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Toronto’s Sobar Social Club offers pop-up mocktail events. Its founder says she saw the rise in ‘sober-curious’ lifestyles across Canada as an opportunity.Prevalent Focus/Supplied

Around this time last year, Renesha Monaco gave herself a challenge: go 12 months without drinking alcohol.

“I wanted to see what it would be like to celebrate my birthday without popping a bottle of champagne and relying on getting drunk to have fun,” she says. Tired of feeling hungover after big nights out, she hoped to retain more memories of special occasions and wake up feeling fresh.

Though it was a personal goal, Ms. Monaco realized that she wasn’t the only one looking for alcohol-free ways to socialize. According to Statista, Canadian alcohol consumption has decreased 8 per cent since 2008, with millennials drinking less than previous generations and Gen Z-ers reducing their intake even more. As a result, alcohol sales have declined across the country, while the sale of low- and no-alcohol alternatives, from beer to spirits, is on the rise.

Many of the businesses at the heart of urban nightlife are taking note. And as Canadians reimagine their relationship with booze, restaurants, bars and clubs are starting to question the future of cities where drinking is no longer the trend, nor the linchpin for socialization.

For Ms. Monaco, this change in tide looked like an opportunity. In July, she founded a mocktail pop-up event series called Sobar Social Club. The launch party coincided with Beyoncé's Renaissance World Tour stops in Toronto and featured Bey-inspired mocktails, performances by a Beyoncé drag queen, a giant silver horse for photo ops, a photo booth, DJ and prizes for the best-dressed guests.

“People rely on booze to make events fun,” Ms. Monaco says. “If you’re not drinking, you need something else to occupy yourself. I like to have a theme and activities.”

In January, she hosted her second event: Toronto’s Mocktail Competition with six mixologists competing to create the best zero-proof beverage. More than 500 people bought tickets.

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For some Canadian venues, the opportunity to provide a range of options for shared experience is a positive.Prevalent Focus/Supplied

Large, purposefully alcohol-free parties like Ms. Monaco’s are still relatively rare in Canada, but the concept of sober nightlife is gaining traction around the world. In 2023, California music festival Coachella announced its first alcohol-free beverage partner and offered #soberchella camping sites. Alcohol-free bars have started popping up, like The Bandbox in Orlando, Bevees in Port Coquitlam, B.C. and Sobar in Kelowna, B.C. Toronto wellness space Othership even hosts “evening socials,” where people can congregate with friends in the saunas and ice baths – sans alcohol.

“Throughout the Americas, cities are hosting museum nights, bookstore nights, bicycle nights,” says Will Straw, a professor of Urban Media Studies at McGill University and pioneer of an emerging field called “night studies.” “In a place like Mexico City, for example, where people were afraid to go downtown, these kinds of events create a safe experience. There’s a sense that we’re upgrading the night by making it more cultural and educational.”

Meanwhile, governing bodies in Canada have also started to recognize nightlife’s importance to a city’s lifeblood. Toronto has had a night economy ambassador since 2019 and Ottawa is on the hunt for a nightlife commissioner to help grow economic development between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Toronto and Montreal are considering 24-hour nightlife zones and, despite an overall decline in drinking, some business owners are advocating for 24-hour alcohol licences, saying it would put Canadian cities on par with hubs such as London, Paris and New York.

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“On the one hand, there’s this real push to open up the night,” Dr. Straw says. “At the same time, all these other factors are making it more and more risky to open businesses.” The slow shift in drinking preferences in particular may feel like an unwelcome change for establishments where alcohol consumption is the primary focus. “Bars are increasingly seen as difficult to sustain. There are a bunch of new microcinemas that have popped up in Montreal. My students go to those. They go to karaoke where they might drink, or they might not. You have to diversify what you’re offering.”

For some Canadian venues, the opportunity to provide a range of options for shared experience is a positive.

“I lead an alcohol-free lifestyle. It’s newer to me over the last year and a half,” says Makina Labrecque, a regional bar manager and cocktail developer at Concorde Entertainment Group, which is a major player in Calgary’s hospitality industry with destinations such as Major Tom, Model Milk and Sweet Loretta. “It was a personal mission for me to make all our menus more inclusive.”

She started by extending the drink menu of Calgary’s Lulu Bar, which opened a Toronto outpost in January, so that the alcohol-free list is as long as the cocktail list. The drinks rely on quality ingredients, tasty alcohol-free spirits and immaculate presentation so that customers can barely tell the difference between an alcoholic cocktail and a mocktail.

Inclusive drink menus are not just better for consumers who want to socialize on their own terms, with or without alcohol; they’re also good for business. “When you have a big alcohol-free selection, you’re building sales,” Ms. Labrecque says. “People that would just be drinking water or pop are now ordering an $8 to $14 alcohol-free cocktail.”

Cactus Club Cafe, which has dozens of locations across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, saw the writing on the wall several years ago and created their own extensive no-alcohol cocktail list with customer favourites such as the Dolce Vita Spritz (made with de-alcoholized wine), No-groni (a zero-proof version of a Negroni) and Little Pearl (a refreshing spirit-free cocktail with bubble tea pearls).

“Cactus has been around for almost 40 years and we’ve seen our guests through many shifts,” says Sam Zavari, director of bar operations. “We’re embracing the opportunity to explore our spirit-free beverage offering, get creative and focus more intentionally on this vertical within our industry.”

Mr. Zavari believes the sober-curious movement is a “substantial and growing community that is here to stay” and will only continue to expand over the coming decades as Gen Z and subsequent generations occupy a larger share of the market.

If he’s right, cities would do well to invest in their sober nighttime economies. After all, a good nightlife scene is crucial for urban tourism and “is a sign that a city is dynamic and exciting,” Dr. Straw says. “If there isn’t nightlife in a city, you tend to think the city is dead in every other way.”

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