The language around being a non-drinker is ultimately insubstantial. In this week’s Real Podcast, Jon Wilks chats to Ruby Warrington about the ways in which communication can hinder someone new to a less alcohol-dependent life, just as much as a lack of choice can. On the way, they discuss the demise of ladette culture, the differences between US and UK drinking culture, and the ways in which the world is now opening up to alternative drinking and eating habits. If you’re interested in the Sober Curious Movement, read/listen on!
Click on the player below to listen. Alternatively, scroll down to read the full interview.
“‘Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.’ Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.”
A familiar sounding scenario for many people who, for whatever reason, choose not to drink. And that’s why we’re talking in this week’s Real Podcast with Ruby Warrington. Formerly the Features Editor on the Sunday Times Style Magazine, Ruby has recently written Sober Curious, a fascinating book that offers a non-preachy take on our relationship with alcohol. Through her own experience, she details the benefits she has discovered from unlearning what she calls “the mindless habit of drinking” and pursuing the possibilities offered by a sober curious lifestyle. And, as you’ll hear, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving up alcohol entirely, but instead taking an active interest in what a sober life might offer to you. We met up in Central London to find out where the sober curious life has led Ruby so far.
Getting Sober Curious with Ruby Warrington
You were telling me before this interview started that sober curiosity is something you’ve been talking about for three or four years.
Outwardly vocalising and encouraging other people to get sober curious for about three and a half or four years, I suppose. I think I wrote a blog post for my blog about being sober curious in the summer of 2015, maybe. I don’t know the exact date.
My definition of what it means to be sober curious is to literally question every impulse, every invitation or every expectation to drink, whether it’s on your behalf or in the eyes of others, rather than just go along with the dominant drinking culture. And so, based on that description, I have been sober curious for about eight or nine years now – really just bringing this questioning mindset to all the different situations I’ve found myself expected to drink. It has been quite a long journey. The lessons learnt and the experiences along the way are all shared in my new book.
It has been very interesting to witness what began as such a personal thing now really begin to blossom. I see so many other people getting sober curious, too. It’s really fascinating. When I wrote for magazines I was always really most interested in writing those kind of zeitgeisty, social trend pieces – I think I’ve always just had quite an antenna for what’s in the public mood, I suppose. This was definitely not something I approached in a calculated way, like, “what’s going to be the next trend in drinking?” It was just very much feeling attuned to my own instincts about this mindless drinking culture that we’ve been consumed by for probably the latter half of the 20th century, up to now. It just started to feel out of alignment with our values collectively, as well as my values as a person. It’s a personal story and a mission and a quest, I suppose, that reflects a much bigger shift societally.
And if you pick up the book you get the sense straight away that it’s not a zeitgeisty thing because it’s something that you have lived. Again, we talked before about our similarities before the interview [we both come from a journalistic background and we both found ourselves having difficult relationships with alcohol], but you talk in your book about being in Camden in the 90s, and ladette culture and that kind of thing. While I wasn’t part of the ladette culture, I was certainly in Camden in the mid-90s and…
…But you would’ve been part of the male equivalent, which was the Nuts, Loaded thing. Similarly, it was very much about this life of debauchery and it being a kind of badge of honour, in a way, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. And yes, that Britpop era where your icons were heavy drinkers: your Liam Gallaghers, your Graham Coxons…
Exactly. Have you read Kill Your Friends? That typifies, in a very exaggerated, bombastic way, this culture of excessive consumption. And it was a reflection of excessive consumption that was happening in terms of material goods as well. It’s all wrapped up in the same vibe.
There’s a really interesting quote in your book… let me just find it. You talk a bit about the idea of the modern woman at that time being, “emancipated by having a pint of beer in her hand”. What do you think happened to the ladette?
Oh, the ladette maybe over-indulged a bit and had to go, “What’s going on here?” [Laughs] It’s funny: someone sent me a picture of Zoe Ball from that era the other day. She’s kind of my doppelgänger in many ways, particularly when we were both that age. I think Zoe Ball doesn’t drink now. When drinking to excess has been your norm, I think there naturally will come a point – whether it’s your classic rock bottom that we hear about often in terms of people’s recovery stories – or a subtler rock bottom, which might look like an inability to feel optimistic about life, or feeling really pissed off and angry that your entire weekend is given over to hangovers and you don’t actually get any real time off.
