlife neighborhoods in the city an alcohol-free space every night of the week. Owner Abby Ehmann said the space, named for the Greek goddess associated with magic and witchcraft, is “fueled by feminine energy.”
“The decision to open the sober bar came out of owning a regular bar and, you know, kind of minting some fresh alcoholics,” said Ehmann, who also owns Lucky Bar across the street. “I’d created community across the street and a place that people wanted to come to every single day. But then they were drinking too much because they were coming there every single day and I thought, why not create a place with a similar appeal, but that isn’t around alcohol?”
On any given night of the week, Hekate is buzzing with people sipping on the elaborate alcohol-free concoctions. Like an Absence of Proof, the drinks at Hekate are designed to be as complex tasting as regular cocktails.
There’s drinks with names like “The Healer” and “Earthbound,” along with classics like piña coladas, all made with an array of alcohol-free spirits like Lyre’s Classico Prosecco, Clean’s Spiced Rum, and Clean Co. Tequila — zero-proof versions of the classics offered at Hekate’s sister bar across the street.
Regular bars around the city are catching on, too, offering sober and sober curious patrons more than just juice or soda. Even old-fashioned bars, like Sunny’s in Red Hook, are privy to the demand and now offer nonalcoholic beer, wine and cocktails.
Sunny’s owner Tone Johansen said she extended the menu’s nonalcoholic option after noticing the demand when reopening after the COVID-19 shutdown.
“My job No. 1 is to tend to life,” Johansen said. “You know plenty of old bars that are just stagnant, they stopped somewhere in time, and all you feel when you come in is a little bit of sadness and nostalgia. This is not nostalgic, it’s old, but it is alive… We can’t live in the past.”
Then there are the nonalcoholic “spirits” stores like Minus Moonshine in Prospect Heights, or Boisson, which has multiple stores throughout the city, both offering customers a wide selection of adult-tasting beverages without the alcohol.
Minus Moonshine co-owner Aqxyl Storms opened the store last summer to fill a need in their own life. After they quit drinking in January of last year, they spent months ordering zero-proof specialty drinks from different brands and missing the convenient retail experience.
“I was mad that I couldn’t find nonalcoholic spirits anywhere near my house and then I realized, what if I opened a store?” Storms said.
“Adults don’t want to drink kids’ drinks,” Storms said. “It’s really hard to grow up, experience alcohol, and then suddenly you have a void.”
So far, the store has been a hit in the neighborhood, and Storms said the customer demographics are wide-ranging.
“It is so all over the place. We have queer millennials and Gen Z from Crown Heights walking over here, we have the families here and in Park Slope that get local delivery. We have senior citizens that have been waiting for decades, some of them for something like this,” Storms said. “There’s sober people that are younger that come into the store and like need a moment because they start crying — maybe they came in here for one product and then they notice everything in here is for them.”
If you’re struggling with substance use and would like to talk to someone, please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit findtreatment.gov.