Hip and sober: the mocktail generation

Campaigns such as Dry January and Sober October promote abstinence from alcohol. The movement is gaining traction with young adults with campaigns such as Mindful Drinking and Sober Curious.

Placebos are designed to avoid the stigma of 'OMG, you're not drinking'

Toronto bartender Joel Savoie prepares an alcohol-free placebo cocktail. In his repertoire are placebos called Dark Dawn, Red Nomaro tonic and That Thing. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Toronto bartender Joel Savoie sets his ingredients on the bar and mixes the first of many drinks he'll prepare for his patrons on a muggy summer evening.

The drink, a golden concoction called spiced tepache, is mostly fermented pineapple husk. The spicy part comes from a dried-up worm, the kind you find at the bottom of a bottle of mescal. It's used to salt the rim. Missing from the ingredients is alcohol. There's not a drop of it in the glass.

"We will generally sell more alcoholic drinks than non-alcoholic drinks," says Lavoie. "But people who come here for placebos are excited."

The bar, called PrettyUgly, is one of many drinking establishments in Toronto offering a selection of mocktails, or placebo cocktails, as they're called here.

"The whole idea about the placebo program is to integrate those drinks within the menu so people won't be pointed out as 'OMG, you're not drinking'. Because all of a sudden that segregates that particular clientele," says Evelyn Chick, the bar's general manager. So far the bar is offering six non-alcoholic drinks. 

Bars are increasingly catering to patrons who are abstaining from alcohol, says PrettyUgly's general manager Evelyn Chick. The Toronto bar serves placebo cocktails as an alternative to the real deal. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Sobriety movement is growing

The World Health Organization says 2.3 billion people are current drinkers and global consumption is expected to increase in the next 10 years.

And a recent study in the Canadian Medical Journal offered some sobering statistics on emergency department visits in Ontario hospitals. It showed a dramatic rise in visits because of alcohol, especially by young women.

As imbibing rates increase across the world, some bars in Canada have created non-alcoholic drinks for abstaining patrons. Campaigns like Dry January and Sober Curious encourage people to take a break from alcohol. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

In the face of a growing imbibing culture, some young adults are going sober, or at least cutting back on the booze. On social media, established campaigns like Dry July and Sober October extol the virtues of abstinence. Campaigns like Mindful Drinking and Sober Curious have also created popular catchphrases. 

"People are always trying to find ways to resist alcohol and keep it out of their lives or minimize harms," says Prof. Tim Stockwell. He's the director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. 

Can't afford to get drunk

"There's a trend around the world of younger people drinking less and more people abstaining," he says. Cultural trends like Sober Curious and Mindful Drinking are a reflection of that. Stockwell doesn't believe the campaigns are a fleeting fad.

"They really have influenced the culture and created more opportunities and made it more possible for people to choose to be abstinent."

Stockwell believes the driving force behind this is economics. Young adults have less disposable income and are "up to their ears in debt. They can't afford to to be out of their brains anymore," he says.

Ryla Parker and Graham Gibb are social drinkers but are trying out "placebo" cocktails at a Toronto bar. Teetotaller nights and non-alcoholic drinks are gaining popularity as more young adults embrace sobriety. (Craig Chivers/CBC )

The internet is changing everyone's behaviour, he adds, creating an environment where people are more mindful and careful in what they say and do and try to be more in control of themselves.

Even abstaining from alcohol for a short period has health benefits, he says. "There's evidence people sleep better. Their mental well-being improves. They take more exercise. They look after themselves better, and they tend to be happier."

At PrettyUgly, Ryla Parker and her friend Graham Gibb have popped in after work. The 20-somethings are self-proclaimed social drinkers but are giving placebo drinks a shot.

"You don't always want to get drunk and have a hangover the next day," says Parker. Gibb agrees. "It's nice to get out and drink after work without feeling the effects the next day."


Kas Roussy

Former CBC reporter

Kas Roussy was a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting took her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.


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