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Why the “sober curious” movement is gaining ground in Canada

Sarah Kate loved wine. The avid runner, communications professional and mother preferred cold-climate Chardonnays and Barolos from Italy. But at the start of 2020, she realized her interest in wine had turned into three to four glasses a night.

She did not feel well. She realized that her children understood what she was doing to herself. She tried to cut back and found it difficult to moderate her intake. So, at the start of the pandemic, she challenged herself to dry herself for 30 days. She was blown away by how she felt: clearer, happier and present.

“Our society really never goes there,” she says. “You only know you should have a drink…because that’s what people do.”

That summer, a friend offered her non-alcoholic gin. It was called Sobrii and was made in Stratford, Ontario. The non-alcoholic beers and wines she had tried so far were not her thing. Other drinks seemed juvenile, such as juices and soft drinks. A spirit substitution had tasted like “awful water”. But this liquid in his glass smelled of juniper and ginseng. The first sip was a revelation: it tasted like an elevated adult experience.

“Somebody over there cares what people who don’t want to drink drink,” she remembers thinking. “I realized we could be included.”

Dry January is a popular time for Canadians to cut back on their alcohol intake, but more and more people are reconsidering their alcohol intake throughout the year. A Statistics Canada survey in early 2021 noted that while 24% of respondents were soaking up the pandemic more, 22% were slowing down. (There has been a notable increase in hospitalizations for alcohol-related chronic illnesses in Canada during the pandemic, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.)

British journalist Ruby Warrington popularized the term ‘sober curious’ when she explored her ‘difficult’ relationship with alcohol in the 2010s. Talking to friends and family, she realized she was not not alone. People didn’t necessarily see themselves as alcohol dependent, but felt that their drinking was problematic, she writes. And it was hard to talk about it in a culture soaked in alcohol.

Warrington, who has lived in the United States for a decade, published “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol” in 2018.

Sober curiosity does not necessarily mean abstinence. The idea is to be honest about how alcohol affects your life, she says.

When she started exploring her habits, there wasn’t much to fill the void: mostly non-alcoholic beer and “expensive sugary non-alcoholic cocktails,” she wrote in an email. Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirit from the UK, was heralded as a pioneer in the field when it launched in 2015. The industry has since exploded, which “removes another barrier…for people who want to stop or reduce,” she wrote. .

Canadians spent $9.4 million on non-alcoholic spirits in 2019, and in 2020 that figure rose to $22.9 million, according to market research by Euromonitor. That’s a small fraction of the $6 billion in alcohol consumed by Canadians in the fiscal year that ended March 2020, but it’s growing rapidly. In February, the LCBO will offer non-alcoholic spirits for the first time – Seedlip Grove and Tanqueray 0.

Sarah Kate created the Some Good Clean Fun website in 2021, a year after embarking on a “drink-free lifestyle”, posting news, recipes, reviews and links to online marketplaces. Pageviews went from hundreds to thousands. She began appearing on television as a soft drink sommelier. She and a friend ran a pop-up shop for a few days in December at the Beaches, and they had to re-order almost everything after their first weekend.

At the Cocktail Emporium in Toronto, they only had Seedlip in the non-alcoholic spirits category five years ago. Now there are so many to choose from that they can’t stock them all.

“We had to add more shelving,” says general manager Lauren McNicol.

Bob Huitema, the founder of DisstillX Beverages, the maker of Sobrii, grew up on a farm outside of Stratford. Renovating his Toronto home in 2017, he enjoyed a cocktail after a long day, but didn’t like the hangover. He tried non-alcoholic spirits and thought he could do better.

Huitema is a do-it-yourselfer with a background in beverage industry marketing and sales and a love of chemistry. He says the growth of the non-alcoholic spirits market is not driven by technical advancements, but by an overall push towards wellness – a growing acceptance of veggie burgers and non-alcoholic beer by people who ate steak and drank beer, in addition to those who abstained. The quality and variety of products help to “ignite growth”.

