Hey, want to grab a drink after work?” my husband texted me one afternoon. He had just started regularly going back to the office “post-COVID,” while I continued to work from home full time, as I had been for nearly a decade.
“Let’s do it!” I responded, eager for a respite from an already busy week.
We met at Matchbox in Pentagon City. As I scanned the drink menu, I noticed something new: mocktails. There was an alcohol-free margarita, a “sans-gria” (sangria sans booze), and other options.
“Are you getting one?” my husband asked.
“No,” I laughed, before ordering my usual cabernet sauvignon. “It’s been a day.”
In the months that followed, I began to notice zero-proof cocktails at other restaurants. A ginger beer with hibiscus-allspice syrup, lime juice, and sushi ginger at Kismet Modern Indian in Alexandria. A honey paloma made with alcohol-free tequila at Wren in Tysons. Even The Fountain Inn, a rare-spirits tasting room in Georgetown, featured an Earl Grey tea infused with a peach-tamarind shrub and CO2.
I began feeling like I’d missed a memo — or maybe a viral TikTok — about a hot new trend.
Though it’s not new, it’s certainly hot. The no- and low-alcohol segment — referred to as “NoLo” — is booming, according to an IWSR report that showed NoLo grew 30 percent in the U.S. in 2021, reaching over $2 billion in market value. While that only accounts for 1 percent of the alcohol beverage market, the IWSR says a rise in the “sober-curious” is driving continued growth in the sector.
Dr. Lee Phillips, a psycho-therapist and certified substance abuse counselor who works in Northern Virginia and New York, says he’s seen this sober-curious trend primarily in Gen Z patients. Some Gen Zers, he says, see mocktails as a way to make connections during social events.
“Young patients have shared if they are drinking bottled water in a social gathering, others may perceive them as boring,” Phillips says. “[But] if they are holding a mocktail, it appears they are drinking the same alcoholic beverages as everyone else.”
TikTok, a popular social media platform among Gen Z, seems to corroborate this notion that the youngest generation of legal drinkers is interested in the lifestyle. The sober-curious hashtag has been viewed over 143 million times.
But some of Phillips’ Millennial and Gen X patients are cutting back, too, especially after two years of pandemic-fueled consumption.
“They feel less productive with work and with their children,” he says.
Jorge Wallace, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks in Alexandria, attributes the
sober-curious surge as a simple alternative to “what our culture has assimilated into our way of life.”
NoVA resident Samantha Kasten agrees.
“It can be very isolating when someone makes the decision to not drink because pretty much everything in our society centers around alcohol,” says Kasten, who has been sober since July 2018.
When she stopped drinking, she realized there weren’t any nonalcoholic options at restaurants beyond soda, juice, and water. So she saw an opportunity, eventually launching her own business, Umbrella Dry Drinks, in December 2021 to help others like her.
“I never want someone to feel like they should be questioning their decision to stop drinking or feel pressured to imbibe because there aren’t options available to them,” she says.
Sara Addeo, co-owner and general manager of Three Blacksmiths in Sperryville, says her restaurant added a zero-proof pairing to its multicourse tasting menu for those abstaining from alcohol.
“We’re a destination restaurant, [so] people often travel,” explains Addeo, noting that the zero-proof options are particularly popular among designated drivers. But some guests tell her they enjoy the mocktails as course complements just as much as any wine pairing.
As co-owner of Eat Good Food Group, Meshelle Armstrong has received similar feedback from guests dining at Hummingbird Bar + Kitchen in Alexandria. Armstrong says she challenged her bar manager to curate a menu of options for “what to drink when you’re not drinking.”
“[They] appreciate the creativity and thoughtfulness in catering to adult taste without the alcohol,” she says.
Beyond restaurants, mocktails are even starting to appear at traditionally boozy functions like weddings.
“I think a mocktail is a great way for everyone to feel included in someone’s big day,” says Kim Newton, a NoVA-based wedding coordinator.
“Nondrinkers and kids can be a part of the fun with a great [nonalcoholic] lemon drop or a mocktail mule. [Couples can] focus on a theme and … have fun experimenting to come up with creative nonalcoholic spins on traditional drinks.”
As the sober-curious lifestyle takes off, Kasten can’t help but feel a sense of excitement.
“My hope is that in 10 years from now, it will be totally normal for someone to not drink alcohol,” says Kasten. “Just as it is totally normal for someone to walk into a coffee shop and have dairy alternatives available to them.”