There are degrees of crisis point, I suppose. I think for anyone who has been drinking to excess for a long period of time, you’ll reach some kind of a crisis point that’s like, “No more! I just can’t continue with this!” For a long, long time, the only language or the only path that we’ve been presented with if you reach that point is, “Well, there’s AA for you and you’re an alcoholic. Have this label and that’s a done deal. Goodbye.” I never felt that was very fair, actually… although fair isn’t the right word. It didn’t feel to me inclusive enough. I felt that, for myself and for many people in my community and my peer group, we were having this question with alcohol but didn’t necessarily see ourselves as alcoholics or candidates for a 12-step programme. And so the sober curious idea came about when we said, “well, what if we all just spoke about this openly? Perhaps we’d find some other solutions.” You know, collaboration is how we breed ingenuity and progress. So it was like, let’s just talk about what’s going on here and see what comes out of it.
The alcoholic thing is a really interesting point. Obviously, you will know – and anyone who tries to take a break from drinking for whatever reason will know – that doing so comes with a huge amount of inquisition. So you can’t go to a pub with your friends without being treated almost as a sort of pariah. One of the things that I always find myself having to explain is that I wasn’t an alcoholic. There’s no description for myself. The only description for myself comes with a lot of explaining, that tends to be along the lines of, “I didn’t wake up in the morning desperate for a drink, but I couldn’t go out to a bar without having four.”
Right. There’s this grey area which doesn’t really have language around it. I’m still making it up. People often say to me, “So, are you sober now?” And I say, “I’m not sober but I don’t drink.” Even the word sober has so many connotations. If I said I was sober, people would automatically assume – and I would actually feel that I was implying – that I’m completely abstinent from alcohol because I’m recovering from the disease of alcoholism. And that’s not my story. I’m not sober. I may occasionally have a sip of wine at a toast during a wedding. I wouldn’t consider that a relapse, whereas if I was sober that might be termed a relapse and it’d have all these other kind of implications. It’s complicated. I think there needs to be even more language around it, which is what I’m attempting to stimulate by having this discussion.
Again, this comes across a lot in the book, and it’s obviously attached to what you do in other parts of your life: there’s a lot of conversation there that overlaps with what you might call mindfulness. The idea of having stories [about yourself, and being aware that they’re just stories] is a fascinating one. You go out and you have to present a story, for whatever reason – you feel pressured to present a story as to why you aren’t drinking. And actually you’re presenting that story to yourself on a daily basis.
There isn’t a succinct way of phrasing it, right? I’m a human being and that means I’m biologically very susceptible to becoming dependant on alcohol – a beverage which meets many of my biological needs in terms of my emotional needs.
In the book, I quote from a brilliant book called The Biology of Desire, which is by a guy called Mark Lewis, who is a former opioids addict turned brain scientist. He can really speak to what’s actually going on in our brains when we develop an attachment to something. (The subheading is, “Why addiction is not a disease” – which is highly controversial [laughs]. But without controversy, how do we have progress?) He talks about the desire function of our brain, which shows that we’re biologically hardwired to seek out and repeat any experience that either brings us pleasure or takes away our pain.
Alcohol, on a very superficial level, can appear to do both of those things. As a human being with a complicated life, especially considering the billions of pounds of advertising and marketing revenue spent by the alcohol industry every year to make sure that we perceive alcohol as the answer when we desire pleasure or when we are feeling pain, it’s really hard not to become dependent on it.
So, what am I? I’m a valuable human being [laughs] who happens to live in a culture where alcohol is celebrated.
And we’ll come on to that, because I think that finally we’re starting to see real change.
But before we go there… some of those questions [that you pose in the book] that are really worth emphasising, because I think for some of the people who listen to this, these will resonate. You ask these questions: “How come I feel like an outsider? A weirdo?” This was an interesting one: “I sometimes feel that I’m a problem to other people if I don’t drink.” Without wanting you to paraphrase the book entirely, how do you go about answering some of those questions?
This is really the peer-pressure piece. When the group activity is drinking, for many of us in our society, we grow up in a culture where most of our group activities outside of sporting occasions revolve around alcohol. And even when the sporting activities have finished, many of us will drink. How many of my friends have run a marathon, and the first thing they do is go to the pub? [Laughs] By simply saying, “I’m not going to drink”, you’re marking yourself as an outsider, and that can be very uncomfortable.
Again, we’re biologically hardwired to fit in, to be accepted, to not want to make ourselves stand out or be ‘other’ or ‘different’. So, of course, by marking yourself as different by saying “I’m not drinking”, immediately you become a mirror for everyone else to look at their drinking – a mirror for them to examine their own drinking habits. So, very often, you’re going to have all of their insecurities and their own subconscious questions about their drinking projected onto you, and that’s a really uncomfortable place to willingly put yourself.
