At a bar in downtown Seattle, 25-year-old Elizabeth Gascoigne is throwing a red carpet event.
It’s a sold-out soiree with 170 people in attendance but this event is the first of its kind in this town.
As guests arrive their photos are taken, they are handed a glass of bubbly and welcomed into the venue, called Cathedral. But they’re not here to pray. They’re here to party.
And it actually looks like any other club scene — except for one thing. There’s not a drop of alcohol in any of the drinks. It’s not in the wine, it’s not in the beer, and it’s not in the fancy cocktails being shaken up.
The reason, Gascoigne explains, is clear. “We like to create an atmosphere where everybody is sober. And so you’re kind of forced to sit down and actually get to know somebody without this veil of alcohol.”
Gascoigne is part of a growing movement among 20-somethings that has been referred to as “sober-curious.” It’s a lifestyle choice to sideline the alcohol more often — and not necessarily because they’re being forced to by worries of addiction or just an overindulgence in alcohol. It’s because they’re trying to have more experiences in life that are not influenced by booze.
“Gen Z, I think, is a generation that is really learning about mental health practices, a very pro-therapy generation,” she explains. “And I think they’re realizing that maybe the consequences of alcohol are not actually worth the mental health effects.”
This trend is in line with a 2018 study from Berenberg research that found Gen Z-ers drink 20 per cent less than millennials who in turn, are drinking less than Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers.
The idea to throw these parties came to Gascoigne a year ago. Like many people, she found herself drinking a lot during the pandemic and she hated what she called the “hangxiety” that invariably presented itself when she woke up.
“Hangxiety, in my experience, is the feeling that you get the next day after drinking, even if you’re only drinking a glass or two of wine,” she explains. “Just this residual anxiety of what I said the night before. What did I do? Did I embarrass myself?”
Originally from Seattle, Gascoigne now calls New York home. When she quit drinking, she struggled to find a booze-free bar vibe in the city. So a year ago, she took matters into her own hands and created the experience she felt was missing.
She calls her parties Absence of Proof.
“When I stopped drinking, I still wanted the same nightlife experience of going out to a bar, meeting new friends, maybe dancing — you know, all of these fun things that go along with nightlife that I couldn’t find at a coffee shop or any of these other places. And so I decided to start throwing a nonalcoholic party to see who would show up.”
She was shocked by the response. “The first party was crazy. We ended up having over 200 people at the launch party, which was way too many. I wasn’t prepared for that, but it was great.”
So great, in fact, that she decided to quit her tech job and started organizing her get-togethers full-time. She now hosts two or three parties a month in New York. She recently launched in Los Angeles and is now starting in Seattle.
Global News went to the Seattle premiere to see what is attracting so many people to these events.
We met with Gascoigne in the trendy Seattle neighbourhood of Ballard, where she rented space in Cathedral, a historic, two-storey exposed brick venue.
Gascoigne was busily preparing for the evening: placing board games on tables, discussing playlists with the DJ and loading the bar with boxes of non-alcoholic beverages. She tried to find as many ways as possible to make the evening fun for guests. It’s definitely a challenging goal, considering most people rely on booze to loosen them up in social settings.
Gascoigne had an extensive list of mocktails — drinks that have similar taste profiles to their alcoholic cousins — everything from a lychee martini to an Old Fashioned. But she remained mindful of those who may not want to be reminded of the taste of alcohol.
“We like to have a range because some folks don’t love to have the taste of alcohol, particularly if you are in recovery. We want to be respectful of those people. And so we have things like an espresso martini, which does not taste like alcohol.”
Just like any bar or party scene, the entering patrons quickly move to the bar. At the height of the party, they are three deep waiting for the bartender to shake up a cocktail. With the music playing and people chatting with glasses in hand, you would not for the most part realize you were in a sober environment.
When we chatted with some of the people at the party, the message was clear.
“I think we all probably drank a little bit too much during COVID. And so now we’re coming out of it. Let’s reassess and maybe try some different yummy drinks that aren’t alcoholic,” explained Caitlin Briant, one of the partygoers.
Absence of Proof, you might say, is actual proof of the evolution of our drinking culture. Over the years, alcohol has been glamourized, just as cigarettes once were. But more and more it’s being recognized as unhealthy and unnecessary.
In January, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction announced it had revised its previous recommendation that Canadians consume no more than two drinks per day. Instead, it now advises that it would be best to have no more than two drinks per week. It even went so far as to suggest it’s better to not drink at all.
The revision raised more than a few eyebrows at the time. But if you look at the numbers in Canada, it would suggest people are listening.
According to Statistics Canada, beer and wine sales are at an all-time low in Canada. However, the non-alcoholic market is the exception. Non-alcoholic beer alone is expected to grow by over eight per cent each year.
The Drive Canteen in Vancouver is seeing that growth in sales firsthand.
It’s a modern convenience store where you can buy candy, hot dogs, slushies, sports jerseys, running shoes and — its biggest draw — non-alcoholic products.
“As long as it’s delicious. That’s the biggest thing for us.”
Owner Doug Stephen says his shelves of non-alc products are seeing the largest growth in sales.
“We really saw the pickup occur in December of 2022, and we thought that this must be New Year’s and Christmas parties and people stocking up. And then January came, and it was Dry January. And we just keep seeing more and more people coming through who want to kind of shift how they view alcohol,” Stephen says.
Down the street, Fiona Hepher is helping people get acquainted with what’s available in the market. She runs B.C.’s online alcohol-free beverage company, Sansorium.
