Navigating the new sober boom, where "a person's sobriety is as unique as their fingerprint"

When I cut back on drinking for health reasons, wise bartenders helped me find my way in the zero-proof life

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 16, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

D's Mai Tai Mocktail (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
D's Mai Tai Mocktail (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

This story won a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. Read more about the 2024 James Beard Media Awards.

“You’ll be OK. I take breaks, on and off, all of the time,” my cousin Maja said with a smooth smile during my first week off alcohol. “And if you want that feeling, pull up on me. I'll whip up something special for you. A mocktail.”

Maja is my first cousin’s first cousin. In Baltimore, that means we’re close family. My dad's sister married her dad's brother, ultimately connecting us. A popular bartender, Maja created the most beautiful drinks anyone has ever seen or tasted in some of Baltimore’s fanciest restaurants.

“A MajTail,” I laughed, sipping the ginger-heavy citrus concoction she slid in my direction. “I’m in it for the long haul, cuz.”  

Fifteen years my junior, Maja, or Maj, has always been a dreamer. She has two big sleepy eyes that dominate her face and pair perfectly with her Zen-like demeanor. Many of the younger people in our family opted for traditional nine-to-fives or the streets, but she worked to make a name for herself in the art world, gaining an impeccable reputation for her drawings and paintings. The street guys and the nine-to-fivers have a lot to talk about with each other, but rarely share community with Maja’s artsy crowd. Our paths almost never collided until I joined the art world she knew so well, and began to see her at parties, and frequent places she worked, like The Charleston, Alma Cocina and Bloom's, where I would eat the most delicious food in the city and have the luxury of washing it down with her beautiful craft cocktail creations, with my wife and friends at my side. 

“You always have fun, even when y’all not drinking or before y'all’s drinks come out,” Maja said. “So just have fun — focus on that.” 

I love alcohol: the smell, the taste, the way it makes me feel. There’s something about sipping from a bottle or glass of warm confidence that just feels right. I’ve known this since I was a child — 10 years old, to be precise. 

One day, my cousin Lo begged me to go with him to see his estranged mother, who had recently won a long battle with addiction.

“I bought you something, baby,” she said, her veiny hands gripping a crumpled paper bag. “I didn’t forget you.” 

“The Colt 45 kind?” Lo guessed, his eyes watering as he snatched the bag. “Thank you, Mom!” 

Lo guzzled, then passed the can to me. I took a slow sip: like soda, but not as sweet, or even joyous at all, I thought. The aftertaste of Colt 45, a malt liquor that was as dangerous as it was popular, crumpled my face to match the bag that concealed the can. “Yuck!” 

There was always a reason to grab a drink with a friend. We would even grab a drink at the bar just to figure out where we should go on to grab drinks.

The drink tasted so bad, but it felt so right. Imagine a cactus with milk so sweet, it’s worth the thorns. We laughed hysterically at my childish reaction, even though I was a child. I took another swig, shot another frown and passed the can back to Lo, who happily gulped. I knew my mom would have killed me if she found out, so I swore off liquor until it revisited me in 7th grade. 

Hawk rocked a monochromatic blue Coogi, so we wore monochromatic blue Coogis. Hawk never tied his New Balance; he purposely left the laces undone, so you’d never see a bow on our shoes either. Hawk sat drunk in the project stairwell, gripping a bottle of Absolut vodka, so when he passed it to me, I was all in. 

And I sipped, tripped and fell in love with that vodka. Booze and I became inseparable in the years that followed. It became a part of my identity: The fun guy with the drinks on deck. 

Alcohol is a depressant, scientifically speaking. But there seemed to be nothing depressing about grabbing a drink before the function, grabbing a drink at the function, and grabbing a drink after the function. There was always a reason to grab a drink with a friend. We would even grab a drink at the bar just to figure out where we should go on to grab drinks.