You must be familiar with One Year No Beer? They were telling me about some research that they did recently. For 93% of people in their survey, peer pressure was the number one reason why they chose not to take a break from drinking, or even stop completely. They just didn’t want to have to be answering all of those questions.
The thing about being a problem for other people when you don’t drink, the number of times (and thankfully, maybe because the way that I’ve approached it, my friends have never made me feel this way, but I’ve heard it from lots of other people), “Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.” Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.
Absolutely, and I think it comes down to the ingrained culture, certainly in this country. Another thing that really resonated in your book was the fact that you were introduced to alcohol at the age of eight!
[Laughs] You know, I’ve seen other people with their three-year-old child: “Oh, he’s having a sip of beer. Isn’t it funny!” It’s seen as quite normal. I think my parent, my dad in particular, thought he was doing the responsible thing by not making alcohol this glamorous, exotic, forbidden fruit that I would then binge on as soon as I looked old enough to acquire it. But the hidden implication in that is that it was inevitable that I would become a drinker. It was like, “Ease her in gently rather than making it this forbidden fruit that then becomes something that I binged on or did to excess. I did that anyway!
It’s very similar. I don’t know what age I would have been, and I think most people have a memory of a similar ilk, but just being allowed to try wine at the table…
And then I have a vivid memory of probably being around 11 and going to a family party with everybody drinking, and you [the children] almost being expected to have a shandy.
Right! Exactly! So my version of shandy, which I wrote about in the book… I discovered at some kind of family picnic… Do you remember Lilt? I don’t think we have Lilt anymore do we?
I can’t picture seeing it anywhere recently.
It was quite delicious, though.
Well, Lilt mixed with white wine! I was making my own alcopops at the age of nine or 10.
It’s no wonder!
It is no wonder [laughs]. But this is not about placing blame on parents or society. This is just the way things are. For me, the sober curious conversation is not about being right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s just about acknowledging what’s happening, and then cultivating enough trust, self awareness and self belief to know it’s OK to make choices that feel good for you, no matter what’s going on around you, no matter what the pressures might be.
In your Sober Curious book, and as someone who is promoting sober curiousness, you’re not preaching in any way. When you hear about people not drinking, as you say, quite often it’s like a mirror being held up to them. So their natural reaction is to become slightly defensive and to feel as though, “Oh, god! They’re harping on about that again!” And it’s absolutely not that, is it? The word ‘curious’ takes you away from that in the first place. How do you balance that fine line between a largely non-alcoholic lifestyle and not preaching about it?
I try to show, not tell. Just by modelling and by behaviour. I would never see it as my place to tell anybody, “You know what? You’re probably drinking a bit too much.” It has happened maybe on one occasion. A close friend was going through a very difficult time in his marriage and I made the subtle suggestion, “You know, if you’re really confused about this, maybe take a break from the drinking. It has really helped me in situations just to feel more clear and more confident.” And so, offering advice but in that same breath saying, “Because in my experience this has been really helpful.” And just being super selective.
Alcohol ended up presenting as a problem for me, but there are tonnes of people who drink as much as I did who’ve never experienced it as a problem, and that’s fine. It’s about bringing it back to my own experience and really just modelling… like… “life’s great!” [laughs self consciously] … without wanting to appear smug!
Going back to this idea that it might be a generational thing… at the moment we’ve got this new generation of non-drinkers. Amazing stats. Around 30% of Londoners between the ages of 18 and 24 claim to be teetotal.
It is. And the other day I was reading about students. 38% of students in Britain now don’t drink. I don’t know what they’re doing! [Laughs]
38%?! That’s amazing.
So, this Sober Curious Movement… it certainly resonates with me, because I come from that age group where life was seen as better if you were pissed up and having it large, or whatever the terminology was back then.
And that’s just not the case now. At Real Kombucha, we work with a lot of younger people, and it’s much more about life being about experiences. You have that Instagram phrase, #LivingYourBestLife…
[Laughs] It’s funny, though, because we would’ve thought that living your best life meant cocktails on the beach at sunset in Ibiza. What constitutes “best life”? There’s a shift in values, which is the larger piece I was talking about. We’ve moved away, I think, from this idea that over-consumption or conspicuous consumption is a status symbol. It actually now seems a bit sad and a bit selfish. It just doesn’t fit with out more collaborative, collective, nurturing mentality in general now, you know?
Well, you used a phrase… I think it was something like “living a more vital life”, or something like that? Or have I got that wrong?
