Why the trend toward sobriety is as superficial as a three-day bender

Don Draper enters a fancy hotel to find a man in a white tuxedo behind the bar. He requests an Old Fashioned. The stranger turns around and informs him that he’s not a bartender, but rather a guest on a similar mission. Sadly, however, he can’t find the bourbon. In one seamless motion, Draper hops up on the bar, rotates his body and ends up behind it. He proceeds to mix an Old Fashioned for each of them (with rye in place of the missing bourbon), and – in the process – bond with the mystery man (whom the audience will later learn to be Conrad Hilton).

It’s a beautifully orchestrated scene from the third season of Mad Men. In it, Draper exudes sophistication and confidence as he crushes bitters and eyeballs the necessary ingredients. His know-how and execution is seductive to the viewer, drawing us into the world in which these men exist. The display romanticizes alcohol as something that brings people together – a great leveller. It also represents a shining example of the tendency in television, film and literature to glorify drink.

For decades, it seems, popular culture has had a drinking problem.

James Bond drinks martinis shaken, not stirred; the Dude guzzles back White Russians. Chelsea Handler is a vodka girl, and even E.T. crushes beers. Films about overindulging (

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The Hangover, Animal House and Old School) are comedy classics. Drunken authors (Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker) are literary geniuses. And even beyond the realm of fiction, an open bar has long been considered to be the Holy Grail at gallery openings, ballets, operas and other cultural events.

Sobriety, on the other hand, has never enjoyed such a high-profile reputation. Unlike its distant cousin, drunken debauchery, sobriety is boring. It doesn’t give Kiefer Sutherland the liquid courage to tackle a Christmas tree. It doesn’t inspire must-click headlines. And it certainly doesn’t sell the food and drink pages of your favourite newspaper. (“The Clandestine History of Champagne Caves” just has a certain ring to it that “An Insider’s Guide to Soda Water” will never possess.)

But lately, something has been changing. Terms like “Dry January,” “mocktails” and “mindful drinking” are being used at dinner parties. Without any irony, non-alcoholic beers are being paired with gourmet dishes; cocktail bars are beginning to pride themselves on alcohol-free offerings as much as boozy concoctions; and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, sober dance parties have become popular beyond the slumber parties of 12-year-olds. Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chrissy Teigen and Daniel Radcliffe are among the increasing number of A-listers to publicly tout dry lifestyles.

Against all odds, sobriety has become cool.

Now, it may seem somewhat vapid to verify a trend simply by name-dropping a bunch of celebrities who partake, but in the case of sober living, vapidity is kind of the point. Unlike previous incarnations of widespread temperance, this growing inclination to cut out the hard stuff isn’t about health, morality, fiscal responsibility or even a better understanding of issues relating to addiction. 

In a lot of ways, the trend toward sobriety mirrors the current wellness craze that emphasizes perception and pseudoscience above reality and simple facts. It’s about creating an Instagrammable, cleaned-up image of oneself in place of actually committing to doing something beneficial. 

Consider the rise of the mocktail. The modern conscious drinker might be abstaining from alcohol, but they’re not avoiding the health repercussions. In fact, they’re likely replacing cocktails with sugar-laden juices and hip-looking tonics that pack as many – if not more – calories than your standard serving of alcohol. The excess sugar consumption from such drinks could actually take a similar toll on the liver as hooch; it, too, can cause fatty liver disease, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and tooth decay. And as many of us are all-too aware, sugar possesses more than its fair share of addictive qualities.

We might also liken the popularity of Dry January – a vow to abstain from drinking for the first month of the year – to the acclaim of cleanses and detoxes: temporary (and largely meaningless) lifestyle alterations that bring about a false sense of doing the right thing with minimal sacrifice. Neither are likely to be of much benefit beyond bragging rights – and bragging rights might be the only purpose behind making such a pledge in the first place. The modern relationship with sobriety is often more of a flirtation than a marriage. Rather than changing one’s lifestyle in a meaningful way, many mindful-drinking band-wagoners subscribe to short, highly publicized (on social media) periods of abstention (which are more often than not preceded or followed by extended stretches of binge drinking). 

 

"Gone are the days where being the designated driver meant sipping on soda water all night long."

 

Whether your sabbatical from the bottle is for one month or 12, it’s not likely to be motivated by a need to stick to a budget. The new sober life is expensive. Gone are the days where being the designated driver meant sipping on soda water all night long, mocktails at high-end bars rival cocktails in both complexity and price. Staying home won’t save you money either. Forget avocado toast; millennials are shelling out upwards of $500 for Vitamix blenders to craft their smoothies, juices and mocktails. Vitamix touts sublime precision and power, but that alone doesn’t account for its cult-like following and newly minted place as a status symbol for healthy, sober living. 