This lifestyle delivered so many glorious memories, nights and people I only remember in flashes. A life that I enjoyed and even bragged about, all the way up until my doctor delivered a reality check, recommending I eighty-six salty food — there goes fine dining — and go cold turkey off the booze for a while (goodbye, craft cocktails) so that we could regulate my rising blood pressure. 

Here’s what I learned during my first booze-free week after three decades of regular drinking: Liquor makes mediocre restaurant food taste like fine dining — the only ingredient better at enhancing flavors than salt. Ordering it also makes that dinner much more expensive. Everyone around me in the restaurant is also louder and sweatier, it seems, when I’m sober. And my sobriety makes other people uncomfortable, too. They poke at me, question my health, and ignore everything except what is — or isn’t — inside my glass.

* * *

“A yoooo, D Watk a weirdo! Man, oh man, aye aye, Watk lost his got dammed mind! What in the —” screamed a small woman with long braids growing out of the back of an oversized Oriole cap.  

A couple of months after the doctor told me to start eating cleaner and stop drinking for a while, an Uber dropped me off at this restaurant around 9:15, where I was greeted by thunderous applause. It kind of felt like a surprise party, except none of my close friends were there. These were casual business acquaintances, loose ties, strangers. I was being honored for my work with kids in schools. 

I had felt great about my choices until I was presented with that tall bottle of tequila and poured those four shots that seemed to be screaming my name. 

A young woman in a sparkly dress presented me with a framed certificate and a microphone. To my right, a DJ saluted from his booth. To my left, well-dressed educators and tastemakers eagerly awaited my words. In front of me, a packed restaurant of people ate and drank, some glancing over at me like, Who in the hell is this guy? 

I made my remarks and went over to the organizer’s table. Before I could sit, one of those tastemakers presented me with a long, luxurious brown box containing the premium tequila brand sponsor for the night’s event. 

Then four bottle girls arrived, placing four empty shot glasses in front of my face. One of the bottle girls had said, “For the man of the hour,” with a wink, filling each of the glasses in front of me with tequila until they all overflowed. The look and smell of the liquid made my head throb. 

“I have to run and wash my hands,” I told the table as they began knocking their drinks back. I cut through the crowd and entered the restroom. A walking and breathing mess stared back at me in the mirror. 

After making it through the first few weeks of my doctor-recommended sobriety, I decided to indulge a little on a family visit to Paris I had booked a few months before the physician gave me the sad news. I stuck to my guns, not touching a drop until our feet were planted on European land, and I had decided to continue my alcohol-free mission when we returned to the States. I had felt great about my choices until I was presented with that tall bottle of tequila and poured those four shots that seemed to be screaming my name. I can beat this too, I told myself. 

I splashed water on my face and exited the restroom. The educators were in full turn-up mode, iPhone filming and dancing. My shots waited patiently for me. 

I wondered what Maj would do. Maybe I should order a MajTail, I thought.

If I walked a big mocktail over to my table, I reasoned, people wouldn’t be paying attention to the fact that I was not downing those shots. 

“I’m working, on the clock, not really drinking,” I said to the bartender, a slim dude with a thinning fro. “Can you make me a mocktail?” 

“Sure, brother,” the bartender answered. “Any particular taste in mind?” 

Enter the walking Oriole cap. 

“A yoooo D Watk a weirdo! Man, oh man, Watk lost his got dammed mind! What in the—” screamed that small woman with the long braids growing out of the back of her oversized Oriole hat.

Every patron in the joint laid eyes on us at the same time, it seemed. To my surprise, others jumped in to defend me, saying things like, “Everybody can’t be an alcoholic like you, girl,” and “Don’t play with D like that!” 

Eventually, I made it back to my table, where I was greeted by another person who recently started his own wine company and wanted me to taste every flavor. Well, it’s wine, I thought, and I’m kind of sophisticated, I thought, and I just came back from Paris, I thought, so passing on this offer would be a great disservice to that young entrepreneur and the community, is what I landed on. 

I drank glass after glass, holding the bottle — bottles — making sure the women in the large cap saw me consuming enough wine to collapse an elephant. Who’s the weirdo now? 

