I’m not sober curious, but man do I hear that term a lot. The other day I was speaking with a friend from my hometown in South Carolina who now lives in San Francisco. It struck me when she remarked first and foremost on the “sober curious” trend as though it’s the predominant driving force behind what we do at Spirited Away and Dry Atlas. She’s not alone in that belief. Talk to anyone who is new to non-alc and if they know nothing else, they will know the term “sober curious.” There’s something about that term that makes people retain and share it. It’s a viral idea. The term “sober curious” is cute, clever and non-committal. “Not me! I’m not sober! <lowers voice> But I’m maybe a tad bit curious to learn more.”
“Sober curiosity” and its popularity speak to the ubiquity and dominance of alcohol in American culture and society. If you’re trying to convince people to consider drinking less booze in our booze-soaked world, the smart way to do so is with the smallest of small requests: consider merely being curious about the idea. “You don’t have to do anything differently. You don’t have to give up anything. You don’t have to be that weirdo drinking soda water with lime at the company happy hour. But consider being just a tad bit curious about how it might make you feel.” It’s the gentlest request ever, and it needed to be. Because booze is so deeply ingrained in American life and culture, sobriety or even reducing alcohol are still quickly discarded by many people as fringe ideas for antisocial weirdos and sad addicts. This was truer four years ago than it is today.
Published at the end of 2018, Ruby Warrington’s book Sober Curious is – to the best of my knowledge – the source of the term. Despite being only 4 years ago, 2018 was quite a different world than the one we live in today. The vast majority of the roughly seven hundred non-alc drinks on Dry Atlas were brought to market in those 4 years. I opened Spirited Away in 2020 with fewer than 50 products. In order to fill the shelves, I had to beg brands to let me sell their products. In 2022, the shelves are full and there are hundreds of products I’d like to sell but don’t have room for. Once a fledgling and niche movement, it’s now safe to say that “no & low” is here to stay. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to credit “sober curiosity,” the term (maybe even more so than its meaning), with bringing a lot of new people into our non-alc world. For that, I appreciate it. I love how sober curiosity helps bring people into the fold. That viral phrase is basically an upper funnel, awareness-building tactic for the movement.
I’ve never considered myself sober curious, but I have at various times in my life reduced or eliminated alcohol from my diet for periods of time. I’m not finished experimenting, but at this point I do feel like I have a fairly good grasp on the pros and cons – for me personally – of reducing alcohol. I love the social aspects of drinking and I do feel that it can help create and sustain social bonds. I live in New York amid some of the world’s greatest cocktail bars and I will continue to enjoy a nice Islay malt Scotch penicillin or Montenegroni from time to time. I like making cocktails and will continue to offer both alc and non-alc options to my guests.
What I won’t do is mindlessly make myself a drink at the end of the day to numb the frustrations of the day or mindlessly crush Bud Light after Bud Light on an afternoon of hanging out with my buddies. Never say never, but I don’t see myself ever taking another shot of liquor or shotgunning another beer (unless it’s an Athletic, of course).
What curiosity I may have once felt about sobriety is now replaced by thoughtfulness and intentionality. I was recently at Modern Retail’s DTC Summit in Miami. I went out for dinner one night with a group of guys I met there at the conference. With an opportunity to have multiple drinks and tequila shots into the morning hours, I chose to join the group in a round of fresh mojitos with dinner but to forgo the tequila shots with the server afterwards. Those choices made – for me personally – a fun night with some new friends while also waking up feeling great the next morning and being able to get the most out of the conference.
Curiosity is a virtue to me but sober is too binary. I acknowledge and appreciate that alcohol’s addictive qualities mean that sobriety is all or nothing for lots of people, but that’s not my personal experience.
As the founder of Dry Atlas and Spirited Away, I am thankful and appreciative for everything that “sober curiosity” has done and continues to do for our industry. But I’m not sober curious and I don’t think many members of my team would consider themselves to be sober curious either. I’m a proponent of intentional drinking and intentional living. Intentional drinkers make an active choice about when, where and with whom to drink alcohol rather than letting themselves be nudged when, where and with whom to drink. I’ve gotta work on virality though. The phrase “intentional drinking” isn’t going to spread as vigorously as “sober curious” has.