I might have used something like that. It sounds a bit too #wellness for me, and I’m not really into that. I really don’t like that idea of #LivingYourBestLife. I don’t like this hierarchical terminology that implies that some life is better than another. Because actually, I’m not living a better life. I’m living a life that’s right for me.
I’ll be honest, I don’t like it purely because it sounds too much like marketing speak. But if you had to have a hashtag around that kind of thing, I quite like it being about living… maybe not a vital life, but the idea that you can do a little more with your life – you can experience a lot more – if you’re not drinking.
Yes. I prefer, for example, the term “conscious drinking” rather than “mindful drinking”. For me, I want to be conscious. Choosing consciousness means awakeness and awareness. Being really aware of what’s happening in the world, and how I can respond and interact with it. That, to me, is the kind of life I want. I love the fact that you’re called Real Kombucha. It’s about an authentic life for me as well – an authentic life meaning a life that’s aligned with my values – what feels good to me.
Back in New York (because you’re based in the States), you’ve got your Club SÖDA, which is not the same as London’s Club Soda…
No, we call it Club SÖDA NYC specifically to get around that. But yes, we’ve been doing the Club SÖDA NYC events for just over three years. We always have a different theme at the events, and generally we’ll have featured speakers or a panel discussion on the theme. We may have some kind of interactive activities to get people talking. The whole point of that was to bring this conversation out of the closet and actually make it the focus of the event. Getting people together in a social way where we were specifically saying, “this is about not drinking, and it’s not about being at an AA meeting. This is a different approach to not drinking.” We’ve had dance parties, we’ve had a boozeless brunch, we’ve had all sorts of different, fun ways for people to get together.
And the book itself? You’re here [in London] to promote it…
Yes. Not surprisingly, actually, the press response here in the UK was really, really great. And so it just felt like a good time to come over here and do a bit of a launch. It’s my hometown. I did most of my most excessive drinking here [laughs]. And it’s very curious to me how, like you were saying, the alcohol-free movement is moving at warp speed here. And I want to see what’s going on!
Is that the same in the States?
It’s definitely picking up speed. The States is so big and, in a way, so segregated. A mass movement will, I think, take longer to gain traction in the US because there are so many different pockets and so many different things happening. But at our events, when we started off at our first event I think we had 70 people, and at the last one we had over 200. Maybe that’s just because more people know about it, etc, but to me it also speaks to the fact that more people are interested in sober socialising.
To go back to the point that the UK is growing at such as speed, I think that has to do with choice. Before we turned the tape on here, we were talking a lot about things not being black and white. In the foodie world, people are much more interested in having a vegcentric approach, or certainly giving people those options. I always joke (although it’s not really much of a joke) that when I came to university in London in the mid-90s it was unusual to find an avocado in a Tesco. The choice that we have now, both in terms of drinking and eating, has to have an effect on that, don’t you think?
Definitely. And you would expect the same in America, right? However, another reason I think it’s gaining traction faster here is that alcohol is just woven more into everyday life here. So, whether that means more people have found themselves at that crisis point of, “Hold on, I’m drinking a bottle of wine a night – how did that happen? I’ve got to pull back”, in the US I see a lot more hard liquor on a Friday night, and that’s how people drink. There’s less pressure to drink wine with dinner during the week. I really noticed when I first moved there: nobody would order a bottle of wine in a restaurant – it would always be ordered by the glass. And I think that just speaks volumes. If I was going out for dinner with a friend here it would be a bottle of wine, of course, between the two of us. But there, that would be seen as very excessive on a work night. But people will drink heavily and they’ll do lots of shots and hard liquor when it’s time to drink. They’ll go for it harder.
But that’s in cities like New York. Across the rest of America, it’s such a driving culture, a lot more drinking happens at home. And so there’s not really this social drinking situation – there’s a lot more drinking behind closed doors, and so I think that alcoholism is a huge problem. But there’s not been such a consumer demand and need for other options in bars because a lot more people are drinking at home.
It’s really interesting. Even alcohol-free beer… there’s not much of it there. I’m like, “Please Brewdog! Bring me Nanny State!” [Laughs]
Well, hopefully we’ll get over there eventually.
Yes! And there is quite a lot of kombucha. Kombucha has exploded off the back of that healthy eating, gut health trend that has been huge there for a while. There’s a lot of kombucha now.
I always talk about kombucha in this way: you can take a grape and turn it into a Shloer – a sugary soft drink – or you can turn it into a very fine wine. Neither of those things are any better or worse than the other; they’re just different drinking occasions. In the same way, you can take tea and ferment it into something that’s a health drink, you can add flavours to it and turn it into a flavoured soft drink, or you can take great tea and ferment it into something that doesn’t require flavouring and actually suits non-alcoholic drinking occasions. And that’s really the differentiator between what we’re doing and other brands.
