Silly season is over, and in comes the annual stream of efforts to start afresh with decidedly non-silly behaviour. “Dry January” became an official event in 2013 – and according to Alcohol Concern, the charity which promotes the campaign, over 17,000 people took part last year.
Some are critical of the health benefits of sobriety binges – but a lot of us seem to be taking teetotalism further than January 31st. A 2014 survey of 900 participants found that in the six months following their booze-free Jan, 72% had “kept harmful drinking down.” Four per cent were “still not drinking.”
So while society is in the throes of a heated debate around drug decriminalisation – Vice predicts a vibrant future of psychoactive highs sustained by online trade, because as it points out, “until the planet explodes, melts or drowns, humans will want to get intoxicated” – the other side of the coin is that some of us are choosing to give sobriety a go in spaces where getting pissed up remains an implicit social norm.
Enter the dry bar, a phenomenon that’s been spreading throughout the UK. Nottingham has Sobar, a booze-free restaurant and venue developed by drug and alcohol recovery charity Double Impact. Liverpool has The Brink, which opened in 2011 – the same year that the city was found to have the highest number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in the country. Both venues provide a more mainstream space for recovering alcoholics, many of whom reportedly find social isolation a major barrier to recovery.
But sober hangouts aren’t just for the recovery community. When campaigner Laura Willoughby gave up drinking three years ago, she was surprised by the lack of online support that didn’t specifically target alcoholism – so she set up Club Soda, an online and offline community for anyone wishing to change their drinking. “Whether you’re feeling you can’t quite hack the hangovers like you used to, or that you want to take a month off drinking – or that you think quitting would probably be best – we’re for you”, she told us.
Club Soda’s site gives you tools for keep track of your drinking, as well as a constant network of support – both of which point to how much easier it is to stay healthy in our increasingly digital world. They also host non-alcoholic events across London – and it’s this effort to normalise drinking in offline, public spheres that seems to be the biggest push. “If you say you’re giving up smoking, everyone goes well done, fantastic! But when you say you’re giving up drinking, people ask why and get inquisitive”, Laura says.
Catherine Salway, manager of Redemption, the central London gastrobar that serves up expertly mixed mocktails, sees teetotal socialising as more than just a niche market: she estimates that while half their customers are in recovery, the other half are a “combination of Joe and Josephine Bloggs.” You’ve probably seen clips of Morning Gloryville’s East London raves, with clubbers pumping themselves up at 6am with the help of innocuous stimulants such as coffee and fruit juice.
So is drinking less really on the rise? The statistics paint a complicated picture. Medical problems caused by alcohol are at an all-time high, but the number of young people consuming alcohol has declined sharply. The Spectator‘s Fraser Anderson called this the Ab Fab effect: the young, conscious of their surmounting debt, are supposedly becoming a generation of Saffys to their forty-something Edina counterparts, who are spending 40% more on alcohol than they were ten years ago.
“It’s clear that there are more people making decisions for all sorts of reasons”, Laura says. For the increasingly health conscious, dry bars offer a way to “spoil yourself without spoiling yourself”, as Redemption’s motto dictates. Salway has an answer for younger people choosing not to drink: “People in their early 20s and teenage years are growing up with parents who get lashed all the time, and that’s uncool.”
It’s the cool bit that Club Soda wants to focus on: making sobriety a bit less dry. Behavioural insight from UCL researchers tells us that government information posted up in pubs and bars about the dangers of alcohol actually increases people’s drinking. “We don’t want to beat you down with statistics about how terrible alcohol is”, Laura says. “We have a positive message and a service based around the individual. It’s a club; it’s fun.”