The rise of the “sober curious” generation
In a society that has long treated alcohol as a dichotomy — either you’re a vodka-guzzling party animal or a teetotal, clean-living yogi — a new generation is searching for the middle ground. How are they navigating a culture still set on making socialising synonymous with drinking?

Utter the word “sober” at a social event and you can almost guarantee head-turning, questioning looks. And who’s to blame your company? Drinking whenever the opportunity presents itself is so normalised that to decline seems somewhat suspect. Waving away the bottle has traditionally signalled you were either recovering from an alcohol problem, or (pregnancy and religion aside) just a virtue-signalling health freak who doesn’t know how to have a good time. “Not drinking? Why? Do you not want to have fun?!”

But sobriety is no longer a discussion confined to discreet meetings in dank community buildings. A new generation of sort of, temporary teetotal crusaders has emerged, whose attitude towards the sauce is somewhere between temperance leader Wayne Wheeler and rap-star-turned-rum-ambassador Lil Wayne. To them, sobriety is something to road-test in the name of health or mindfulness, like hot flow yoga, intermittent fasting, or any other lifestyle trend having its moment on Instagram (#soberissexy, #partysober). This brand of sobriety is meant to be celebrated, hashtagged, or toasted over a non-alcoholic beer. It’s sobriety gone chic, but nonetheless founded from a need to change.

Highs and lows

Many of these Elective Abstainers will tell you they’ve never hit an alcoholic’s “rock bottom”; they’ve never had a “drinking problem”, merely a problem with drinking. For them, trialling sobriety stems from the all-too-reasonable idea that regularly introducing a certifiable poison into your body might be questionable, no matter how glamorised, advertised or ubiquitous it has become.

“Drinking is ever-present, and while I don’t consider myself an alcoholic, I feel that it’s unhealthy at a clinical level,” says Hugo, a 25-year old economic consultant who is embarking on a nine-week sober mindfulness course this year.

According to a Nielsen report, 66 per cent of 21-34-year-old drinkers in Australia are making an effort to reduce their overall alcohol intake, citing becoming more health conscious as a primary reason.

“I definitely felt the impact alcohol had on my health more acutely than what my friends would describe,” says Louisa, a teacher’s assistant from Melbourne. “One big night of drinking into the early hours would often result in getting sick, or feeling very slow and groggy for a few days. It stopped being worth the fun.”

Beyond the health risks, the montage of regrettable conversations, groggy mornings, greasy food deliveries and cancelled plans (which are often considered to be part of the bargain of so-called normal drinking) have become increasingly difficult to justify, as was the case for Sophie, a 27-year-old marketing manager. “Drinking gradually stopped becoming a list of funny anecdotes and became a list of apologies, of thanks for carrying me home or putting me in a taxi, of desperately trying to remember the people I’d wronged and how I could set it right. I lost sight of the fun of the night out.”

Water or wine

But a desire to drink less doesn’t mean no longer enjoying a drink. The “Sober Curious” crusaders — a term coined by the English author and speaker Ruby Warrington in her 2018 book of the same name — are less interested in total abstinence than they are in questioning the impact a ubiquitous drinking culture has on your wellbeing.

Ruby describes using alcohol to ease social anxiety at work events, and to wind down after a high-pressure week. She wasn’t drinking every day, she didn’t have a “problem”, but she began to take issue with the effect of alcohol on her mental health.

Those not willing to quit the booze altogether are trying what Ruby’s compatriot, British journalist Rosamund Dean, calls “Mindful Drinking”. Traditionally, the options have been: drink whenever the opportunity arises, or don’t drink at all. There was water and wine, so to speak, now a third option is being carved out by those who are simply tired of drinking so much.

“There is definitely scope for mindfully having a drink in certain situations,” says Hugo. “I used to limit myself to three drinks maximum, and that made me feel a thousand times better the next day.”

After abstaining for three years, Sophie is drinking again in social situations, using the sort of “conscious consuming” method Rosamund proposes. “My relationship with alcohol now is completely different. I’m much more aware of my limits and how it makes me feel. I’m still scared of the past and it helps to keep me on track.”

Options are the key here. With mindful drinking in vogue, global alcohol brands are exploring alternatives, and several others have emerged with the sole mission to create alcohol-free drinks that feel at home on any trendy cocktail list.

