The New Way Women Are Doing Dry January

Women aren't just cutting out alcohol, they're replacing it with fizzy, sparkling, and in some cases, straight-up dope alternatives.

Sober January

What started as a small campaign in the UK back in 2013 exploded into a millions-strong international movement. Fast forward to 2020, and Dry January is as much a part of the holiday season as candy canes and cookies.

But giving up alcohol for 30 days has its challenges: According to research published in Health Psychology, a third of people who attempt Dry January fail to make it the whole month without a sip of alcohol. Perhaps that's why 21 percent of Americans told YouGov in a January 2019 survey they thought Dry January was a good idea — but had no plans to commit themselves to the endeavor.

That might change this year, as the sober curious movement paves the way for alcohol alternatives that, for once, don’t suck. “It’s always easier to break a habit when you replace it with another enjoyable activity,” says Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Newport Academy, a rehab network with locations across the country. Of course, ideally, that activity is better for you, not worse. “Find relaxing hobbies that don’t involve drinking, like reading, yoga, meditation, or exercise,” she says. “Or try a flavorful ‘mocktail’ that has no alcohol.”

If the idea of replacing a rich, complex Cabernet or perfectly peppery Syrah with reading (which, for the record, is very nice with a glass of wine) makes you roll your eyes so far back into your head you’re practically tipsy already, then oh, I hear you.

To be clear, I don’t have an alcohol “problem,” but I like it. And up until recently, I truly believed that hard beverages added to my life, not subtracted from it: I’d frequently catch up with friends over a bottle of bubbly and a plate of cheese, and I’d often cap off a long day with a TV show and a glass of wine with my husband. While I still believe the social and take-the-edge-off benefits of drinking are very legit for people who enjoy responsibly, the habitual nature of my cocktail orders started to bother me: I almost always got a drink at restaurants ($$$), and increasingly, I’d pop a bottle as a reaction to stress, not as a way of celebrating something special.

“Drinking alcohol can definitely be built into your daily or weekly schedule in such a way that it’s a reflexive, automatic thing to do on a regular basis,” says Mahima Saxena, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “If that’s the case, then you need to make deliberate choices to break your habit.”

The Rise of the Mocktail Scene

The good news is, those “deliberate choices” might be easier to make this year. For one, the mocktail market has exploded: There’s Getaway Bar in Brooklyn, Redemption in London, and Sans Bar in Austin. Plus, fizzy, alcohol-free drinks are hitting store shelves like crazy, and in fact, the non-alcoholic beer market is predicted to exceed $24 billion in the next four years.

This includes brews by California-based Athletic Brewing Co, which makes zero proof IPAs and ales that taste shockingly good for their lack of bite; Hoplark “craft-brewed hop tea” that comes in energizing black tea and calming chamomile, among other varieties; and BRWD, an energy drink with caffeine levels slightly less than a cup of coffee, made with unfermented barley for a beer-like flavor without the buzz.

For more of a mixed-drink vibe, there’s also Kin Euphorics, featuring a "cocktail" of adaptogens and botanical extracts in liquor-like bottles (tag line: “All Bliss, No Booze”); and Minna Lightly Brewed Sparkling Tea makes a tropical green tea that tastes like a Bellini.

Notably, some of these sips contain hemp and CBD. Mad Tasty and Recess serve up fizzy drinks with a dash of hemp extract, and the sparkling drink Sprig is infused with 20mg of CBD. I can vouch, it’s a lot easier to forgo the gentle, soothing pop of a wine cork when you have the refreshing spritz of a CBD can, still signaling that relaxation is on the horizon.

How Sobriety Got “Cool”

This trend coincides with other cultural shifts: To start, the Goop-ification of the health world makes us want to glide on air with an effortless internal glow, not stumble around barstools, red in the face. And boutique fitness classes encourage everyday Janes to channel their inner Rhonda Rousey on a daily basis. I mean, what are you doing with your morning if you’re not pushing speed 10 on the treadmill, riding among flameless candles in SoulCycle, or swiping your nape hair out of a pool of sweat mid-Bikram class? It’s a lot harder to tap into this supercharged, super-fit world when you’re hungover, or even out a bit past your bedtime.

In other words, our hobbies were a lot different back in modern-day drinking’s heyday, when, unlike today, it was cool to be athletically challenged. See: the gym class scene in Clueless, in which Amber’s “plastic surgeon doesn't want [her] doing any activity where balls fly at [her] nose;” and Sex and the City, where the most sweating the cosmopolitan-guzzling crew ever did was a Central Park power walk that abruptly comes to a stop when Miranda runs into an ex and Carrie breaks out a pack of cigarettes.

But We Still Have Our Vices...

If martinis and cigs were our go-tos in the 90s and early 2000s, smoothies and weed are the glory substances of 2020. That last one is a big deal: With increased access to cannabis, so many women are swapping booze for marijuana that there’s a term for it: “Cali sober.”

Take Bex, a 38-year-old living in New York City, who never goes out without her pot travel pack, complete with gummies, THC mints, weed paper, a small bowl, and a roach clip. “Alcohol tends to make me emotional and sentimental, but weed helps me stop over-thinking and enjoy the moment,” she says. “I love eating a gummy before I go out, then cutting back on drinks.” The other selling point for Bex: “This is a huge money saver,” she says. “One night of drinking easily costs $50 to $100, and I usually spend that much a month on weed even though I smoke every night.”

Flic Everett, author of the new book, How to Be Sober and Keep Your Friends, has stuck to a more traditional definition of sobriety for the last two years, but she still makes some trades to stay the course. “Wine was a huge stress-reliever for me, and it was the hardest part of quitting,” she says. “I needed something to mark the transition from work to home, so I discovered alcohol substitutes like Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirit, and de-alcoholized wine. It was about the ritual more than the alcohol content, so having a fake gin and tonic with my partner after work was really relaxing.”

Even still, our culture’s newfound liquor shade isn’t just about having more access to alcohol alternatives, conscious-altering ones or otherwise: it’s partially in response to new research. Recent studies have made us more skeptical about cheersing in the name of a longer lifespan.

“There’s strong data showing that alcohol is a risk factor for several types of cancer,” says Christina Dilaveri M.D., director of the Breast Diagnostic Clinic at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. (A new Japanese study indeed links increased drinking to an increased risk of cancer.) Experts haven’t quite pinned down the mechanism behind this buzzkill connection, but it may be because alcohol creates free radicals when broken down, which can damage DNA. “If DNA is damaged as cells divide, they can turn into cells with uncontrolled or abnormal growth,” Dr. Dilaveri says, a.k.a. the definition of cancer. (FWIW, Cali sober peeps, we still have a lot to learn about the potential downsides to regular weed and CBD use, too.)

Alas, all the trends and studies in the world still don’t make it easy to break a long-established habit. “Habits can become hard-coded in the brain, part of the reason it can be so hard to break them,” Nosal says. “Brain neurons become stimulated at the beginning and end of a new behavior, so you can form new patterns over time.”

Conveniently, Nosal notes that it takes up to three weeks to break those habits long-term, just under the duration of Dry January. But with sobriety becoming a more balanced, year-long quest, it makes you wonder, will Dry January fall to the wayside as we catch up with friends at a Barry’s Bootcamp class and rely on alcohol less by our day-to-day lives? I, for one, have already had a drier-than-usual December, adding Kin cocktails and La Croix to my beverage rotation, thus cutting my wine consumption in half. But regardless of what you call it — Dry January? semi-dry 2020? — smart swaps are still the key to sticking it out long-term. Commit to your favorites, and you might just reveal your inner Gwyneth this year, or at least save a few bucks.

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