Huitema partnered with Niagara College’s Research and Innovation Division in 2018 to experiment with an alternative to gin, focusing on mouthfeel and flavor intensity. (Huitema has paid for his services and retains 100% of the intellectual property.)

It started with gin for a reason. Spirits like whiskey, tequila and vodka are strongly dominated by an ethanol taste. “We can put on a bit of a burn, but the taste of ethanol is unique and hard to replicate,” he says. Gin is botanical, so there’s more flavor to work with.

At a Stratford distillery, the DisstillX team steeps botanicals in alcohol to maximize flavor extraction. They distill this mixture to remove almost all the alcohol. (A level below 0.5% is considered “alcohol-free” in Canada and the United States, says Huitema.)

Flavor molecules prefer alcohol to water, so Huitema had to figure out how to make the flavor stick with the water.

It launched alcohol-free gin Sobrii in fall 2019 and recently added an alcohol-free tequila – hoping to capitalize on America’s craving for margaritas. Although there is no age requirement for drinking it, Sobrii only markets to people over the legal drinking age. “The logic is that we’re targeting people who are already drinking and who may be ‘sober and curious’,” he says. Ontario’s Liquor License and Regulation Act does not apply to beverages containing less than 0.5% or less alcohol by volume.

Non-alcoholic spirits are generally not meant to be sipped neat. They rely on mixers like tonic or ginger beer to replace the burn of alcohol, says Nick Meyer, director of marketing at Aburi Restaurants Canada.

As Beverage Manager at King West’s Minami in the fall of 2020, he mixed Sobrii with blackberry syrup, muddled sage and strawberry and topped it with tonic water. It was a rei and a tonic – rei being the Japanese word for zero.

He was surprised how well it worked, especially with a $12 price tag. (A 750ml bottle of Sobrii costs $35, which is similar to the cost of alcoholic gin.)

Huitema was on Dragons’ Den in the fall of 2021, giving the dragons a non-alcoholic gin and tonic. Everyone wanted a deal. In its last fiscal year, it achieved sales of $300,000, mostly online, with the support of retailers like Well.ca., Pusateri’s and Cocktail Emporium.

The next frontier is the grocery chains, which have been reluctant. They want more data.

“I keep kicking the box,” he says.

Why the “sober curious” movement is gaining ground in Canada

Not all offerings try to replicate a spirit, says Sarah Kate of Some Good Clean Fun. Some companies try to create their own “high” mixes for cocktails.

“What can you put in a drink that will help you feel good, relax, and, you know, have a hangover-free experience?” she asks.

Leanne Kisil, a former professional hockey player and business graduate, created a line of elixirs called Solbrü in 2020. Kisil quit drinking when she studied holistic nutrition a few years ago.

To make her alcohol-free elixirs, she blends herbs, apple cider vinegar, spices and other natural ingredients, including mushroom extracts used in herbal medicine to increase energy and brain function. (The drinks don’t taste like mushrooms — the other ingredients balance out the earthiness, she says.) The response so far has been great. Made in Winnipeg, its four essences are available in the United States and Canada.

Amy C. Willis, a sobriety coach in Toronto, never liked the taste of alcohol, so elixirs are her favorite adult drinks.

“She’s very intentional,” she says of Kisil. “It’s kind of like a category on its own.”

Having lots of options is important in a society where alcohol consumption is so entrenched.

“Alcohol has become this drug that demands an explanation when you stop drinking it,” said Willis, who quit drinking five years ago. She became a certified sobriety and mindset coach after she started speaking out about her problems with alcohol. Many women reached out because they felt the same thing: alcohol wasn’t serving them, but they didn’t know how to stop.

“We drink when we’re sad and we drink when we’re happy and we drink because it’s Tuesday,” she says. “So having a more normalized experience of socializing and not drinking is one of the strengths of soft drinks.”

Katie Daubs is a Toronto-based Star reporter and feature writer. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs