For almost a decade, I’ve given up alcohol for a period of time each year. It’s moved around the calendar, but seems to have settled in January. While I love the holiday season, the parade of family dinners, seasonal happy hours and house parties that begins so brightly at Thanksgiving turns into a slog by New Year’s Eve. Too many big meals, too many cocktails with old friends, too many big, boozy imperial stouts. By Jan. 1, I’m full, I’m tired and I want to push away from the table and take a break.
I’m not the only one. Internet searches for “Dry January” and “Drynuary” begin to climb every December, according to Google Trends. Both have seen strong growth since 2012, with the all-time high coming in late 2016 and early 2017. In Britain, where the idea of Dry January has a much higher public profile than in the United States, the government’s Public Health England program has supported an annual campaign that “encourages drinkers to take a break and have a Dry January.” There’s even an app called Dry January, created by the British charity Alcohol Concern, that shows how much money and calories are saved by not imbibing. (It’s free for both Apple and Android.)
While Dry January is mostly targeted at social drinkers, the idea has taken hold with people who work in the bar-and-beverage industry. Justin Hampton, a brand ambassador for Moet-Hennessy and a longtime District bartender, has taken month-long breaks from alcohol for the past six years. It began “as a means of putting checks on myself,” he says. “I felt I had started overindulging, and monthly breaks were a successful way of cleansing my body, saving money and focusing and reflecting on who I am and what my goals are.”
That same spirit of reflection was a factor for DCBeer.com editor Bill DeBaun, who completed his first Drynuary in 2016. “The original impetus,” he says, “was multifold: a personal challenge, a way to support (and be supported by) other friends who also wanted to do Drynuary, an attempt to be reflective about my spending and consumption, and a way to learn to appreciate beer and not take it for granted.”
After a week or so, I’m sleeping better and have noticeably more energy. However, because my job is literally to go to bars and clubs, I can’t board myself up in a room, “Trainspotting”-style, to avoid temptation. I still go to cocktail bars and check out DJs and bands — I just don’t drink while doing so. Thankfully, with the explosion of the District’s drinking scene, more bars are putting an emphasis on house-made sodas and fresh juices, which can usually be consumed on their own, without alcohol. The Columbia Room, 2 Birds 1 Stone and Hank’s on the Hill are among the best at this, though I’ve noticed more bars and restaurants adding nonalcoholic sections to their menus.
This, Hampton says, is a boon for those who are participating in Dry January, or cutting back at any point in the year. “Don’t let sobriety keep you from socializing,” he says. “At first, the sociability that comes along with drinking was strange to adapt to, but I overcame that strangeness and still had a good time out with friends in bars while sober. The more you practice sobriety the easier it gets, both in duration and frequency. ”
As much as I actually enjoy taking a break from booze, I hate how easily and often I find myself lying to bartenders and servers about why I’m not imbibing that night. “I’m the designated driver” and “I’m on medication that reacts badly to alcohol” usually work because those replies cut off further conversation. If I tell the truth — “I’m doing Drynuary” — the follow-up question is probably going to be “What’s that?” followed by “If you’re not drinking, what are you doing in a bar?” And honestly, before the end of the first week, I’m just as tired of talking about it as people are hearing about it.
Columbia Room owner Derek Brown, who has been doing Dry January for seven years, knows about the social pitfalls of telling people you’re staying sober for a month. “People tend to rib you about it and try and get you to take shots with them,” Brown says. “I’m 43 years old now, I don’t really fall for that anymore. . . . These days, I value my mornings equal to my nights,” he says, because he gets to spend time with his young son.
The experience is different for everyone. DeBaun took a trip down memory lane on Google Hangouts. “Looking back on my chats during that window [in January 2016], by the eighth I was telling people, ‘I don’t recommend you play this game.’ Around the 20th, my wife was gone for nearly a two-week period, I had a few stressful days at work, and we had a major snowstorm. That was probably the low point because snowstorm drinking is top five in the drinking power ranking. There’s also this hilarious quote from the 21st: ‘I think Drynuary really ruined me for beer. I’m really just thoroughly uninterested in drinking.’ It’s fair to say that sentiment didn’t last forever.”
While approaches may vary, there are some general tips:
- Drinking a soda water with lime makes it look like you’re drinking a gin and tonic, which may help avoid questions.
- Tip your bartenders for sodas and water the same way you would for a beer or cocktail.
- Talk to people.
- Remember: There are other places to have fun in January outside of bars, too.
Most of all, don’t worry if you slip up, or decide to change the length of your hiatus. I know I’ve ended a few days early because there was a beer tapping I really, really wanted to attend. “It doesn’t matter,” Brown says. “It’s not a religion; it’s a practice.” (In fact, 2015 research from the University of Sussex showed that even people who don’t complete Dry January still drank fewer drinks and had fewer drunken episodes six months later.)
DeBaun isn’t participating in Dry January this year — “I have a 6-month old now and I’m not drinking as much as I was before he came along,” he says, but he’s glad he tried it. “It was encouraging to have a good time without beer at the same places I usually go to. The willpower it took not to reflexively grab a beer after work was also a good exercise. I remember vaguely feeling better at the end of the month. I wouldn’t say I felt like some paragon of health, but the 30-day absence of hangovers was a welcome addition.”