It’s 6.30pm on a Friday evening and Spitalfields market in east London is filled with people of all ages, drinking, dancing and laughing. There’s the typical end-of-the-week “let your hair down and relax” feeling in the air. Only one of the usual ingredients to a weekend night is missing: alcohol.
This is Club Soda’s second mindful drinking festival (the first was in Bermondsey in the summer). Everyone from the cheerful crowds queuing to sample the Big Drop Brewing Company’s alcohol-free beer to those shaking their stuff at Morning Gloryville’s alcohol-free pop-up party seems to be having a blast.
“I already came down here at lunchtime and tried most of the drinks on offer,” says Lee, 33, who works in an office nearby. “It’s a great idea – I really overdid it on Wednesday so coming here and having a good time without drinking seemed like a good one.”
Hannah Suvanto, 35, a movement physiotherapist and dance teacher from Finland, agrees. “There is quite a big drinking culture in London so I thought it would be interesting to come somewhere where alcohol wasn’t on offer and dance,” she says. “I’ve tried some interesting drinks and people seem to be having a good time.”
The committed Friday night boozers spilling out of the pubs down the road might raise an eyebrow at that, particularly with the infamous excesses of the office Christmas party looming. But events such as this are increasingly popular. This might traditionally be the season to be merry but these days, and particularly among millennials, it pays to be mindful as well.
“The number of people either giving up alcohol or reducing their intake is definitely growing,” says Laura Willoughby, who co-founded Club Soda with Jussi Tolvi in 2015. “Yes, it’s partially that younger people don’t drink as much, but it’s also a case of older people cutting down. There’s definitely a sense that people are thinking, I can eat as much kale as I like, but it’s no good if I’m drinking five glasses of wine before bed. The idea behind mindful drinking is that you treat drinking as a special occasion and think about why you drink and how much. You don’t simply slug something down mindlessly in front of the TV.”
Drinking rates among British adults are at their lowest since 2005 a recent Office for National Statistics survey found that the proportion of people who drank alcohol at least once a week had declined from 64.2% of adults to 56.9% last year. Dry bars where no alcohol is served are increasingly popular, as are websites such as Soberistas and Club Soda. There are apps to monitor your alcohol intake, festivals, and, in a sure sign of changing times, luxury non-alcoholic spirit products that attract rave reviews.
Publishing has also been swift to get in on the act. The end of the year will see the publication of a host of books with titles such as Mindful Drinking, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, One Year, No Beer and The Sober Diaries.
“There is definitely a generational aspect to the change – millennials certainly don’t drink as much as we did when we were younger,” says Rosamund Dean, author of Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, due out at the end of December.
“They’re more health conscious and more interested in clean living. I would look around and see all the interns and junior staff members at work [Dean is the entertainment director at Red magazine] being super-keen, bright-eyed and energetic, and I kept thinking about how when I was an intern I would have to drag myself into work, I was so hung-over every day. It made me think that maybe it was time to change my drinking habits.”
She is not alone. “When I was in my 20s it was the era of the ladette, Ab Fab and Sex and the City,” says Clare Pooley, whose The Sober Diaries, a memoir inspired by her popular blog Mummy Was a Secret Drinker, is published in January. “All our role models drank like fishes and we thought that was the emancipated feminist thing to do. It’s just not like that for millennials, and I think partially because of that things are also starting to change for my age group as well.”
Journalist Hannah Betts, who has been sober since September 2014, agrees that alcohol abstinence is increasingly being embraced by Generation X women in their 40s and 50s, but she sounds a skeptical note about the sudden influx of books on the subject.
“There’s certainly a bandwagon element – not least in the overcrowded ‘new year, new you’ market. However, this publishing phenomenon does also reflect the huge numbers who are becoming sober or are sober-curious,” she says, adding that it is perhaps particularly strong at this time of year. “The excesses of the so-called festive season can be so hyperbolic that it produces a sense of revulsion whereby the last thing one wants is another drink.”
It helps too that the drinks on offer for the non-partaker are slowly becoming more interesting. While Betts still despairs of “the ghastly, sugary concoctions designed to appeal to children” offered at most pubs and parties, the mindful drinking festival showcases everything from botanical-based drinks to more homespun but equally addictive offerings such as Slange Var, a blend of honey, lime and ginger from Scotland, which its middle-aged creators came up with “to get out of the ‘drinking a bottle of wine every night’ slump”.
“In the past, the type of non-alcoholic drinks on offer were terrible – you just got stuck with warm orange or Coke,” says Mustafa Mahmud, the man behind inventive Walthamstow-based Shrub drinks, which mix botanicals such as lime and juniper berries with apple cider vinegar and water to create flavour-filled drinks with a kick.
“Just because people don’t drink alcohol doesn’t mean that they don’t want something sophisticated that cleanses your palate.”
That said, it is still not always easy to be the sole non-drinker in a crowd. Pooley has not drunk for three years but admits that mentioning her sobriety can still be awkward.
“You tell people you’ve stopped drinking and the conversation grinds to a halt,” she says. “If you say you’ve given up smoking, everyone says well done. Going gluten-free or giving up sugar is trendy, but say you’ve stopped drinking and everyone just goes ‘ooh.’”
That’s less of a problem for the crowd at Spitalfields, most of whom are happily comparing different drink options and stocking up for alternative Christmas drinks, or in early preparation for dry January.
“It’s been interesting trying the drinks, and a very different experience because London’s not really a city for the sober,” says Koran McAuliffe, a 29-year-old data analyst. “Some of them were pretty good, although to be honest we’ll still probably go on for a drink once we leave.”