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The World Changed. Did the N/A Movement?

February 08, 2021

Story: Julia Bainbridge

art: Raphaelle Macaron

Cocktails

The World Changed. Did the N/A Movement?

February 08, 2021

Story: Julia Bainbridge

art: Raphaelle Macaron

Julia Bainbridge considers a Dry January unlike any other.

Dry January 2021 is officially over. How did you fare? As someone who has written about sober drinking culture for years and published a book of alcohol-free drink recipes last October, I’m interested. Did you endeavor to take the month off from drinking? 

It seems a lot of people did—and then, just six days in, the insurrection at the United States Capitol happened. By the time I checked my social media feeds that evening, Twitter’s algorithm had worked its magic and the jokes about Dry January taking place with the backdrop of a very dark day in American history had bubbled to the surface. 

There were a lot of them. Frankly, some made me laugh out loud, but the volume was troubling: “I had the Topo Chico chilling, but then the mob descended. Vodka, now,” wrote one person. The tweets continued. “I think an insurrection voids all resolutions.” “It’s just me, my wine, and CNN for the rest of the night.” “Dry January doesn’t start until after Inauguration.” “Starting to feel a tingling feeling in my body. Ah yes. Thank you, Riesling. Much better.” 

Then, on the January 8 episode of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon read out loud in his “Thank You Notes” segment: “Thank you, news this week, for turning my ‘Dry January’ into ‘We Tried January.’” A few days later, Goop’s Instagram showed a screenshot of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Kimmel holding shot glasses with the caption, “When you get to day 11 of dry January. A for effort.” 

It all makes sense. “Alcohol is a great emotional pain reliever,” Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told me in an interview for The New York Times. A study conducted by the RAND Corporation suggests Americans are drinking 14 percent more often in response to pandemic-related stress. While it’s not surprising, it is concerning that not drinking in the face of anguish is considered a challenge, even for those who might fall below the threshold for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). And alcohol may help in the moment, but not the days afterward, if you misuse it. “You remember that proximal reinforcement,” said Dr. Koob. “You don’t remember the hangover later.” 

Before all of this, things seemed to be looking pretty good for Dry January, and sober-curiosity in general. Google searches for “non-alcoholic” increased 81 percent from 2018 to 2019. A number of breweries dedicated exclusively to non-alcoholic craft beers popped up in 2018; one of them, Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing, outgrew its space two years later and purchased an additional facility in San Diego. (According to the Brewers Association, 95 percent of all breweries in the country produce less than 10,000 barrels annually. Athletic owner Bill Shufelt told me that the company produced almost 40,000 barrels in 2020.) 

Socially sanctioned sober culture... I think I can see it there, in the distance, if I squint. 

Big Liquor, Big Beer and Big Soda are in on the game, too. Coca-Cola announced its Bar Nøne line of bottled non-alcoholic cocktails in January 2019, while Heineken launched a non-alcoholic beer, 0.0, with $50 million in marketing behind it. Later that year, Diageo purchased a majority share of non-alcoholic spirits brand Seedlip, and made news again in 2020, after making a minority investment in Ritual Zero Proof. 

Through these years there were still jokes about teetotalers and “mocktails” to be sure, but enough innovation and shifting of tastes was happening that I wondered if our drinking culture might have been heading, ever-so-gently, toward moderation when the world changed last March.

Even during the pandemic, a number of new alcohol-free spirits have come onto the market. One of them, an aperitif called Ghia, was named Best New Drink of the Year by Jeff Gordinier, Esquire magazine’s former food and drinks editor. “Dry January was huge for us—bigger than December, which was bigger than November,” Ghia founder Melanie Masarin told me. “I expected sales to drop after the first week or two of the month, when resolutions tend to be renegotiated, but we’re seeing strong and sustained sales through the end of January.” Every year since bottled non-alcoholic cocktail brand Curious Elixirs launched in 2016, January has seen more than double the sales of other months, but 2021 seems to be a tipping point: Sales quadrupled last month. “And strangely, while we’ve seen sales dip toward the end of the month in years past, they accelerated at the end of January, signaling that this ‘trend’ is becoming a true and lasting lifestyle for many,” said founder John Wiseman.

Of course, we’re at home more because of COVID-19, making it difficult to use these behaviors to predict much of anything, and anecdotes can’t lead to a declaration of What’s Happening. I can’t say what America’s drinking will look like once we’re allowed to re-engage in the fullness of life, but my hope is that the quality of alcohol-free cocktails continues to improve. I hope we’ll lean into the idea of these drinks being non-alcoholic, unlinking them from classic cocktails and traditional spirits and instead celebrating them for their own virtues. I also hope that whoever orders them won’t be questioned as to why. Socially sanctioned sober culture… I think I can see it there, in the distance, if I squint. 

For what it’s worth, I think jokes about drunkenness, like some of the ones I saw on January 6, can be funny. I also think they can be dangerous for those with addiction issues. I have been diagnosed with AUD. I’m not anti-alcohol. I am a fan of Dry January and Sober October and anything that helps people take a break from alcohol, which University of Memphis psychology professor and addiction researcher Dr. James Murphy tells me is the best way for us to explore our relationship with the substance. Maybe we’re sick of being advertised to, as Dry January has become co-opted by brands, and maybe some people use it as a way to look pious on Instagram, but I’m going to take a less-cynical view and say that, just like any period of sobriety, Dry January can help people better their lives. It is most certainly not a form of AUD treatment, but there’s strong evidence that it can help moderate drinkers be more considerate about their use throughout the year. If a silly name or hashtag lets them have some fun with it, fine, but I also think it’s important to recognize that abstinence isn’t fun for everyone. Recovery is hard work.

Next month, and the month after that, and, yes, in Dry January 2022, too, I’ll keep on tasting my way through more new bottles in order to find the best alcohol-free beverages, and I’ll share my recommendations with you, if you like. My Twitter feed is devoid of wisecracks and full of celebration.

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Julia Bainbridge is a James Beard Award–nominated writer whose stories have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Food & Wine, among others. Her book about non-alcoholic drinks, Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, is out now, and has been named one of the best cookbooks of 2020 by the Los Angeles Times and Wired and Esquire magazines. She likes good drinks.