Me, apparently, because alcohol won the battle that night. Even though I didn't take the tequila shots, I was still as drunk as a trust fund frat boy by the time I left. 

It feels much more common now — thanks in part to events like Dry January and Sober October — to take temporary breaks from drinking.

The more I reflected on that evening, the more I became bothered by things I failed to recognize or wish I would have considered in the moment. 

I don't owe these people anything, so why should their opinions force me into becoming wine-drunk? Do I lack self-control? 

I have never had the level of clarity I gained in the short sober time I had before Paris. So why would I quickly throw that away to please a bunch of strangers at a function? 

I have no idea who that little woman lost in that big-ass baseball cap was, so why would I care about her insults?

Was I drinking for me or because Maj had been found dead in her apartment a week before I left for Paris? 

And I realized that I would never be able to ask her what would she do again. I will never be able to roll into a bar and see her face, be eased by her pleasant energy and taste one of her creations ever again. Was alcohol not the fun juice I always thought it was? Thinking about Maj, it was starting to feel every bit like a depressant. 

* * *

Alcohol is one of the leading preventable causes of death in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. More than 140,000 deaths each year are estimated to be attributed to excessive drinking. It remains an urgent, life-or-death problem for many. Perhaps a growing awareness of that is why more people are being proactive about monitoring their consumption, even before it becomes a medical necessity or a chemical dependency. 

An explosion of new non-alcoholic adult drink brands shows there’s a market that still wants the feeling of going for a drink without the effects. Some people are avoiding alcohol, or just cutting back, to be more health conscious. Gen Z is drinking less than millennials and Gen Xers. And it feels much more common now — thanks in part to events like Dry January and Sober October — to take temporary breaks from drinking without the stigma attached to “falling off the wagon.” For some, mindful moderation — rather than an all-or-nothing approach — is now part of an aspirational lifestyle. 

For deeper insights into the source of my feelings about drinking and abstaining from a person who has taken the sober journey from inside — or rather, behind — the bar, I reached out to the first mixologist I ever met, Andre “Dre” Barnhill. Dre has been a star on the emerging cocktail scene in Baltimore over the past decade. He's held prominent positions at award-winning establishments like Woodberry Kitchen, and runs Clavel, one of the hottest Mezcal bars in our region. Dre was sober for two years, but recently decided to have an occasional cocktail. 

Dre is a relatively smooth fellow, always laid-back, never too visibly excited. He’s also the bartender who introduced me to what became my signature cocktail, the vodka gimlet

"A yo, I am traveling a little bit right now for these readings," I asked Dre one slow night at his bar. "And I'm struggling to find one go-to drink that any bartender can make, even me." 

"I noticed that you are a citrus guy,” Dre said. “So, a gimlet." 

Gin hasn’t been kind to me over the years. But Dre helped me fall in love with the smooth, clean taste of vodka gimlets. And during that time, Dre fell out of love with alcohol and the way it made him feel, so he decided to go on a hiatus. 

I reminded Dre that I did not remember him being the heaviest drinker before he took his pause––maybe a shot or two during a shift. But then I realized that he would normally be at work when I saw him, and I was coming into his bars with my own agenda, to ingurgitate as much booze and fried food as humanly possible. 

“You have to consider the lifestyle, especially 1:30 to 4 a.m.,” Dre explained. “Shutting the bar down and drinking over a period of time, it adds up.” 

I thought of how it would feel to work in a bar five days a week, and how that environment could easily transform a casual drinker into a person who consumes alcohol every day as part of their routine. 

“And then there's the social aspect that comes with being a bartender in the city,” Dre continued. “Bartenders, we love each other, so when we go out, we are always sending each other shots. And you have to take them because turning a gift down is rude.” 

Here’s an insidious thing about alcohol and stigma: It’s wrapped up in class issues. 

