I ring the bell outside an innocuous Brooklyn storefront, its windows obscured by frosted glass. The door creaks open, and I’m ushered into a crowd of revellers.
As a psychedelic space-rock duo strut their stuff on stage, I sneak past a curtain in the back where a bartender is slinging up spicy margaritas, elderflower-infused champagne cocktails and citrusy spritzers. She tells me I should start with the No 3: a Cucumber Collins-esque concoction spiked with alpine herbs, flowers and ashwagandha, a purportedly stress-reducing medicinal herb. I oblige.
Sipping my drink, I survey the room: it’s just like any other “speakeasy” I’ve stumbled into in New York. Except for one glaring detail: it doesn’t serve any alcohol.
This stop at Club Curious, a monthly, soon to be weekly, fête put on by booze-free cocktail company Curious Elixirs, is the latest of many in my “sober curious” journey.
My relationship with alcohol has followed a familiar course: college days funnelling down cheap beer in the Florida sun, espresso-martini-fuelled nights traversing Manhattan in my early twenties, and a more recent proclivity for mezcal.
I’ve certainly cut back in recent years, as one does when hangovers begin to feel less like minor inconveniences. I washed my natural wines down with plenty of water and green juice the following morning. But the post-party symptoms few people talk about would be waiting for me nonetheless: anxiety and depression.
What I did know is that I was tired of having them. And, as it turns out, I’m not the only one looking to shake things up. Around 80 per cent of the clientele at Sèchey, the non-alcoholic bottle shop that recently opened its second branch and a speakeasy, in New York’s West Village, don’t consider themselves sober, says founder Emily Heintz.
“It’s more of a drink-less crowd than a sober crowd,” a Sèchey retail employee tells me as her colleague pours me a cup of something that looks — and smells — suspiciously like a gin and tonic.
The taste is something new altogether. Mixed in with the bitter tonic is a shot of Bax Botanics’ Verbena spirit. It’s layered, floral, citrusy and bright. There’s thyme, fennel and a long, zingy finish that lingers on the tongue like a little hug.
The point isn’t to mimic the taste of gin, hence the lack of juniper. This is what’s known as an alternative spirit, a grown-up beverage that can hold its own.
For those seeking something closer to the real thing, there is no shortage of curiosities. GinISH, an alcohol-free brand from Copenhagen, distils, steams and extracts its botanicals to create the taste of a classic London dry and recreates the burning sensation of alcohol by extracting the heat molecules from the shells of chilli seeds.
The multiverse that is non-alcoholic wine is just as fascinating. There are de-alcoholised versions, aka wine that started as wine to begin with, with the alcohol removed after fermentation. There are also alternative blends, which contain herbs, spices, vinegars and other natural ingredients to mimic the taste of wine — ideal for teetotallers who want to keep things truly zero-proof. Even after the de-alcoholisation process, some buzz-free brands can still contain up to 0.5 per cent alcohol by volume.
Then, of course, there are “functional spirits”. These include beverages infused with CBD (cannabidiol), as well as a range of libations containing ingredients known as adaptogens, a buzzword in the non-alcoholic world. It really just means plants and mushrooms with supposed health benefits, such as helping the body to manage stress.
The science isn’t exactly there. I’ve been trying a bunch over the past few weeks (holy basil for relaxation, maca as a mood-booster, the aforementioned ashwagandha) and playing a fun game of, “is this actually making me less stressed, or am I just less stressed because I haven’t been hungover lately?”
The day after my visit to Club Curious, I was walking my dog past a shop on Bedford Avenue that I must have passed countless times before, but hadn’t noticed. It’s another booze-free bottle shop, Boisson. I grab a Phony Negroni, made by Brooklyn distiller St Agrestis. As I crack it open a few hours later, my friend asks me if I’ve ever heard of Absence of Proof.
“Funnily enough,” I said, “I just got off the phone with her.” The “her” in question is Elizabeth Gascoigne, the woman behind the non-alcoholic pop-up bar in New York. Soon, in a sign of how small the sober-curious world is, Absence of Proof will be opening up a residence in the speakeasy below Sèchey, every Friday evening in January.
While the world of entrepreneurs in the space is still tight-knit, the scene is attracting partygoers from all ends of the “sober-curious spectrum”, says Gascoigne. “Maybe Friday night they went out drinking and on Saturday night they’re, like, I don’t need to drink tonight whatsoever.”
Launching a non-alcoholic bar has attracted its cynics. “You get malicious comments: sometimes a one-liner like ‘you’re boring’ or ‘you’re lame’, and I think, I just kind of have to brush this aside because there’s nothing I can do about that,” she says.
“We’ve stabilised to about 100 people per night,” says Gascoigne, adding that she has been fielding requests for events in other cities.
Absence of Proof’s menu is ever-evolving, with alcohol-free takes on espresso martinis, spicy margaritas, lychee martinis and whiskey sours. No matter what the mocktail, though, a nagging question persists from social media hecklers and the sober curious alike: why would I pay cocktail prices for a drink with no alcohol?
Ticketed events solve that problem for now — patrons pay for the experience of a night out with bottomless mocktails, rather than the drinks themselves.
At Hekate, a witchy little sober haunt in the East Village, it’s the experience, not just the mocktails, that keeps customers coming back. “People go to bars for community, they go to get out of their apartments . . . there’s a million reasons,” the bar’s owner Abby Ehmann tells me. “I thought, well, if you don’t drink, where do you get to go?”
Named for the mythical goddess of magic and spells, Hekate exists in a realm of its own. Tarot readers, psychics, artists and musicians frequent its barstools. The crowd is unsurprising, in a way. What’s more countercultural today than not drinking alcohol?
Potions include the Devil’s Night (Lyre’s Apertif Rosso, Lyre’s Prosecco and aromatic bitters) and The Healer (Apothekary’s Blue Me Away, lemonade, seltzer and lavender simple syrup).
Ehmann, who owns another joint across the street, isn’t in the nightlife game to make a fortune. “If you go to my regular bar, there’s no Southern Comfort, no Jack Daniel’s, no Anheuser-Busch and no televisions. All those decisions are designed to turn away 85 per cent of business. Know what I mean? I’m just not a very good capitalist,” she shrugs. For those that are, there’s money to be made ushering sober curiosity into the mainstream.
“We’ve had Diageo approach us at least four times,” says JW, Curious Elixirs’ founder who moonlights at its Brooklyn speakeasy as the resident party purveyor. The multinational behind Gordon’s gin, Smirnoff vodka and Baileys Irish Cream has been hot on the heels of the non-alcoholic movement, buying majority control of gin alternative Seedlip in 2019. A 700ml bottle costs around $32.
For now, Curious has turned down advances from deep-pocketed suitors, including Budweiser owner AB InBev. A more pressing focus is to land itself on more menus, JW tells me. “Our mission is to transform how we drink socially . . . and that will take generations to achieve. The right partners at the right time can help that.”
The company’s elixirs are already served in Michelin-starred haunts, including New York’s Cote and Daniel, and The French Laundry in Napa Valley. “We’re trying to explain to them that they’re just leaving money on the table,” says JW. “One in eight Americans doesn’t drink . . . they’re thirsting for something extraordinary.”
We’re standing at the bar at Club Curious as I ponder what to order next. I settle on No 8, a rich, bittersweet blend of blackberry, blueberry, fig and adaptogenic mushrooms (reishi, chaga and lion’s mane) that demands to be sipped slowly. Blackstrap molasses gives it an inky, acidic sweetness.
JW pulls out a remote control that looks like it’s from the 1980s and tells me to press the “8” button. Something explodes behind us. He laughs gleefully. I would be surprised at the antics, except I just saw a man put methane-filled soap bubbles in his palm and set them alight.
I wonder for a second if the mushrooms have got to me, before realising that I’m just surrounded by people who seem to have this whole having-fun-without-alcohol thing figured out. JW is no stranger to mainstream nightlife, though.
In 2010, he helped launch The Whiskey Brooklyn — a place that still plays host to many a debaucherous night — and also invested in Williamsburg’s Output, a popular techno nightclub that shut down in 2018.
One particularly raucous night out, he tells me, he consumed around 20 drinks and woke up, still being able, to his surprise, to function. He felt alarmed at how used his body had become to the stuff.
So began the self-described cocktail nerd’s voyage into the alcohol-free space. He began tinkering in the kitchen in an attempt to recreate his favourite drinks, including one inspired by the Blood and Sand (a classic blood orange and Scotch combo from the 19th century) and a Cocoa Puff Old Fashioned from Miami’s Broken Shaker bar. The non-alcoholic reincarnation has smoked cherry and chocolate, with cayenne and American oak to imitate the gentle burn and smoky aftertaste of whiskey.
I ask him how one produces oak extract without alcohol. “That I’ll never tell,” he grins.
A few days later, I’m at a friend’s holiday party, sipping on something of my own creation that is one part Optimist Botanicals’ Fresh — an herbaceous blend of juniper, cilantro, tangerine, and habanero among others — pomegranate juice, and some egg whites for a little foam.
Glasses of Lambrusco are passed around. I find myself craving the tiny bubbles and deep cherry notes, wondering whether a non-alcoholic version will hit the market any time soon.
It’s only a matter of time.
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