From Dry January to Fake Cocktails, Inside the New Temperance Movement

Many Americans are reconsidering their relationship to alcohol. But if we drink less, is that automatically a good thing? The Washington Post explores the new temperance movement.

Sober Curious

For a few years now, we’ve been hearing a lot about the fact that millennials and Gen Z drink much less than older generations, about the growing “sober-curious” movement, about large numbers of people reconsidering their relationship to alcohol, about Dry January, about the explosion of adult nonalcoholic beverages, about the legalization of cannabis and people choosing to go “Cali sober,” about the dubious wellness claims surrounding “clean,” “additive-free” or “hangover-free” wine, about mounting scientific evidence on the health risks of drinking, about how “alcohol is the new smoking.” Many in the drinks industry have figured this all might be a fleeting reaction brought on by the pandemic, but it’s starting to look more and more like a lasting cultural shift.

The New Temperance Movement

‘I’m not drinking right now.’ You don’t need to have a problem to take a break.

When I spoke with Boisson’s CEO, Nick Bodkins, a few weeks later, he told me that 90 percent of their customers still drink booze. “They’re rethinking their relationship with alcohol. They’re starting families, they’re taking nights off, they’re training for marathons,” Bodkins said. “We’re focused on the experience. Drinking is a social construct. There’s a drinking moment. We want to help people meet that moment. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg of what’s going to come out of this space.”

A number of big brands such as Budweiser, Gordon’s and Tanqueray have already moved into that space. There’s even a trade group — the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association — that launched in 2021 and currently includes 65 companies. The association’s statistics echo Boisson’s: Nationwide, 80 percent of those who buy adult nonalcoholic beverages still drink alcohol. I left Boisson having joined this demographic, with $119 worth of nonalcoholic wines, aperitifs, spritzers, beers and the Pentire Seaward in my shopping bag.

America’s Drinking Culture

Even though I have covered wine and spirits for 15 years, have written three books on booze and publish a newsletter called Everyday Drinking — in short, I have as much invested in America’s drinking culture as anyone — I support the idea of rethinking our relationship to alcohol. I’ve seen too many colleagues struggle with alcohol, some even dying prematurely. I have a family member who’s been in recovery for over 30 years. I have a brother who hasn’t consumed alcohol in two decades for religious reasons (and is a connoisseur of nonalcoholic beer). I’m genuinely happy when people find alternative ways to deal with the everyday stress in their lives, whether it’s therapy, exercise, cannabis, meditation, adaptogenics, fake gin or something else.

What Science Has To Say About The New Temperance Movement

In January 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deleted the dietary guidelines that said moderate drinking could lower the risk of heart disease. A few months later, the National Institutes of Health halted a major study meant to prove, once and for all, that moderate alcohol consumption had health benefits — after the New York Times reported that much of the $100 million budget came from five of the world’s largest alcoholic beverage manufacturers.

In September 2018, a bombshell study and commentary published in the Lancet asserted that “no level of alcohol consumption improves health” and cited alcohol as a leading risk factor in worldwide deaths. “These results,” said the study’s authors, “suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption.” Another study in the Lancet in 2021 said that 4 percent of global cancer cases in 2020 could be attributed to alcohol. Meanwhile, the position of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has become clear: Alcohol is unhealthy, and the more you drink, the higher your risk for myriad health conditions.

The Rise of Quit-Lit in the New Temperance Movement

Separate from science and policy, a slew of sober influencers and self-help books emerged during the late 2010s. First came “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace in 2015. “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” by Catherine Gray followed in 2017. Then, in late 2018, Ruby Warrington published “Sober Curious,” coining a term for the movement and giving people a new way to talk about what they were experiencing, a different path from declaring their problem drinking to be “alcoholism.” (I use “alcoholism” in quotes here because alcohol use disorder is the clinically preferred term now.) The following year, Holly Whitaker published a more pointedly anti-alcohol book, “Quit Like a Woman,” in which drinking is portrayed as useless, toxic and anti-feminist. Whitaker went on to publish an opinion piece in the New York Times with a headline that dismissed Alcoholics Anonymous as “The Patriarchy” and then raised millions to create Tempest, an online alcohol-counseling service geared toward women that costs $59 per month.

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Drinking Habits Are Changing

All of this messaging seems to be having an effect. In 2017, wine consumption shrank for the first time in more than two decades, and in 2021, according to a Gallup survey, just 60 percent of Americans reported drinking any alcoholic beverages, down from 65 percent in 2019 and tied for the lowest level in two decades. Not only are fewer adults drinking, but those who do are consuming less. In the same Gallup survey, Americans who drink said they consumed 3.6 drinks per week, the lowest level in 20 years. Google searches for the term “nonalcoholic” rose in both 2021 and 2022. Each year millions of Americans participate in Dry January.

In February, Silicon Valley Bank released its State of the Wine Industry Report, as it has for the past 21 years. Usually, this is a rather businesslike document — though recent editions have included a pronounced note of worry that millennials are not drinking as much wine as baby boomers do. This year, however, the report struck a tone of great alarm. The era of “neo-prohibition,” it warned, is upon us: “The anti-alcohol lobby continues to push an agenda … that starts by concluding that all alcohol consumption is bad and then backs into the research. The cumulative negative health message is eroding public faith in the science that proved moderate wine consumption was healthy.” The report added: “When will the wine industry show up to help promote well-researched, positive science on moderate consumption?”

The New Temperance Movement is About Choice

Focus on personal choice makes the sober-curious movement quite different from temperance movements of the past. As Elva Ramirez writes in her 2021 book “Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking,” “Whereas temperance-era churches and social organizations sought to mandate how entire communities should or should not drink, the impetus behind the neo-moderation movement is coming from individuals themselves.”

This is an excerpt from the Washington Post. Read the full article here. Jason Wilson writes the newsletter Everyday Drinking. He is the author of “Godforsaken Grapes,” “Boozehound” and “The Cider Revival.”