I imagined Dre bar hopping with his high-end craft cocktail crew: A diverse, stylish bunch wearing wool coats, high-quality loafers and cropped denims. I imagined Hawk mixing in with his bottle of vodka blue Coogi sweater, instantly changing the mood. When experimenting with vodka cocktails with Dre and his friends, I’m progressive, approachable; a good brother, not an addict. But if I were drinking the same vodka in the projects with Hawk, I’m a gangster or a bum — the world would see me as an addict. The stigma. 

The stigma around drinking is something that bartender Ashley Mac has learned to deal with on many levels. 

“I do not like the word mocktail. To mock is to make fun of, or to do a dry run, of something,” Ashley Mac, the vice president of the Baltimore Bartenders Guild known as AMAC in the hospitality world, told me. “My sobriety is not a dry run or a joke to me. It's like a personal thing. I wouldn't use the word mocktail––spirit-free, zero-proof or nonalcoholic cocktails is what I tend to lean towards.” 

AMAC — who also goes by “The Sober Tender” — is also program director for HEARD, a mental health-focused nonprofit for people in the hospitality industry. She has been sober for seven years and counting. But she didn’t leave bartending — a job she wanted since childhood — when she stopped drinking.

When experimenting with vodka cocktails with Dre and his friends, I’m progressive, approachable; a good brother, not an addict. 

“I always wanted to be a bartender, ever since my parents took me to a Ruby Tuesday's back when I was a child,” AMAC said with a laugh. “The bartender ran the show, was the life of the party. And I wanted that so bad.”

AMAC got her first restaurant job at 15 and flourished professionally in the bar industry. But participating in the drinking culture that can come with working in bars took a heavy toll. She describes herself as “a late-stage alcoholic” by age 29. She even died once during withdrawal.

“I was out for 30 seconds. The next thing I remember was waking up in the back of an ambulance, and then ICU for eight days,” she said. “It was 13 days before I was discharged and off to rehab for three and a half months. I was 89 pounds when this all happened.”

AMAC returned home with major medical debt from the hospital and rehab. She had only been employed in the restaurant industry and didn’t know what she was going to do for money. So AMAC went back to bartending. 

Liquor is not my business. But so much of my business as a writer revolves around it — I call it let’s go grab a drink culture. I met my managers over a drink. Some of my first agents signed me after a drink or 10. I’ve done shots with lawyers and television executives. What would my career look like without it? Would I have been thought of a certain way if I had refused those drinks, or insisted we meet up for tea or sodas instead? 

I told AMAC about the time I tried to secretly order a mocktail at that tequila-sponsored educators’ award event. 

“That’s horrible,” she said. “I do some contract work for a bourbon company, and I don't tell people I'm sober when I'm trying to sell them bourbon.”  

“I have oftentimes been told as a bartender, I don't want you to make my drink if you're sober,” she continued. “How do you know what it tastes like? Or, I don't trust you as a bartender because you're sober.” 

Despite some of the negative experiences that both AMAC and I have had during different parts of our journey — mainly my attempt to remain sober in drunken places –– we have also both seen bar culture begin to change to incorporate sober people intentionally. 

Menus featuring specialty spirit-free, zero-proof — or the bar-industry dreaded phrase “mocktails” — are becoming more available in restaurants. Designated dry months are social trends that aren’t going away. And new nonalcoholic spirits, beer and wine companies seem to appear every day. Some are even establishing brick-and-mortar locations where tastings, events, and fellowshipping around alcohol-free living can flourish. 

The Zero Proof, a spirit-free adult beverage company, recently released the results of a survey that boldly declared the movement here to stay: “Two-thirds of American adults consciously intended to drink less alcohol in 2022, primarily fueled by health and budget concerns. This mindset, held by 64% of younger consumers (ages 21-30) and 50% of all adults who drink alcohol, will continue into 2023.” 

The survey also found that “nearly 7 in 10 of all respondents (alcohol drinkers and non-drinkers) say they wish social settings were more conducive to accommodating those who drink alcohol and those who do not. The most uncomfortable for non-drinkers are bars and house parties.” An $11 billion industry of no/low-alcohol drink brands has sprung up in response to serve that growing market. There’s even a store in Baltimore dedicated to them — Hopscotch Zero Proof Bottle Shop —  just a mile away from the restaurant where I was ridiculed for ordering a spirit-free drink. 