“I was frustrated by the lack of options for a sophisticated, adult drink,” says Ben Branson, founder of non-alcoholic distiller Seedlip. “Forget the fruity, sweet and childish mocktails, I wanted to create something to solve the dilemma of what to drink when you’re not drinking, an option that would allow people to feel part of the group regardless of the alcohol content of their drink.”

Ben envisions Seedlip as a sophisticated alternative to a gin and tonic “for people who are taking the night off, for whatever reason”. Like the non-alcoholic “spirit” brand using nootropics and adaptogens in place of alcohol, or the award-winning, alcohol-free craft beer, Ben wants to buck the perception that non-alcoholic alternatives are somehow “less than”. Earlier this year, Seedlip launched its “Bye Bye Boring” campaign, which aims to “poke fun at the antiquated notion that you’re boring if you choose not to drink”. A non-drinking millennial, Ben is well positioned to pedal the idea of sobriety chic.

Sober social stamina

But what if the thought of going to a party sober gives you emotional hives? A glass of wine or two softens the edges of awkward work events or evenings spent looking for love. It’s the ultimate social lubricant, or coping mechanism. Eschew the liquor and what do you get?

Sophie was surprised to find the stern, preachy reputation of sobriety didn’t play out. “I never avoided anything, I went to house parties, pubs, dinner parties, festivals and nights out. I built a determination to be the last man standing. I was lucky, because a love of dancing, karaoke and music made staying up easy.”

Drinking is so deeply embedded into the marrow of socialising that it feels essential, but for the sort-of sober generation, skipping out doesn’t mean missing out. There’s plenty of scope for dancing on tables at 3am, in fact you may well feel more energised for cutting the booze, and there’s less chance of tumbling off and twisting an ankle.

“My biggest fear was the impact not drinking would have on my social life, but it’s been much easier than expected,” says Louisa. “At first I found myself wishing I was at home, or leaving events early, but in a way it’s more fun now because I remember everything, and I still get that buzz — it’s just a different sort.”

Sophie’s and Louisa’s stories, like the non-alcoholic bar nights open until the early hours, or the pumping, pre-work Daybreaker “raves” that promise a rowdy time without the booze, are proof that going dry is anything but dry. There are downsides, of course. “When you’re tired or bored, you can’t just drink through it. Sometimes it’s too much and you go home,” says Sophie. “And you can only ever be an observer. Picking up a traffic cone is hardly legitimate when you’re sober.”

Sober firsts

Drinking drops a veil over reality. Kick it and what you’re left with is simply you, in all your bumbling, exposed glory. In her book, Ruby Warrington calls these initial moments “sober firsts” (first sober wedding, date, work event etc), describing the difficulty of navigating a social culture where events are fuelled by drink and everyone is, frankly, tanked.

“Alcohol used to put me on a kind of autopilot where I could navigate big social groups with ease, but in the morning I would still be the same introvert, with the same anxieties and doubts,” says Louisa. “Now, I’ve been forced to do everything without the armour, which has given me the self-confidence I lacked before. I know myself better, what I’m capable of, and the things I’d rather pass up.”

Sophie’s is a similar story. She describes moments of craving a pick-me-up, or an easy bonding tool on a first date, “but knowing that I was more than just a drunk persona gave me so much confidence. I learnt who I was through sobriety. I reconstructed my identity around my beliefs, values, my friends, my passions.”

As for the benefits, the Temporary Teetotallers find the middle ground to be a healthy one. “Without the hangovers, I have so much more energy to do things. It’s like having that new year motivation, but all the time,” says Louisa. “I was so afraid of missing out, but actually I do so much more.”

Hugo hopes the sober mindfulness course will lead to less time recovering from a weekend-long booze fest and more time cooking and exercising with friends. It’s a wholesome image, one that is difficult to argue with when you’re on your second food delivery of the day and wishing you hadn’t ordered that fifth round of vodka cranberries.

“I don’t think drinking ruined my life, or that not drinking absolutely turned it around,” says Sophie. “It helped me build a sense of self when I was completely lost and unsure, and helped me create confidence in myself that previously had only existed from an unhealthy dose of Dutch courage.”

Sober starter kit

  • Ask yourself: Do I really want this drink? How is it going to impact my mental health and general wellbeing?
  • Focus on what you’re making space for, not what you’re cutting out.
  • Don’t apologise for not drinking. There will always be someone dismayed that you’re not drinking.
  • Find great alternatives. There’s no need to drink four Diet Cokes and suffer a sugar hangover the next day.
  • Get involved in the social media moment to find like-minded people — #soberissexy, #partysober and #endthestigma.