This month, I celebrated my 13th sober year. People occasionally scoff at the idea of a sober celebration, as if the two concepts can’t co-exist. It’s not hard to see why. In the UK especially, we have a cultural tendency to associate alcohol with good times, so much so that we think a party without alcohol would be hard-pressed to call itself a party at all. But, as David said on last week’s podcast (see below), the times are changing… and they’re changing fast.
I’ve written about sobriety a number of times on this blog, the first time back in April, 2017. It’s fascinating to read that blogpost again only three short years later. “You don’t have to be teetotal to know that your options are extremely limited,” I wrote. I wasn’t speaking just for myself, either. I’ve since spoken to a vast number of people on our podcast who would concur.
While non-alcoholic brands existed and have done for a very long time, 13 years ago you had to dig pretty deep to be able to uncover those that weren’t produced by big companies. The mass-produced drinks were often unpalatable, and I have pitiful memories of bar staff having to fish dusty bottles of non-alcoholic beer out of boxes in warm cupboards for me. With a cheap bottle of unloved, warm, non-alcoholic lager pressed into my hand, is it any wonder that all sense of celebration went out the window? And the conversation it would attract back at the table (“Why are you drinking that? Why aren’t you having a proper drink? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you an alcoholic?”) never made for a rollicking night out. As a non-drinker in my early 30s, my social life dried up as quickly as the alcohol did.
Sat here in lockdown at the end of May, 2020, there are many reasons to feel uncelebratory, but the lack of non-alcoholic drinks isn’t one of them. As a co-founder of REAL, I have obvious reasons to feel elated. We’ve just launched our 750s – a process that has taken a lot of hard work, the results of which fill us with a lot of pride. Presented in a beautiful cork-and-cage champagne bottle, it’s something that attracts only positive conversation – genuine inquisitiveness and a keenness to try. However, it’s the bottle contents that really make their mark. It’s a drink that I can sup and enjoy throughout an evening – not too sweet, not too cloying, not too bitter; exquisite when chilled and served in a beautiful wine glass.
Even more importantly, in the 750ml format, it’s something I’m looking forward to sharing with my loved ones when the time is right. A table surrounded by good friends, conversation flowing over a bursting assortment of great dishes and a bottle of something special at the centre of it all… I’m sure that’s something we all miss. As a non-drinker, it’s not something I’ve ever really had for 13 years. Personally, I never found that all-important centrepiece. For whatever reason, it eluded me. The chance to share a bottle of the new REAL 750s with my non-drinking buddies is a moment I’ll savour.
It’s not all about us, though. The real change for non-drinkers is the sudden abundance of quality. In 2017, it still felt like a fairly limited set of choices. Three years later, there are so many adult-oriented non-alcoholic drinks out there to get stuck into, it can sometimes feel like Christmas. I recently took out a fortnightly subscription to Lucky Saint, the first non-alcoholic lager I’ve come across in 13 years that has properly blown my mind. It’s not for sharing, either. Those bad boys go straight into the fridge with a sticker saying “JON’S” slapped across them. Thieve them at your peril.
Elsewhere, I’m also intrigued by the work being done at Feragaia – a non-alcoholic mixer that tantalises the tastebuds in a way that keeps me wanting to experiment. Imagine! A non-alcoholic spirit that I want to drink more of! That’s not something I’d have even begun to take seriously 13 years ago. I can’t even remember such a thing having been thought into existence.
Towards the end of last year, I hung out with Laura Willoughby from Club Soda, the team behind the Mindful Drinking Movement. We spent an afternoon recording a podcast and taste-testing a bunch of non-alcoholic drinks. I think we got through 12 bottles of varying shapes and sizes, each of which represented a new exploration into a different taste territory. And for those assuming that a non-alcoholic drinks party might be a recipe for embarrassed silences and stunted conversation… quite the opposite. What I’ve loved about going to Laura’s Mindful Drinking Festival is that amount of inquisitive people you befriend, whether they’re fellow non-alc drinks makers or just other people looking for a less prescribed way of life.
What I’ve begun to realise is that the non-drinking event is a different form of celebration. Rather than a drink-til-you-drop race to oblivion (which is certainly where I used to be), it’s more of a discovery – an exploration of tastes and ideas that (each to their own) you may or may not like, but you’re willing to try. You can’t begin from a place of suspicion and skepticism. You have to buck the trend that, culturally, you find yourself locked into – the idea that the sober life is no fun at all. I genuinely feel that the sober life is one that really rewards an open mind.
Kombucha is a great example. Fermented tea might not sound like your cup of… tea… but you have to remember that someone, somewhere, at some indeterminable point in the past, decided to ferment grapes to make wine. It’s only time and experience that teaches us that it’s a normal thing to do. Fermented milk doesn’t sound appetising until you give it the name yoghurt or cheese. As it happens, certain teas produce an extraordinary-tasting non-alcoholic ferment, full of body and nuance. As you’ll have guessed, I’m quite the fan.
After 13 years sober, with all the trials and tribulations that has entailed, the reward is really the chance to look around me and realise that I’ve been able, with some good friends and in the company of a growing gang of similarly-minded people, to help offer people a modicum of choice. These are the people I look forward to sharing a REAL with at the appropriate time. And who knows? Maybe you and I will get the chance to raise a glass together in the not-too-distant future. I shall enjoy that, too.
Here’s to the sober curious community. I’m proud to count myself amongst you. Cheers.