“I’m a normal drinker, and I have a problem with alcohol,” admits Tori, a middle-aged ponytailed woman, eliciting nods from the 60 or so predominantly female attendees at a “Sober Curious” workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Western Massachusetts. The retreat involves two days of re-examining their relationship with alcohol through Q&As, journaling, astrological birth charts and kundalini disco. The goal is to recognize that they actually can do things without the assistance of booze, like dancing with complete strangers in a meditation center while deep-breathing to arouse their seventh chakra.
The bucolic, soul-searching refuge is hosted by Ruby Warrington, a 43-year-old blonde British lifestyle journalist whose 2018 book, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, has spearheaded a global movement to reevaluate our social drug of choice. Warrington longs for a society in which not drinking is normalized, our 9,000-year love affair with the sauce notwithstanding.
George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), finds the Sober Curious movement ironic given the historic stigma against people who don’t drink. “I’m a Baby Boomer and my generation had a long learning curve on how to interact with alcohol,” he tells me. “We extoll the person who walks into a bar, knocks down four shots, picks up a dart and hits a bullseye. But I was always considered a nerd because I didn’t drink.” Non-drinkers were always “on the outside,” agrees fellow Boomer Richard Ries, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical School and editor of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s Principles of Addiction Medicine textbook. “Like guys who didn’t wear the latest fad T-shirt.”
Malcolm McClean, a 65-year-old British man in recovery, is even more pointed: “Anyone who didn’t drink was a wanker and completely left out of pub life.”
“How different would your life be if you stopped drinking on autopilot, or altogether?” Warrington asks her audience (which I’m among). The pursuit of an answer forms the basis of a growing industry that serves “former gray-area drinkers.” It’s comprised of books, podcasts, beverage companies, therapists, retreats and social media influencers, all of which profit from the (widely discussed) movement to normalize and redefine sobriety. Koob counts himself among the supporters. “There are a lot of benefits from taking a break from alcohol,” he tells me. “You start sleeping better, your digestive system’s better, you interact better with family and you get to work on time on Monday morning.”
Ries agrees: “Sober Curious aligns with those who’ve recognized issues related to alcohol but don’t have out-of-control alcoholism.”
The newer, trendier sobriety programs will set you back, though. Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind 30-Day “Experiment,” to “rewire how you think about drinking, giving you back happiness, freedom and control in 30 days” is just $47. But it’s followed, albeit optionally, by This Naked Mind’s “100 Days of Lasting Change” ($197) and a nine-module “Intensive Video Program” ($597). Meanwhile, former gray-area drinkers seeking more intensive Sober Curious therapy may opt for a 12-week Euphoric Alcohol-Free “Become Euphoric” one-on-one workshop with “transformation coach” Karolina Rzadkowolska ($1,997). Ninety percent of Rzadkowolska’s content is free, she tells me, but if aspiring teetotalers want to embark on “a guided, intentional approach” to sobriety, Rzadkowolska believes adding money to the effort ups accountability and excitement. However, she quickly adds, “I know some people believe that it’s preying on people to charge money in this realm. I definitely don’t want it to be spun in that way.”
Millie Gooch, a 28-year-old British writer, speaker and founder of the Instagram-based community Sober Girl Society (SGS) with more than 80,000 followers says that while she does make money as a sober influencer, it’s not enough to give up her day job as a freelance journalist. “The original goal of SGS was to provide a space where women didn’t feel abnormal for not drinking and could connect with like-minded people,” she says, adding that she knew she’d struck a chord when droves of sober and Sober Curious women responded to content about dating without drinking, managing brunch sober and maintaining a positive attitude.
SGS hosts a variety of events (ranging from free to £30), including alcohol-free pop-up bars, immersive yoga and bottomless boozeless brunches. For those outside of the U.K., a #FindYourSoberSisters thread facilitates meetups for “millennial party girls who still want to be fun and sociable — just without the booze.” While SGS wasn’t established directly in response to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Gooch calls it “an alternative space for those (including herself) who didn’t think AA was quite the right fit for them.”
