Depending on who you ask, achieving the elusive state of “wellness” might require a 30-minute nap on a healing crystal bed, the regular anointing of essential oils, herb-based “adaptogens,” a $75 monthly subscription of vitamins and supplements or the hardest workout in New York. For a nation fixated on the quest for well-being, dairy, gluten, sugar, screen time, clutter, caffeine, salt and an assortment of other potential culprits of unwellness are on the outs. Also, alcohol.
Protestant-inspired, 19th-century dry crusaders decried alcohol as a sin poisoning the young American republic’s soul; for acolytes of 21st-century wellness, booze falls under the similarly damnable category of being “toxic.” A-list actors, yogis, diet book authors and many high-powered professionals have cut drinking out of their lives, attesting to the clarity, energy and tranquility that teetotaling can help achieve. In the process, they’ve ushered in a wellness-allied, mini-temperance movement whose powerful influence has extended to some unlikely places, including those havens of excess: bars.
In the U.S., temperance tends to go hand in hand with spiritual revival. While not a religion, the wellness zeitgeist encourages inner well-being through mindfulness and meditation. “What Vedic meditation says is, if you become happier inside, then your life will change on the outside,” says Light Watkins, an in-demand meditation teacher, author and speaker who has drank sparingly, if at all, for the past 18 years. “I just didn’t really see the ROI on alcohol being what I thought it needed to be. When your baseline level goes up to a state of happiness that’s more stable, then drinking alcohol doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
To cater to like-minded folks, Watkins founded The Shine, a series of popular, alcohol-free socializing events held in New York, Los Angeles and other cities where guest speakers lead group meditation and attendees sip on tea, trade icebreakers and network. They sell out regularly.
In many ways, it’s a trend that’s gathered steam on the West Coast and steadily moved East towards well-lubricated cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Andrea Oliveri, co-founder of Special Projects, a firm that books celebrities for top magazines and events, first noticed the Los Angeles social scene beginning to dry out around a decade ago. “Sobriety has taken over in a big way,” she says. “Everyone’s aiming towards a healthy lifestyle across the board.”
Bars and bartenders have not exactly been associated with healthy living. Watering holes are the escape hatches of modern life, offering reprieve from calorie counts and the superego, while the women and men behind the bar work late hours, spurred by adrenaline, caffeine and pick-me-up shots. But as wellness has gone mainstream, the tenets of its wholesome philosophy—adopted everywhere from corporate boardrooms to classrooms—it has seeped into almost all corners of the market. Now, among those who make it their trade to sell drinks, some of the most influential voices are giving credence to the idea of drinking less.
Unlike the puritanical dry crusade that led to Prohibition, the health-inspired temperance movement of today isn’t trying to stamp out booze altogether. It’s not a legal or political force, but a cultural one.
Across industries, the shift is visible. Anheuser-Busch InBev plans to make 20 percent of its sales come from zero or low alcohol beer by 2025. Low-ABV and no-ABV cocktails are now a mainstay of nearly every serious bar menu, and many wellness fanatics swear by natural wine for its lack of additives and lower alcohol levels. Among booze industry analysts, the “non-alc” space is a highly watched one—an unlikely phenomenon, somewhat like beef business CEOs enthusing over people eating more vegetables.
“Everyone we’ve talked to has been incredibly excited about this area,” says Dan Gasper, co-founder and COO of Distill Ventures, an accelerator for booze start-ups that’s backed by Diageo. “Even people who are really into booze are talking about non-alcohol.” The non-alcoholic drink market size is expected to hit $2020 billion by 2021, according to a Research & Markets report, up from $1545 in 2015.
In June, coinciding with the launch of a trend report on the non-alcoholic category, Distill released a short film featuring a number of bar world leaders like Trash Tiki co-founder Iain Griffiths and Proprietors LLC partners Alex Day and Devon Tarby. Each enthused over the creative and aesthetic opportunities—and demand—for non-alcoholic drinks. “People that choose not to drink are kind of like, hey, I want something cool and nuanced and interesting and subtle as well,” says Tarby at one point in the film. “That’s the biggest change that I’ve seen.” As part of the launch, Distill also invited entrepreneurs to submit ideas over the course of a month for non-alcoholic beverages, offering $12,000 in prizes.
One of the biggest recent success stories has been Seedlip, which Distill has invested in. Created by Ben Branson, Seedlip is an artisanal non-alcoholic spirit distilled from botanicals as an alternative to gin. The brand is carried in some of the best restaurants and bars around the world, including Eleven Madison Park, the French Laundry and The Fat Duck. Production jumped from 1,000 to 10,000 bottles within three months of debuting, with a suggested retail price of $38.95—explosive success for a high-end good that is something of a paradox.
It’s equally striking to hear bartenders, a profession that calls to mind the lifestyle habits of a band on tour, extol the benefits of moderation and clean living. But ideas about self-care and healthy living are beginning to infiltrate the ranks of even the most hardened barmen and women. Today, some of the brightest talents in the cocktail world are sober, including Giuseppe González of Suffolk Arms and Jack McGarry of The Dead Rabbit, both in New York.
Sam Anderson, who serves as bar director for New York’s Mission Chinese, was a poster boy for the life of dissipation many bartenders have led. “I was smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day and it was embarrassing how much I drank,” says Anderson. “I was a classic no-fucks-given bartender.”
Awakening one morning to yet another painful hangover, on a lark he went for a run across the Williamsburg Bridge. It was an epiphany, one that opened his eyes to the fact that there were other ways in life to negotiate the void. He quit smoking, drinks very rarely and almost only natural wine, and is now a competitive marathon runner who averages 60 miles a week. As one of the more vocal industry leaders about the dangers of the profession and the possibility of change, he serves as a proxy coach to fellow bartender-runners and as an open ear and heart to peers who want to talk to about excessive drinking or alcoholism.
“There’s been a huge shift in the way people in the restaurant world live their lives,” he says. “They’re not being trapped by the occupational hazards, they’re making different decisions.” The initial reaction to Anderson’s move to cut out booze wasn’t entirely positive; a Vice article that publicized his abstention was met by skepticism and grumbling from some in the industry about a bartender who doesn’t drink, he says. But a few years later, Anderson and his embrace of a more balanced life have proved to be a bellwether.
“We put our health at risk because somebody needs a cocktail,” says Natasha David, co-owner of the bar Nitecap in New York. “It’s ridiculous, but we do it.” David is one of the cocktail world’s biggest advocates for low-ABV drinks, whose popularity she links to the growing wellness phenomenon. She sees a shift occurring among bartenders as more people realize it can be a genuine, rewarding profession. “How are you supposed to be a human being and function in society when you’re drunk seven days a week? I’m very happy to see that people are starting to realize that if they want to have longevity in the field, they need to treat it like a career, just like any other.”
Of course, heavy drinking isn’t going away any time soon—not in New York City, and not among bartenders. But unlike the puritanical dry crusade that led to Prohibition, the health-inspired temperance movement of today isn’t trying to stamp out booze altogether. It’s not a legal or political force, but a cultural one. The cocktail renaissance began as an anomaly that, through its popularity, made well-crafted drinks the new norm at self-regarding bars over the course of a decade. One could see wellness playing the same role—quietly, gradually—in making balance a commonly accepted value in the bar industry.
For David, there’s no question that drinks are a part of the joy of life. She even values the time-honored tradition of shift shots, an important moment of staff bonding over shot glasses, usually thrown back while deep in the weeds. Years ago, it might be a round of Grandad 114 or Rittenhouse Rye 100. Today, she reaches for sherry.