“We were the first in Canada to really get an alcohol-free wine tasting up and running couple about a year ago,” Hepher says.
At a recent wine-tasting session she showcased five different alcohol-free wines from around the world. As patrons sipped on their beverages, they were invited to smell and taste and try to identify the wines in front of them. It had all the vibes of any other wine-tasting event, making it easy to forget that there is no alcohol in the room.
“The big takeaway I hope people get from tonight is really an expanded definition about sobriety,” Hepher says. “It doesn’t have to be that you were an alcoholic and are no longer a drinker of alcohol. You can have a mindful relationship to alcohol that lets you have a drink once in a while, or you realize that you don’t like it at all and you decide to leave it without having this rock-bottom story.”
Rickie Sahota recently became sober-curious. He’s surprised by what he’s tasting here and how much some of the wines taste like the real thing.
“I’m intrigued. … I can get up at six in the morning and still work and not feel bad? That is amazing,” he says. “And do I really want to go out to a bar and drink soda water all day? Not really. I think there’s something about getting something that tastes like an adult beverage. That’s what I loved about it.”
The market for alcohol-free products has been growing substantially over the last couple of years but the industry is still young, especially when it comes to making alcohol-free wine.
In B.C., one brand is leading the charge — and it was started by true wine connoisseurs. Tyler Harlton ran TH Wines, a successful winery in the Okanagan Valley, until 2019, when he stopped drinking and sold his operation.
“That was my last vintage, and that was sort of the end of a chapter of making alcoholic wine.”
He didn’t miss the buzz, but he did miss the taste of wine.
So he partnered with friend and fellow oenophile Chris Pagliocchini to see if they could create an alcohol-free wine with all the complexity of the real stuff.
Early on, Harlton and Pagliocchini agreed on some principles they wanted to guide their wine-making.
“Right from the beginning we said we don’t want to add sugar, because so many of the other wines were sweet,” Pagliocchini says.
They claim a lot of sugar is added to non-alcoholic wines to give wines the “mouthfeel” they lose when the alcohol is no longer present. And many of the wines aren’t even made from fermented grapes. They actually start with vinegar as a base.
Harlton and Pagliocchini wanted to remain true to the original source. “We wanted to use actual grapes themselves, and the fermentation process, because it’s the only way to unlock some of those flavours,” Pagliocchini says.
Living in Summerland, with its lush rolling hills of vineyards and wineries as far as the eye can see, they have easy access to some of the best grapes in Canada.
But the pair admit it’s quite challenging to maintain the integrity of the flavour of wine once the alcohol is removed.
”Wine is quite complex. There are hundreds of different chemical compounds. We’re just removing one, which is ethanol, or alcohol. And when we remove that, it kind of changes how you perceive the flavour, how you perceive the aroma, how you perceive mouthfeel,” Pagliocchini says.
After a year of experimentation, the pair have managed to create some wines they feel best represent them. They’ve branded themselves as Ones, and offer Pinot Noir, a Cabernet Franc, a sparkling Rose and a sparkling Red.
Customers are responding well to their wines, according to both Harlton and Pagliocchini.
“In the summer, we did 1,000 litres. In the early fall, we did 5,000 litres. A couple of months later, we did 10,000 litres. It’s been faster than exponential growth in terms of production. And we find we still can’t keep up with demand at this point,” Pagliocchini says.
Replicating the taste and feel of alcohol is one approach to quenching the thirst of the sober curious. However, Leanne Kisil felt what was missing was something complex, tasty and also healthy. She’s a former pro hockey player who’s now a former drinker and more recently the CEO of beverage company Solbrü.
“People take their ginger shots and their smoothies, and then when the sun goes down, typically that kind of just goes out the door. So I wanted to incorporate those same aspects from the day into a social evening beverage,” Kisil says.
She did that by creating a drink low in sugar and packed with antioxidants from the mushroom and herb base, something that could be consumed on its own, or mixed with other potables.
Rob Scope, a bartender at the Magnet in downtown Vancouver, is always on the lookout for new products in the non-alcohol department.
“My partner had to quit drinking a few years ago, so we’ve taken a lot on to try and find a lot of nonalcoholic options to drink.”
When he and his wife visited the Drive Canteen in Vancouver, they were introduced to Solbrü through a tasting session.
“And we were just like, wow, this is so interesting to have this like a mushroom-forward non-alcoholic product on the market,” Scope says.
He decided he wanted to make a mocktail for his bar with one of them. Solbrü has four different mushroom varieties to choose from — but one, in particular, stood out.
“The one I’ve got is the cordyceps one, and that’s got like the lemon and the rosemary flavour. I feel like it would work in cocktails. But also the cordyceps part I thought was pretty funny from the new hit show The Last of Us.”
In the hugely popular HBO series, cordyceps are blamed for infecting people and essentially turning them into zombies. But that didn’t stop Scope from putting it on the menu.
“There’ve been a few people who have been like [mimicking skeptical tone], ‘Wait, isn’t that the, thing, you know…?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine!’” Scope chuckles. “It’s definitely been that conversation, which is kind of what I like, getting people talking about it.”
From parties to cocktails, the sober curious movement is creating opportunities and spaces for people to take a break from alcohol and still have fun and feel included socially.
As Gascoigne points out, “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, thinking, you know, we can have a Monday where we have a non-alcoholic wine that we love. And then if we want to drink on Tuesday, we can. So I think just being intentional is really what it’s all about.”