On the flip side, Sober Curious is a nonstarter for severe alcoholics and addicts (like me), for whom total abstinence is the only option. Controlled drinking works for some, Ries says, “but for most, especially those genetically predisposed to alcoholism, priming the pump doesn’t work. They think, I’ll just have two, and end up drinking 10.”
“I’m an alcoholic,” adds Denise, a 50-something TV writer in L.A. “If you can actually moderate your drinking through something like Sober Curious, then why not? I can’t.” (Regarding the price of Warrington’s program: Her book is $28 and her workshop costs $295, plus room and board — from $105 a night for a dorm-style room to $466 for a private suite and bathroom.)
Unlike these “sober-lite,” for-profit programs, AA involves no financial obligations of any kind, a founding tenet being that the program “is available to anyone who has a desire to stop drinking, whether he or she is flat broke or the possessor of millions.” That’s the most important thing about the program, Denise says, and “the reason people go to AA when they’re sent by the courts. For me, it wasn’t just that it was free, it was also kind of fun.”
I’m one of only four men at the Kripalu Sober Curious retreat, emblematic of the movement’s gender imbalance. (As opposed to AA, in which women comprise only 38 percent, and alcoholism at large, which is more than twice as common in men.) Warrington, whose social anxiety and insecurities led to her own problematic relationship with alcohol, explains that women and female-identifying individuals are given more permission to question what’s happening for themselves emotionally, adding, matter-of-factly, that men don’t typically pay as much attention to their overall wellness.
Other Sober Curious thought leaders more vehemently denounce the white, patriarchal, Christian roots of AA. Holly Whitaker, whose Hip Sobriety (now Tempest) offers an eight-week Digital Sobriety School with lectures, guided meditations, and weekly Q&A ($797), notes that successful white men created AA in the 1930s, which manifests in the 12 Steps themselves. “Nearly all of [the steps] have some aspect of ego-deflation,” she notes in a 2015 blog post on Hip Sobriety entitled “10 Ways to Evolve Alcoholics Anonymous.” “This works if you are an ego-inflated masculine individual addicted to alcohol. However, if you are a woman in the 21st century who is addicted to alcohol or struggling with a chemical substance, you will most likely not need to be broken down any more than you have already broken yourself down.”
Sober Curious-minded individuals recognize a problematic relationship with alcohol, but typically don’t call themselves “alcoholics.” Nor do they demand anonymity; unlike any addiction recovery event I’ve attended, there is no confidentiality proclamation — verbal, written or otherwise — at the Sober Curious workshop. “Silence equals death, stigmatization, isolation,” writes Whitaker. As such, Sober Curious attendees proudly wear color-coded Kripalu badges inscribed with first and last names. Sober curiosity is a social endeavor, after all, and it’s easier to admit to being “kind-of-just-a-little-bit-addicted-to-booze” when you don’t have to first identify as an alcoholic.
That doesn’t stop participants from insisting on anonymity, however. Take the buoyantly candid Tori (a pseudonym, as are the names of all Sober Curious participants quoted throughout), a 59-year-old television producer from New Jersey. She tells me over plates of tempeh with maple ginger kimchi that she works from home and typically pours a glass of wine to make a phone call, another to fold laundry and maybe a third while watching Netflix. “It’s a mindless, unnecessary habit,” she says, devouring a chocolate-covered strawberry in one bite. “That’s the reason I’m here: to make better choices.”
Tori had trouble identifying with AA because, all things considered, her life is not “unmanageable,” nor does she feel “powerless” over alcohol (both requisite admissions to begin working the 12 Steps). Warrington, on the other hand, preaches the opposite. “Remember how powerful you are,” she reminds the attendees. “Arm yourself with knowledge, experience and connection and realize you are so much stronger than booze!”
Women are the fastest-growing demographic becoming dependent on alcohol. Case in point: Female alcohol use disorder in the U.S. increased by 84 percent between 2002 and 2013 according to the NIAAA, and from 2007 to 2017, alcohol-related deaths — e.g., cancer, cirrhosis, pancreatitis and suicide — rose by 85 percent. All of which means women are likely to become a majority of participants of recovery programs. “There’s no question that we need help,” Whitaker says. “But we don’t need to give up our power.”
Tori simply hopes to become more clear and present for the people in her life who look up to her. “I want more than being hungover on a Tuesday morning and everything that goes with it,” she says, explaining this weekend marks the beginning of a long-anticipated period of abstinence. She worked the 12 Steps a couple of years ago, but didn’t call her sponsor every day, as directed, and after three clean months, she smoked half of a joint and drank a glass of wine on the Fourth of July. Her sponsor dropped her, explaining she “wasn’t desperate enough.” Feeling unworthy of AA, Tori stopped going to meetings and resumed moderate drinking, which she defines as “making the bottle of wine last two nights.” (It often does not, like when she fills Poland Spring bottles with white wine to bring in her kayak.)
My first impression is that people at the Sober Curious retreat are in denial, but Tori quickly admits that she definitely has an alcohol addiction. She just doesn’t identify as an alcoholic because she’s never gotten a DUI or blacked out. “But I feel like shit most mornings. One day I thought, Why am I doing this to myself? So I downloaded Ruby’s book because it sounded like if I drank a glass of wine or smoked half of a joint, I wouldn’t be thrown out of the program.” Warrington bottom lines “normal” drinking: “If you’re consuming something alcoholic every day, or even a few times a week, but you can’t imagine getting by without it, that’s an addiction.”
Asking “why” is central to the Sober Curious doctrine. Warrington spent her early career sipping free cocktails at industry events, only to regret the hangovers and embarrassing texts that came with “normal” drinking. She began asking herself, Why do I drink? (“Because I want to be social and drinking gives me the courage to feel cooler.”) Why? (“Because I feel unconfident in social situations and never know what to say.”) Why? (“Because somewhere in my life something taught me that I’m not worth it, not funny, and no one cares what I say.”)
Further drilling down the why hole, Warrington identified the root of her social awkwardness — growing up in a small village in England with divorced parents who were into “alternative therapies” and sent her to school with flasks of Dinty Moore Beef Stew in her lunchbox while all the other kids ate pizza and sandwiches. She later learned that her mom grew up feeling like a black sheep, too, and traced her social awkwardness back through a lineage of other family members. Armed with this information, she began to understand why alcohol was so appealing to her, and instead of reflexively reaching for the bottle, she worked on her self-esteem to pursue relationships that aligned with who she was — and who she hoped to become.
“It’s about developing critical thinking,” Warrington continues. “Asking ‘why’ requires that you step out of whatever construct you’re choosing to examine — in this case drinking culture — to observe it and get distance between your needs, your desires and whatever your problematic behavior has been.”
That’s all well and good, but in the depths of my own drug addiction — stumbling around Queens in 105-degree heat to rendezvous with a crack dealer before draining a fifth of brown booze every night — it’s safe to say that slaying my demons required more than a few “why” questions. Namely: two weeks in the ICU, multiple interventions from family and friends, intensive outpatient drug rehab and attending daily AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. “Somebody with a medium to severe alcohol use disorder would find Sober Curious extremely difficult,” Koob confirms.
In contrast, Warrington invites “curiosity” among her followers, which may include having an occasional drink as an “experiment” to learn about, and thereby strengthen, one’s sobriety. (Taking from the concept of “harm reduction,” a set of compassionate and pragmatic approaches that aim to reduce substance-related problems without emphasizing complete sobriety.) That can be a slippery slope, she admits, so the Sober Curious event page warns, “This is not an addiction recovery program. If you are worried about your drinking, please contact your local AA support group.”
Less-militant rules surrounding sobriety are welcomed by people like April, a 55-year-old hairstylist in New Hampshire who came to Kripalu after listening to Warrington’s podcast. A moderate drinker, doctors told April that some of her health issues could be mitigated if she cut out alcohol, which she’d been using increasingly to fill an “emotional hole” in her stomach. Now happily sober for 18 months, she credits Warrington and Recovery Elevator, a private online community that “connects sobriety seeking individuals with other like-minded people” ($38 setup; $19 monthly membership fee). She devours books and podcasts on the topic and attends events like this to do her best to make informed, mindful choices. Meanwhile, like many other women here with significant lengths of sobriety, April proudly notes that she hasn’t given up anything forever. “I have a year-and-a-half booze-free. If I have one drink, AA says I need to go back to day one? No, I prefer the idea of an occasional cocktail being ‘research.’”
“The biggest differentiator between Sober Curious and AA is the abstinence piece,” Warrington confirms, explaining that she thinks of herself as a sober person (i.e., somebody who doesn’t drink alcohol) but leaves space for “an immaculately informed and superconscious choice to take a drink on occasion,” which translated to three-and-a-half drinks last year. No one is expected to completely abstain from booze (or weed or microdosing psilocybin, for that matter). “There’s so much research coming out about how microdosing psychedelics can actually be very helpful in treating addiction. In AA, that’s completely off-the-table, but I’m not opposed to that conversation at all,” Warrington explains.
As I mill about the Kripalu main chapel, a hollowed-out nondenominational sanctuary, we break into groups to discuss the various “why’s” that led to our respective substance issues. Some share theirs at a microphone in front of the whole group, several breaking down in tears, virtually indistinguishable from shares during a typical AA meeting.
Kevin, a well-built millennial with a thick black beard, explains he was a college athlete prescribed Oxycontin after a back injury, followed by a hauntingly familiar digression into opioid addiction. In his early 20s, as a financial analyst, he regularly found himself in North Philadelphia in the middle of a workday with a needle in his arm or visiting his aging grandparents, who were too old to notice he’d packed a mobile pharmacy of narcotics to get high all weekend. Unlike most everyone here, Kevin is working a 12 Step program with a sponsor, to which he credits his 25 months of being clean. (His girlfriend, who is here as well, gave him the Sober Curious workshop as a Christmas present.) Kevin recently realized he “didn’t wanna be sober anymore” and began smoking weed. Since then, things have been “going backwards,” he says. “My concern is that in the altered state of mind, I won’t be able to tell myself not to drink, or do heroin.” He plans to check in with his NA sponsor each morning this weekend.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘normal’ drinker,” says a spunky, smiley, 51-year-old Mary Lou Retton doppelganger who believes we’re all hurting in one shape or form and trying to numb something. While Mary has more than a year of sobriety, she too emphasizes that she “never said I’d never drink again.” In addition to working with Warrington, she is a member of Sexy Sobriety, a membership site for women who are “oh-so-ready to fully explore their deepest aspirations, wellbeing and potential” ($70 per month). Rebecca Bex Weller, a 44-year-old sober Australian author, coach and creator of the Sexy Sobriety program tells me she thinks of it as “90 Lessons in Self Love” because women are primarily struggling to connect with themselves. Every week, Weller answers questions on a live stream and introduces a new activity (meditation, a masterclass on eating well, etc.), all while inviting participants to “take sobriety for a test drive.” (Memberships auto-renew, “so you can stay as long as you like,” the checkout page assures.)
Weller thinks for-profit sobriety support programs like hers are beneficial to people hoping to change their relationship with alcohol. “Participants take money from what they would’ve spent on wine per month and invest in a conscious decision about how they want to move forward, which is an act of empowerment.”
Mary also signed up for the aforementioned 30 Day Live Alcohol Experiment — or “the only program on the planet that actually rewires your subconscious conditioning around alcohol.” You don’t even need to stop drinking when you follow it. In fact, quitting may not even be your goal. “That’s ok!” the program promises, explaining that the “experiment” is more about “ending the conflict between your conscious desire to drink less, and your unconscious belief that alcohol is beneficial.”
“My recovery is my recovery,” Mary says, echoing the Sober Curious entrepreneurs, noting she usually doesn’t use the word “recovery” to describe her journey. Rather, she says defiantly, “I’m working on myself. No one’s gonna tell me I can’t drink a Heineken 0.0.” Like me, Mary was scolded in AA for drinking non-alcoholic beer (which many consider to be prohibited as it contains a small amount of alcohol). Now, she and her husband, both stout and porter drinkers, enjoy a full slate of offerings from Athletic Brewing, a craft non-alcoholic microbrewery in Connecticut that hopes to shatter the perception that alcohol-free booze alternatives are by definition “penalty-box in nature.” Three-quarters of Athletic’s customers aren’t sober, founder Bill Shufelt told the New York Times last summer, but rather belong to “a demographic we theorized was latent: light drinkers like athletes and harried parents who cannot spare the energy for hangovers.”
Mary is but one of many Sober Curious crusaders no longer satisfied by fruit juices, sugary soda or boring sparkling water. They crave something more complex, more interesting, and more in line with their refined tastes. Watering holes are listening: Nearly half of all restaurants in L.A. offer a non-alcoholic drink menu, with the majority including one or more selections from Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirits brand at the fore of the no-and-low alcohol movement.
Seedlip was founded in 2014 by Ben Branson, whose family has been farming peas in Northern England for nine generations. A non-drinker, Branson grew tired of having to choose between water, Coke or a sugary mocktail. Inspired by a 1651 medicinal recipe book called The Alchemy Collection: The Art of Distillation, he set out to create a sophisticated, non-alcoholic spirit since “cocktails and glasses of wine don’t have a non-alcoholic counterpart,” Seedlip’s Laura Lashley tells me.
The pea farmer’s brew comes in one of three zero-calorie, non-alcoholic expressions: Garden 108, Grove 42 and Spice 94, each made with a proprietary distillation process. Like everything else in the Sober Curious movement, these elixirs aren’t cheap — a 700-milliliter bottle of Seedlip retails online for $30, prompting criticism from many bar-goers. “An incredible amount of time, effort and ingredients go into making this product, so it deserves the respect and price of a spirit,” Lashley explains when I question the price point. (She adds that commercial alcohol brands also have a shorter processing time that allows them to keep prices low.)
Seedlip’s profit potential has caught Big Booze’s eye: In August 2019, Diageo, the company that owns Guinness and Smirnoff, among others, bought a majority share. “Seedlip is a game-changing brand in one of the most exciting categories in our industry,” Diageo’s president John Kennedy says. “We’re thrilled to continue working with Ben to grow what we believe will be a global drinks giant of the future.”
At a recent Seedlip popup in L.A., I order the “Mrs. Worcester’s Garden,” dreamed up by San Francisco bartender Candice Jae, who’s been mixing drinks professionally for 18 of her 37 years. Served in a Collins glass over pebble ice, Seedlip combines with beet, apple and ginger shrub to create a herbaceous, health tonic-based cocktail that tastes like good-decisions on the rocks with a sprig of mint.
“So much of Dry January is about cleansing, and all three ingredients help with blood circulation which cleanses you from inside,” Jae tells me. In January 2019, she created Nº & Lº, a no-and-low alcohol pop-up bar that’s sprung up in San Francisco, L.A. and Chicago with a goal of creating a space where lushes and temperance-minded party goers alike could come together and enjoy sophisticated, thoughtful adult beverages. Jae hopes to soon open a permanent “non-alcohol conscious bar,” but only if patrons agree to shell out for booze-less cocktails.
“If somebody orders a seltzer water with a splash of grapefruit, charging a lot of money for that is absolutely ridiculous. But something like Mrs. Worcester’s Garden should be $12 on a cocktail menu because it costs almost as much to execute as a gimlet.” When I ask her if she’s looking to monetize on the Sober Curious movement, Jae smiles: “Isn’t everyone’s goal to have their passions become profitable?”
Indeed, and the movement’s forecasted profitability is thanks to its undeniable popularity. “Sober is the new black,” Whitaker says, explaining more and more people are waking up to the reality that drinking is neither sexy nor sophisticated. Whereas alcohol once signified a defiant alliance with counterculture, she reassures her followers that “by questioning our drink-centric culture, you’re profoundly ahead of the pack and among good company. Drinking is basic. Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious and edgy.”
IRL Sober Curious events abound in big cities. Warrington hosts an alcohol-free event series in New York City called Club SÖDA NYC, which has included panel debates on the healing potential of altered states ($33 to $40). Daybreaker’s early morning no-booze dance parties now happen in 25 cities around the world ($40), and an entire travel industry has emerged to service Sober Curious vacationers.
Undoubtedly, the most sober chic event in L.A. is currently hosted by Jen Batchelor, whom Vogue calls the “the poster girl for L.A.’s zero-proof party scene.” Batchelor is the cofounder of Kin Euphorics, the first product in the non-alcoholic “euphorics category” (a designation she created for Kin to fall under). Kin received seed funding from a slate of venture capital shops and expects to triple sales this year while continuing to offer two expressions, High Rhode and Dream Light, which are (sort of) to liquor what CBD is to weed. Rather than dulling sensations and emotions, Kin helps to achieve presence thanks to a blend of nootropics, hibiscus, gentian and licorice.
“It’s a drink to make you feel something, preferably elevated, connected and joyful,” explains Batchelor, who grew up in Saudi Arabia where her father was a bootlegger making siddique (essentially Gulf-style bathtub gin) and recognized alcohol to be a ritual people looked forward to in order to feel part of something. Which is why she hosts free events at the Kin Clubhouse, a bungalow on a quiet street in West Hollywood that’s open to “dreamers and doers looking to consciously connect as a community.”
“I’d rather spend a thousand bucks hosting great people than spend it on one digital ad and put it back in Zuckerberg’s pocket,” Batchelor says, adding that Kin also sends guests a Lyft promo code to mitigate parking issues. “We’re on a quest to understand how we get to a place where, after 10,000 years socializing the hell out of this substance, we can replace alcohol with a ritual that’s just as sexy and more fun to engage with.”
Beneath a canopy of orange trees and giant succulents — and as I sip a free cocktail made with High Rhode infused with beat and ginger — 50 or so smiling millennials gather for the “Not So Sunday Scaries Show” featuring a combination of comics and musicians concluding with vocalist / comedian / human beatbox Reggie Watts, who leads the house band for The Late Late Show With James Corden. He’s mesmerizing, ad libbing an entire set of Bobby McFerrin-style vocal gymnastics while layering in ironic humor throughout, eliciting thunderous laughter from the neotropical-stimulated crowd. After the set, I ask Watts, who’s buzzed from drinking Kin all night along with “a little marijuana,” which he calls a “beautiful synergy,” if there’s a difference playing a set in front of a booze-free crowd.
“There was definitely an energetic shift,” he says, adding that he hopes to introduce this way of reveling to his community and beyond. “I was definitely getting more connection from the audience, which is really the goal of making art.”
Afterward, Kin Euphorics co-founder Matt Cauble, who previously founded Soylent, leads me through a wall of beads into the low-lit “Dream Light Studio” (a repurposed garage). Amongst clouds of jasmine and nag champa incense, Cauble explains how the second Kin product, Dream Light, is an earthy, smoky, spiced euphoric meant to be sipped close to bedtime for a “blissful sleep and delightfully clear morning.” As such, he calls High Rhode his “dance juice” and Dream Light his “cuddle juice.” Alcohol is a “one-dimensional emotion” that limits conversation, he adds, sipping Dream Light infused with hot oat milk, honey and cinnamon. “This allows people to engage on multiple different levels, consciously. Take, for example, the kind of jokes Reggie was laying out tonight, which were on a much different level than you’d find at a comedy club. You can’t pick up jokes like that on a meta level if you’re wasted.”
This is a recurring sentiment amongst the Sober Curious entrepreneurs I encountered: Our path leads to peace of mind. Of course, I was promised the same many times over by old timers in AA, too, and dozens of my friends have found sober nirvana working the 12 Steps — for free.
Back in the Berkshires, as the Sober Curious retreat winds down, Tori and I stroll through Kripalu’s maze of small pine trees overlooking a lake meant for introspective walking meditation. We reflect on why 63 of us have paid more than a thousand dollars to spend a weekend at a meditation center in Massachusetts. “We’re all in the same boat here,” she says, pausing to leave an offering of leaves, a pine cone and a small stone at the Buddha statue in the center of the labyrinth. “We essentially have the same problem; otherwise, we’d just abstain. I’m planning to go home and not drink, though I’m not sure I’ll be 100 percent alcohol-free. One day at a time, I guess. I mean, we can use some of that 12 Step lingo, right?”