The explosion of nonalcoholic spirits shows the scene is changing. People want to enjoy a zero-proof cocktail — whether always, or just on occasion — with their friends, without standing out as an abstainer. After all, there are stigmas attached to sobriety, too, stemming from its associations with both addiction and moral judgment. 

“When I got sober, it was not something people were comfortable talking about,” Sarah Hepola told me. 

"The older you get, the more it really wears on your system."

Hepola has been sober for 13 years, and vividly captured that journey in her critically lauded memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.” Hepola’s also a former culture editor for Salon, and the one responsible for planting the seed that grew into my writing career here. Can you guess what my first essay was about? Drinking. 

The first sentence reads, “Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I'm the only driver, so I went to get it.”  

“There’s pressure, and I kind of went into hiding for the first year of my sobriety,” Hepola continued. “I didn't go out, because I didn't want those questions.” 

Those questions.  

Those questions made staying sober more difficult than my urge to drink did. I did not miss hangovers, and I was experiencing that nonalcoholic clarity that sober people brag about. I felt great overall — until the questions came:

“Are you dying? If so, how soon, and can have your sneakers?” 

“Do you have some kind STD? And you’re not drinking because you don’t want to throw off the antibiotic?”

“Why come to a bar and not drink? That’s like getting on a boat and not boating, right?” 

“Have a drink! Real men don’t care about no damn blood pressure until they collapse! Did you even almost collapse yet? Collapse first, then talk to me about drinking!”  

I had a great sober run after my altercation at the educator ceremony, but about a month later, it ended. It wasn’t a dark, depressing fall-off, but I did abandon sobriety. Partially because of the questions and partially because of identity — it’s still difficult for me to imagine myself as a completely alcohol-free guy. There are too many memories, celebrations and bonds forged between me and my costar booze. I can’t remember signing a deal or accomplishing a goal or grieving a loved one without it. And my doctor never said I had to stop entirely — just cut back. 

“A person's sobriety is as unique as their fingerprint,” AMAC told me. 

So maybe my version can be sipping just enough to participate without fully indulging. 

I haven’t had a taste of hard liquor since that diagnosis. I now classify as a slight social wine drinker, the guy who circles the function with one glass. But I would be lying if I acted as if I didn’t feel like I was missing out on the fun that the drunken, sweaty people are having in my sober presence. 

Drinkers and non-drinkers are going to continue to find themselves in the same spaces, though, whether for professional reasons or a refusal to stop socializing even without booze. After all, addiction isn't the only reason people have to abstain from alcohol. Not everyone quits for extreme reasons. 

“A number of my friends quit drinking,” Hepola said. “The older you get, the more it really wears on your system. I have very few friends left who are really hardcore drinkers.… They just mellowed out.” 

* * *

Having these conversations about alcohol and sobriety,  I realized that most of the people I talked to were people closer to my own age — Gen Xers and Millennials. People who, like me, came of age during a time when grabbing a drink after work felt necessary, having a cold beer during the football game felt necessary — the kind of people who looked at prayer and alcohol as the primary ways to dissolve stress. I wanted to know how the students in my writing class at the University of Baltimore — mostly Gen Z, between the ages of 18 and 21 — related to alcohol. 

"That whole night sounds ridiculous. How did you have any fun?"

“Do you guys get sloppy drunk?” I asked a small group who came to class early, when some of our best, loosest conversations happened. 

“Yuck,” a young man named Josh said. “If being drunk could get me out of a final. Wait, are you giving a final?” 

Most of the group had no real interest in drinking. They didn't consider themselves to be sober, or feel like they were part of a movement. Drinking just didn't really seem to interest them. 

“I loved to guzzle Absolut vodka back when I was your age,” I said, as proudly as if I were a liquor company rep. “We partied at the club till 2 a.m., and then we hit the after-hours that rocked til 4, and then the after-after party at my crib that went until 6 or until everybody passed out!” 