Vitamix isn’t the only brand cashing in. The big players have taken notice; not just of this newfound willingness to spend on non-alcoholic beverages, but of a desire to associate ourselves with not drinking. Heineken recently released an alcohol-free lager, Heineken 0.0, that is practically indistinguishable from their standard pale beer. The new brew and Heineken Light, which has a lower alcohol percentage, now account for almost a third of the brand’s total sales. Guinness followed suit with its first alcohol-free product, Open Gate Pure Brew Non-Alcoholic Lager – for now, available only in Ireland. Even Whole Foods has begun offering sizeable mid-aisle displays dedicated to non-alcoholic beers nestled between the grass-fed beef and organic truffle oil.

The trend also presents a fertile marketplace for newcomers to make their mark. Seedlip, billed as the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit, is attempting to disrupt the spirits industry with its two mixes, Garden 108 and Spice 94. Seedlip’s spirits don’t mimic existing liquors, but instead create new, unique options that can be mixed with teas, shrubs, mixers, salts and brines to satisfy cravings for dry, savoury, sour or bitter drinks. Some of the country’s top bars, including Bar Raval in Toronto and Atwater Cocktail Club in Montreal, pour it. Toronto’s False OX brews Switchel from organic apple cider vinegar, ginger and organic cane sugar, while Danish gin company Herbie now sells Herbie Virgin, distilled from juniper, apples, lavender and orange peel minus the alcohol.

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The voguishness of booze-free living is even affecting the travel industry. For years, destinations marketed themselves around what they could intoxicate you with. France and Italy boasted fine wines, the Caribbean enticed visitors with tropical cocktails and Germany overflowed with beer tours. A snap of a piña colada set against a sprawling beach was the ultimate in social media bragging. However, a Hotels.com survey found that priorities are shifting. An increasing number of vacationers (24 per cent) are happy to ditch alcohol to get their fitness fix on a trip. It also found millennials trading in tried-and-tested tipsy beach vacations for adventure-based excursions and wellness itineraries inspired by their favourite teetotaler celebs.

Hot spots such as Napa Valley, famous for its wineries, are pivoting toward advertising other attractive qualities, including bountiful hiking trails, spa experiences, film festivals and destination marathons. The trend also boosts places such as Dubai, where alcohol is unavailable outside of hotel properties. The culture’s lack of focus on spirits has allowed an unmatched virgin cocktail and mixed juice scene to flourish and become a selling point. No one is going to serve you a glass of plain old cranberry juice in Dubai. Instead, you’ll encounter the Palazzo Versace Dubai’s Tehran Mist (blackberry, blueberry, watermelon, jasmine tea, apple-hibiscus syrup), a black cinnamon mojito at the Seven Sands or the popular virgin cocktail list served alongside free-flowing Veuve Clicquot at Air Emirates’ swanky Airbus 380 in-flight bar.

 

"Once something becomes ubiquitous and easy to acquire, tastes often swing to the opposite side of the spectrum."

 

All of this has combined to make today’s version of sober living seductively aspirational – it requires the appearance of self-control, the actuality of money to spend and a discerning eye for capturing it all on social media feeds; it demands the dedication and instincts of a trendsetter to hunt down the coolest new spots to drink; and perhaps most importantly, it matches our culture’s rising obsession with cleanliness. Whether it be through clean-eating, extreme decluttering or a compulsive demand for political correctness, we’re ever-tightening our standards. Or at least, we’re ever wanting to be seen as such.

As part of the standard trend cycle, once something becomes ubiquitous and easy to acquire, tastes often swing to the opposite side of the spectrum. Pop culture soaked in alcohol, easy access to affordable beer, wine and spirits, and too many photos of clinking champagne glasses and drunken nights at the club have contributed to making sobriety desirable. It’s still in that fleeting nascent stage of trendiness where buying into a fad feels and looks like being part of the counterculture.

After years of opting in, leaning in, following and liking, faddish counterculture is big at the moment. It started with the hipster movement and evolved into cool nerds boasting a variety of dietary restrictions and finding themselves involved in DIY mania. It’s also inspired the grumpcore and normcore fashion trends, Netflix-and-chill (before everyone Netflix-and-chilled), the cool factor of “not being on Facebook” and the popularity of astrology, psychics and witchcraft.

However, there is no shortage of irony to be found in the fact that people subscribing to movements like the sudden shift to sobriety inevitably find themselves followers of something that merely mimics the qualities of the ones they want to rebel against.

Ultimately, cutting back on booze is a great idea. However, it might just be resisting the trendier aspects of the sobriety movement – pricey status symbols, poor health choices, reliance on external validation and misguided tribalism – that takes real willpower.

This piece was originally published in the National Post

 

Sabrina Maddeaux