The first time I voluntarily gave up alcohol for a few weeks after New Year’s was in 2009, years before “Dry January” began showing up on Google Trends and appearing in countless news stories.
Back then, taking a break from drinking while continuing my day job of writing about bars and nightlife for The Washington Post was a struggle: Many people didn’t understand I was doing it by choice — they assumed I must have been worried about alcoholism or was seriously ill — and wanted to discuss my choice. The bigger problem, though, was that few bars were set up to deal with people who didn’t want to drink. Only a handful of Washington’s most creative cocktail destinations had a nonalcoholic option on the menu, so anyone staying sober had to sheepishly ask a bartender to whip up something special. But that break from booze was so refreshing that I’ve made it an annual fixture.
A decade later, the idea of a temporary absence from alcohol isn’t such a shocking idea. The concept of “Dry January” is featured in media all over the world, complete with eye-roll-worthy portmanteaus like “Drynuary” or “the dryathlon.” Moreover, outside of this period, an increasing number of restaurants and bars have realized that their customers include pregnant women, people on medication who can’t have alcohol and people who simply don’t want a drink, and have broadened their menus accordingly.
Of course, tell people you’re giving up alcohol, and you’ll get a lot of questions and what could politely be called “feedback.” If you’ve ever thought about giving up alcohol for a period of time, whether in January or another month, here are things I’ve learned.
You don’t have to turn into a hermit.
At first, it may seem weird to go to a bar when you have no intention of drinking alcohol. But the truth is, it’s easier to go out and have fun with friends than ever before, because bars are about much more than drinking: Video games, trivia nights, bingo and karaoke offer ways to socialize when one or more members of a group aren’t tippling.
Ballston’s Punch Bowl Social features three floors of bowling lanes, foosball and pool tables, dart lanes — even private karaoke rooms. The menu is loaded with nonalcoholic options, raging from a fizzy cilantro-and-jalapeño cooler to old-fashioned egg creams and malts. Spin, the new table tennis club under the National Press Building, has a dozen tables for playing with groups, and you can order sodas or house-made lemonade to go with your Vietnamese lettuce wraps. (And if being the sober one helps you win, so much the better.) The new Spring Valley branch of Pizzeria Paradiso offers nonalcoholic beers as well as video games and wood-fired pizza.
If you’re feeling self-conscious about not drinking, one of these bars would be a better choice than a local dive where there’s not much to do except watch sports.
Your drink choices are wider than ever.
After years of offering non-drinkers a choice of iced tea, Coke or water, restaurants have started putting more nonalcoholic options on the table. More mixologists are showing their creativity and crafting housemade sodas, which offer interesting and unusual flavors without with the preservatives and chemicals found in big brands. Others are bringing back shrubs, the savory blends of vinegar and herbs or fruit that can be mixed into cocktails or served straight with carbonated water.
The Green Zone — my pick for the District’s best new bar of 2018 — devotes a section of its menu to nonalcoholic cocktails, including a refreshing mint lemonade, for the customers coming in to dance to Middle Eastern pop music or snack on falafel who might not drink for religious reasons.
Andrew Shapiro, the creator of local soda and ginger beer line K&B, is also the beverage director at Dino’s Grotto, where he makes seasonal fruit sodas and shrubs. Three-star restaurant St. Anselm has almost as many fancy soft drinks (Moxie, Cheerwine, etc.) as cocktails on its menu. The Smith, a New York City transplant that opened a location on U Street to go with the one in Penn Quarter, pours adult Shirley Temples and a concord grape and rosemary soda that’s as attractive as one of their cocktails.
There are benefits for your wallet as well as your health.
Do the math: A glass of wine can have 135 to 200 calories, depending on the sugar and alcohol levels, while a pint of craft beer — not a low-cal, low-carb Michelob Ultra — can be about 250 if it’s 6 or 6.5 percent ABV. Go out to happy hour, have two drinks and that’s a significant chunk of your suggested daily caloric intake. Just watch out that your nonalcoholic replacement isn’t as bad as the booze: A can of San Pellegrino sparkling fruit juice or an Ale-8-One Ginger Ale is a calorie-laden sugar bomb.
At most of the bars mentioned above, a soda or nonalcoholic drink is far cheaper than booze. At the Smith, for example, a cocktail is $13.50, while a housemade soda is $5. Who wouldn’t want to be richer and healthier?
You don’t have to explain why you’re not drinking.
I’ll be honest: I’ve lied about participating in Dry January. If I was out and turned down a beer or a shot, I’d tell people that I was the designated driver or on medication — sometimes it’s easier not to mention Dry January, because a week or so in, I’m tired of explaining why I’ve given up alcohol. But there’s no reason that your decision not to drink is anyone’s business. (Please don’t be that person who tries to press a drink into someone’s hand after they’ve said “No, thank you.”)
But there’s an easy way to ward off questions: Have something nearby — a pint glass of nonalcoholic beer, a rocks glass of soda water with a lime on the edge, a sparkling house soda — so when someone asks if you need a beverage, you can say, “I’m good, thanks.”
It’s okay if you slip up — or choose to cheat.
Above everything else, remember that this is just a personal decision — the fate of the world does not rest in your decision to abstain from booze. It’s okay to participate in the champagne toast at a friend’s baby shower or have a bloody mary at a going-away brunch. Enjoy it, and start again the next day.
If you stay dry for only 19 or 27 days in Dry January, guess what: You still win. Research from the University of Sussex in England has shown that Dry January participants were drinking more wisely six months later, whether they completed the whole month. And if you want to go longer than Dry January? That’s great, too. Like I said, it’s easier than ever to have a good time without booze.