“You should be lucky you are alive,” my student Nesha said. “That whole night sounds ridiculous. How did you have any fun?” 

“I can't remember, Nesha. I was drunk!” 

My students aren’t outliers, according to AMAC, who sees similar trends in the liquor industry and around the bars she frequents from time to time. 

“There's a younger generation coming up right now that does not drink. They don't want to drink.” AMAC said. “They know the hangover comes with it. They see the stigma.” 

More young adults are abstaining from alcohol compared to college-age Americans 20 years ago, Science Daily reports. “Between 2002 and 2018, the number of adults aged 18-22 in the U.S. who abstained from alcohol increased from 20% to 28% for those in college and from about 24% to 30% for those not in school, say researchers at the University of Michigan and Texas State University.”

I was born on the cusp between Gen X and Millennials. I remember everyone drinking all of the time. There’s definitely been a shift. Hepola’s seen it, too. 

“If you're coming up underneath that, you're probably going to rebel against what your older siblings do, because it’s not cool,” she said. 

* * *

Nonalcoholic cocktails may be easier to find in liquor stores, restaurants and bars now, and young people may not be drinking as much. But let’s go grab a drink culture hasn’t retired. Maybe the conversation we should be having should be about more than navigating the world safely in sobriety — going out to a bar or a nightclub should be a safe experience for anyone, no matter what or how much they’re drinking. 

“Don't automatically give people shots.”

Safe Bars was founded in Washington, D.C., in 2013 by gender-based violence prevention expert Lauren Taylor. When I spoke with their executive director Amie Ward for this story, Ward — who also founded the peer-to-peer support and resource group The Healthy Tender, for sober or sober-curious folks in her industry — told me that the organization’s mission started with a focus on self-defense and bystander intervention, “because of the high link of alcohol within sexual assaults that are reported. One in two sexual assaults involve alcohol.” 

Ward’s degrees in kinesiology and cultural studies inform her insights into how power and bodies intersect in drinking spaces — an underrated skill in the hospitality world. When a patron walks into a bar, they are heading for a destination, wanting to be transported from whatever they are feeling to a place of ease. Safe Bars’ training positions bartenders as the trip’s pilot, capable of ensuring a safe trip for everyone. Ward’s first safety rule is simple: “Don't automatically give people shots.” 

“Number two: If somebody says no, that's the end of the f**king question,” Ward continued. “That’s the answer. ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Don’t ask them why — it's not your story to know!” 

I thought about my experience at the ceremony, wondering if my night would have gone differently if the bartender had stepped in. I also thought about how many people in the service industry live off tips, and wondered if it's even ethical for me to expect them to control all of the crazy conversations and interactions that happen at their bars. There are too many resources available for patrons to learn how to conduct themselves respectably. 

I landed on the idea that the answer lies in the collective; it is up to everyone — patrons, bartenders, servers, the sober and the drunk alike — to work together to create a reality where everybody is comfortable and happy. We all deserve that, sober or not. Maja taught me that.

I didn’t give Maja all the flowers she deserved when I had the opportunity. My inability to fully appreciate those times while she was here tied into the feelings that many of us — including some of the former drinkers I talked to — chased at some point in our lives: The yearning to hold onto memories, places and people that we want to see, talk to or touch again. And this is where it becomes bigger than booze — and potentially more dangerous — because there is no way to really recreate those wild nights while sober. They never would have happened the same way without the drinks.

Maja and I had so many “I was messed up last night!” conversions that I truly miss; however, I realized that I miss the art, food and life conversations we shared just as much if not more. I may not have been able to reach this understanding if she was still here, or if I had kept my drinking habit. 

The space I gained from the huge alcohol reduction from my diet has allowed me to focus on the good, the bad and the things that matter. To understand that those wild nights are gone, but better nights are coming. To appreciate what I have, and be present. To focus on the fun, just like Maja said. 

She was right the whole time. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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