I’ll be honest: I was hoping for a beer.
Erdinger Alkoholfrei, Budweiser Prohibition, Grolsch 0.0 … hell, at this point, I’d even take an O’Doul’s.
“Do you have a non-alcoholic menu?” I ask the bartender in the swanky New York joint with a sheepish grin. His eyebrows shoot up into his hairline.
Travel comes with certain expectations. Have an open mind. Splurge on experiences. Let loose. And – more often than not – have a drink! After all, you’re on holiday.
For years, I was happy to comply. I’ve tasted Champagne in Champagne, drunk goon (Australia’s infamous box wine) while backpacking and tossed back doubles during after-hours post-business conferences across North America. Drinking can seem almost practical when travelling because it is a way of belonging, of knocking down social barriers. It can even appear to be an integral part of experiencing a culture.
When I made a personal challenge to go dry for one year (save for a two-week wine stint in South Africa and a glass of bubbly to celebrate my best friend’s engagement in Jasper, Alta.) I knew many aspects of my life would change. The travel situation worried me. After all, what’s Mexico without mezcal? Can it really be the same? Maybe not. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco, who blogs as Sober Senorita, gave up alcohol while living abroad in Cancun, Mexico. “It was hard, but I was able to [get sober] and found a whole new way to navigate that city. I did so much more and travelled around. I saw more archeological sites and did more things in the city that I had never done before because I was too busy going out to the nightclubs, pool parties and drinking.”
Planning a teetotaller trip does take some preparation, she acknowledges. “I look ahead when I’m travelling to see if it’s a party hotel, if it’s notorious for spring breakers or younger people and try to stay clear of those places,” Junco says. “I look for places that offer non-alcoholic options. Sobriety shouldn’t hold you back from travelling." She recommends knowing how to say “no alcohol" in the local language to be sure you don’t unwittingly get it in something you order.
Sometimes, I learn, destinations can surprise you. I have one of my best booze-free experiences in a city synonymous with beer – Guinness, specifically.
In Dublin, I spend a night at the Virgin Mary. The bar, which opened in May, looks, for all aesthetic purposes, similar to a classy cocktail lounge. And it is – save for one ingredient. This is the city’s first alcohol-free drinkery.
I order a Ceder’s Spritz. The refreshing, carbonated drink comes in a wine glass garnished with cucumber; it’s perfect to sip in summer. I also try a Sinless Nightcap: a zesty, smooth evening drink, mixed with dealcoholized red wine, whisky ice cubes and fresh orange peel.
Singles and couples unwind in the 500-square-foot space. Industrial copper lights and images of dark green flora adorn the faded brick walls. I sink into a beige leather booth. Candles flicker in yellow votives on every table, alongside menus featuring a selection of cocktails, beers, sparkling wine and other beverages – none of which will get you tipsy.
I catch co-owner Vaughan Yates working on his laptop, a pair of grey headphones strung around his neck. He’s wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt, jeans and sneakers. His cap reads, “Lone Wolf.”
“Dublin is saturated with drinking establishments that have alcohol,” he tells me. “My background is in the drinks industry. I kept coming across the term ‘no low’ – [beverages containing] no alcohol or low alcohol – so I thought it was the time to open a bar without alcohol.”
It helps that beverage companies are catching on to the booze-free market. Britain-based Seedlip is one of the leaders, bringing non-alcoholic distilled spirits to homes and bars across Europe, Australia and Canada, along with all Virgin Atlantic flights. Their offerings – full of botanicals and spices – are reminiscent of gin.
“Historically, the options have been poor,” Ben Branson, Seedlip founder and CEO, says about traditional mocktails. “They’ve been sweet, fruity and childish. It’s a huge surprise when you’re presented with something like a simple Seedlip and tonic. It’s in a nice glass, tastes adult, complex; it’s not just full of sugar or an afterthought. The world of hospitality is about giving people great experiences, and now we can give people not drinking the opportunity to feel like they don’t have to compromise.”
Unfortunately, not everywhere I went shared the same philosophy. Too many bars, restaurants and tours expect their patrons to drink and are inadequately supplied with substitutes. “We’ve got water, juice and pop,” are words I came to dread.
“From a psychological aspect, although it’s just a drink, it becomes a hugely symbolic and powerful reference point,” Branson says. “We are social creatures, you know. Human beings. And nobody wants to feel left out.”
When I find myself in the red-tinted basement jazz club in NYC, I’m half-way through my dry run. The bar doesn’t serve booze-free beer, but the menu does include three custom cocktails made with Seedlip. I pick one at random and take a sip.
Surrounded by well-dressed locals and travellers sipping from their own glasses, I realize I have no idea who is drinking what. And since we all have something elegant and sophisticated, it doesn’t matter.
Although I’m now transitioning back to the world of sunny patio beers and glasses of wine with dinner, I consume at a much more subdued pace – and I’ll be happy if I never have another hangover abroad.
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