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Society’s drinking habits seemingly changed overnight amidst the pandemic in 2020. The way consumers purchased and consumed alcohol had no choice but to adapt while strict quarantine restrictions were in place. Statistics show we had been drinking way more in quarantine. According to market intelligence firm Winsight online alcohol sales saw a whopping 339% boost when the coronavirus outbreak first hit. While drinking was once many people’s favorite social pastime and the preferred wind-down method, things appear to be shifting. 

The Roots of a Movement

Even before the pandemic, the seeds of the sober movement had been planted. As typical routines resume, many people who ended their work-from-home days with a TikTok cocktail recipe are now trying online alcohol-recovery programs to curb or quit drinking entirely.

The shift to alcohol-free recreation is part of a rapidly growing interest in health and wellness, which has blossomed into a $4.5-trillion industry with a focus on mindfulness and most importantly; moderation. Studies show that Millennials and Gen Z kids are indulging in spirits less than previous generations. Julia Bainbridge, author of the recently released recipe book, Good Drinks, predicts that in a decade, no one will be asking why you’re not drinking and notes that “alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking.”

Bainbridge was years ahead of the “sober-curious” curve. She was prompted to draft Good Drinks, by her 2014 decision to remove alcohol from her life and a subsequent longing for well-made booze-free cocktails. Something other than a Shirley Temple, of course. 

The movement has been known under different, less finite names. The “sober curious” or “sober sometimes” movement started as a set of restrictions for those who felt they’d partied a little too hard for the holidays, but most specifically, New Years Eve. “Dry January” was coined for that reason. People would often “humble brag” on social media about how they were taking a break from booze. This snowballed into “Dry July”, “Sober September,” and “No Booze November”. 

The movement has now spread across the U.S., with people challenging each other to see what life is like without alcohol

The Current State of the Sober Movement

Many products have come out in the past few years that ease people into the waters of sobriety for the first time. Booze-free mocktail bars, like Redemption Bar in London, are thriving. Sober Instagram influencers have amassed thousands of followers that encourage each other to stay focused on their sober goals. There are even dating apps specifically for sober young people to meet.

In response to the movement, entrepreneurs like John Wiseman founded their own takes on non-alcoholic beverages. Wiseman founded Curious Elixirs, a line of alcohol-free cocktails inspired by drinks like Aperol spritz and Negroni. Based in New York’s Hudson Valley, the company offers a monthly subscription for its bottled 12-ounce mixed drinks. Since the pandemic started, Wiseman said sales for the cocktail club have increased 600 percent.

As eCommerce trends changed for regular alcoholic beverages, non-alcoholic drinks reaped the same benefits. Athletic, which opened in Stratford, Connecticut, back in 2018, launched with their own direct-to-consumer model for its nonalcoholic beers, including Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn golden ale. “We feel super fortunate that we’ve been iterating on our eCommerce platform for two years before COVID hit,” says Shufelt, who notes that the brewery’s limited online releases usually sell out within an impressive 15 minutes.

The brewery also maxed out its 15,000-barrel capacity in Connecticut and bought a former Ballast Point brewery in San Diego in March, allowing the company to surge production capacity by an extra 150,000 barrels to accommodate the company’s staggering 400 percent growth per month. “There’s less discovery shopping going on at off-premise, so it’s on the brewer to be actively marketing,” Shufelt says.

Additionally, as Refinery29 points out, the sober movement is now crucial more than ever. A new report by King’s College London published in the Addiction Journal suggests that one in five people in the UK hospital system “uses alcohol harmfully, and one in ten is “alcohol dependent”. The review covered 1,657,614 participants in the UK and found that harmful alcohol use is most prevalent in mental health units and alcohol dependence is found most commonly in patients attending accident and emergency departments.

Furthermore, pillars in the sober community like Holly Glenn Whitaker, founder and CEO of Tempest, an online sobriety school, argue that framing and marketing sobriety as a trend or fancy new product may do more harm than good.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Whitaker pointed out that: 

“Sobriety was not built on a consumerist ideal, in many ways, sobriety is a rebellious act, because it rejects the mainstream cultural norm that suggests you have to drink alcohol in order to fit in,” she adds. For lots of sober individuals or those in recovery, the choice to stop drinking comes at a cost. They may have done so at the risk of losing their jobs, harming their reputations, or affecting their places in society, she says. “Co-opting the pretty parts of sobriety completely strips it of all meaning,” she says.

Essentially, co-opting a movement that cuts into revenues for giant industries, like that of the alcohol industry, is in a way, anti-capitalist. There are many industries that could suffer from a domino effect of the sober movement. When consumers go out for drinks with pals, they aren’t just spending money on booze. There’s also the cost of ridesharing apps like Uber that are a necessity to ensure a safe way home from the bar. If consumers are going to alcohol-free bars, they won’t necessarily have to depend on ridesharing, so Uber and Lyft’s numbers could dwindle as the sober movement takes off. And with the alcohol industry also comes the alcohol recovery industry. This sector carries products like Liquid I.V. Without the physical and mental after-effects of consuming alcohol, these industries will also falter. Anti-capitalist sentiment has been steadily growing traction, and this could be a feature of that. 

Benefits of the Movement and What that Means for the Alcohol Industry

As the movement has gained traction over the past few years, researchers have compiled substantial evidence alluding to the benefits of the sober movement. 

For instance, a study conducted back in 2016 of about 850 men and women who abstained from alcohol during ‘Dry January’ found that participants reported many benefits. 82 percent said they felt a sense of achievement, and “better sleep” was cited by 62 percent. 49 percent even said they lost some weight.

As these benefits catch on in mainstream culture, we could see even more people opting out of consuming alcoholic beverages. 

But, there is an opportunity to reinvent the casual drinking experience. Companies are taking typical canned seltzers and adding herbs, nourishing plants, and other compounds that support cognition and health. As the health and wellness industry grows, this could be majorly enticing to hard seltzer companies.

Healthier seltzer options not only replace the typical regular non-alcoholic beverage, but it aids the health-conscious lifestyle that the sober curious consumers are searching for. Other companies that offer non-alcoholic wines are providing the full aroma and taste of your typical wine, but with no alcohol and half the calories. The low-cal options are crucial, as alcoholic seltzer brands have been releasing calorie-conscious beverages for the past few years, targeting mostly tailgaters. 

In social gatherings, many sober curious consumers are looking for a beverage that is a bit more interesting than Perrier or Diet Coke. Beverage manufacturers are evolving to meet this need by reducing sugar and adding what they consider to be premium ingredients. The soft drink, sparkling water, and seltzer companies have continually been able to tap into the sober movement. So much so that this led to a 54% growth in sparkling water in 2018 and a 2.9% surge in soft drinks sales last year.

If you’re worried that you are one of the 17 million U.S. adults who are alcohol dependent, and alcohol is causing you stress or harm, seek medical advice. There are a variety of treatments beyond Alcoholics Anonymous, including counseling, medications and support groups to help people who want to end that dependency.