Yeah, absolutely. I actually tried some unflavoured kombucha recently in Berlin – my brother has been working in a restaurant there. The guy who was running the bar was making his own kombucha. It was so delicious and subtle, compared to what I’m used to in the States. There, it’s about all the flavours, and the maximum different combos. Pink lady and basil was one of my favourites recently! It’s all about what’s new and novel and next. CBD kombucha is now the next big thing.
But I like the subtleness of this [drinking Royal Flush]. This feels to me like a genuine alternative to a glass of wine, whereas a lot of those heavily flavoured ones feel much more like it’s an alternative to a Coke or a lemonade, or a flavoured soft drink.
Well, you’ve said all the right things, so you’ve got the job.
[Laughs] But we’re tasting it now and I can still smell it. It’s really delicious. One of the reasons I love alcohol-free beer is that it was a crutch for me on those occasions when, initially, I was feeling awkward in a bar. The alcohol-free beer quietened that voice in my brain and made me realise I was actually just in a bar and it didn’t matter. For anyone who loves wine (because alcohol-free wines tend to be not very good – although that might be changing), I think this would be a great alternative for someone who’s looking for… “What can I have that’s almost a placebo effect on my brain while I get over the initial hump of awkwardness into it becoming my new normal?” Because it does become your new normal. Not drinking in bars is so not a problem for me now. I don’t even think about it. But in the beginning it can be tricky.
Well, I think there are two things. Certainly, there’s that perception of having something to drink. I always found that if you were able to pour something into a wine glass the questions didn’t happen, because nobody sees that you’re just having a Coke, or whatever. So you don’t have to deal with that social pariah status. And then there’s the slight placebo effect, as you say, of having something to calm your own nerves, your own anxiety. But the third thing is this: if you don’t drink alcohol (and a lot of people find this, whether they’re not drinking because they’re pregnant or they’re the designated driver), the options that you’ve traditionally had are dull. You have one orange juice…
…I hate orange juice! [Laughs]
I’ll throttle the next person who gives me any elderflower!
I actually quite like elderflower.
I’ll have the orange juice, you have the elderflower. The idea of having something that’s complex, sophisticated, interesting in flavour profile as much as anything else… that’s what we’ve been missing.
It’s similar to having been a “plant curious” eater, which I have been for around a similar amount of time – you start to feel like a bit of a second class citizen, and a bit pissed off. “Oh, another risotto. Great.” And that can be off-putting if you really want to make a sustainable change. It’s like, “God! Is this the future of my eating out, being confined to choosing the one thing off the menu?” It’s just a bit miserable.
Absolutely. And while you’re back in London, find a way to eat the cooking of Joey O’Hare. She’s pretty interesting.
Where does she cook?
She used to do pop-ups, so at the moment you’d have to go and knock on her door and beg her! She writes recipes and she’s very much about fermentation, using things like kombucha. She talks about how animal meat under heat does interesting things, but vegetables don’t. But actually, if you use fermentation, you can bring some really interesting flavours out.
And the other person I was chatting to and interviewing the other day is a bloke called Jamie Park. He cooks around the corner from here in a place called The Frog. It’s a very cutting edge, Michelin restaurant, and it’s at the forefront of trying things out. As he says himself, he wants vegans and vegcentric diners to come and be blown away by what they can do. So you should go there.
Yes, absolutely. It has been really exciting to see those sorts of things happening in food as well. There’s a restaurant in New York called Dirt Candy. If you ever come over you should check it out. It has got the Michelin star look and feel, but it’s all vegetables. They do these sliders – what Americans call mini hamburgers – and they do these carrot sliders in these little brioche buns. I don’t know how they do it!
And this is what’s exciting about the world at the moment, no?
It is! And this is what I mean about… the more of us who start asking for what we actually want, the more innovation will happen. The more choice there will be.
Thank you so much for chatting to us.
Thanks for having me!
This week’s Real Podcast was brought to you, as always, by Real Kombucha: Non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest. Our thanks, of course, go to this week’s guest, Ruby Warrington – make sure you buy her book, Sober Curious, available now at all good bookstores. Our thanks also to The Drift Bar for their hospitality during the interview. We’ll see you again in the next couple of weeks for more great foodie and modern drinking podcasts. You can find out more about Ruby Warrington at www.rubywarrington.com.