Eating & Drinking

The Dry Tide: Inside Ottawa’s alcohol-free movement

I was 20 years old when I tried intentional sobriety for the first time. It was on doctor’s orders, and I had just moved to work in Spain, where it was often cheaper to buy wine than a bottle of sparkling water. I was surprised by how nervous I became at the thought of navigating all that unfamiliarity without an occasional drink. Initially, I would awkwardly explain to new acquaintances that I couldn’t drink; then I learned that sipping on a glass of soda water with a slice of lime helped avoid any peer pressure or perceived judgment. 

Since then, I’ve worked at a craft brewery and moved in with my partner — a trained sommelier who also bartends, brews, and is constantly creating new concoctions for me to try. All to say, I like alcohol and there’s a lot of booze around me. But recently my attention has been drawn back to the buzz around the non-alcoholic drinking culture. Is it becoming more fun to be sober in Ottawa? 

Sarah Parniak has also noticed an increased interest in sober-curious consumers. Having spent her entire career in and around the beverage industry, she now works as the Canadian market manager for Seedlip, the first distilled non-alcoholic spirit on the market. In 2017, when she was first presenting the U.K.-based product to bartenders and restaurateurs on this side of the pond, many responded with “What’s the point?” Now the distillate of natural botanicals and extracts (think peas, hops, spearmint) is a fixture in top restaurants and bars around the world. 

The alcohol-free lifestyle includes a new focus on booze-free cocktails, which often feature botanical infusions. Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia

With a pretty label and flavour profiles reminiscent of complex gins, Seedlip is meant to elevate the nonalcoholic drinking experience. Parniak points out that folks avoid alcohol for all kinds of reasons — permanently, for cultural or health reasons, or just temporarily to be that night’s designated driver. “The very point of the product was to invite everyone to the party.” 

A non-alcoholic drink doesn’t have to mean ginger ale in a champagne flute, and the category of zero-proof beverages has grown in credibility. Here in town, both Atelier and Alice, restaurants known for their inventive tasting menus and wine pairings, have offered non-alcoholic pairing options — called Placebo Pairings at Atelier and Alternative Pairings at Alice. 

Parniak names Zoe’s Lounge, the bar inside the Château Laurier, as having some of her favourite non-alcoholic cocktails in the city — and Seedlip is on the menu. Jake Moffat, the restaurant manager at Zoe’s, credits featuring Seedlip cocktails on the menu with a jump in sales of non-alcoholic drinks. “It used to be that only kids would have the alcohol-free drinks,” Moffat says. “When we truly started investing more time in our development of these cocktails, demand followed.” 

Zoe’s isn’t the only bar in the city to offer non-alcoholic cocktails, but many restaurants don’t list them on the menu. In Parniak’s opinion, not putting these options in writing is a missed opportunity to create more inclusive spaces. 

Bailey Reid is the voice behind Unanonymously, a podcast about the sober life. In one episode this spring, Reid and co-host Yamikani Msosa ask a more pointed question: “Is it worth staying sober in the apocalypse?” 

When we first met this past winter at Fairouz, she enjoyed a Barbican non-alcoholic pineapple beer and I sipped on The Crimson Maiden (a tart and foamy concoction of pomegranate, apple juice, and fig syrup). Reid, who works in sexual-assault services at Carleton University, says a particularly bad hangover almost three years ago spurred her to try sobriety for 100 days. She hasn’t looked back. While people often frame sobriety as a type of deprivation, Bailey says the only things she’s depriving herself of these days are the anxiety and the shame that accompanied hangovers. “I’ve gained so much in sobriety,” she says, citing better sleep, overall health, and connections with her friends and family. 

Reid dove into sobriety by listening to podcasts on recovery and engaging with the subreddit r/stopdrinking, an online support group to control or stop drinking. She’s been very open and public about her sobriety and has found that several people in her own social circles are on a similar path. One of those friends is Msosa, who became sober five years ago and has become increasingly comfortable speaking about it in the time since. Msosa found socializing around people and alcohol a challenge, but over time, she says, it has become easier. “When people ask why, I’m able to confidently say, “It doesn’t work for me,” and no one really questions it.

The two teamed up to start Unanonymous, discussing sobriety and feminism — both women see plenty of overlap between the topics. Msosa says sobriety and alcohol use are connected to systemic oppression faced by marginalized populations; Bailey flags the marketing around women and alcohol as problematic. Together, they want to share challenges and counter stigmas around abstaining from alcohol. “You can live a really full and beautiful life and be out in the world and socialize … and not drink,” says Reid. 

Jessie Duffy echoes that sentiment. Sobriety is both a personal and a professional matter for her: her role as owner of Arlington Five coincided with her transition to sobriety. She said not drinking has been “shockingly easy.” After decades in the service industry, Duffy feels support from her former colleagues when she does not accept a drink. With a business to run and a toddler at home, she felt she had too much to lose to hangovers and blurry nights. “My behaviour was becoming increasingly destructive.” 

Amid the pandemic, Duffy has reintroduced “a little bit of booze” into her life but says she is glad she quit drinking last September because it has helped her remain in control. She credits this control for her ability to manage the stressful days of being a business owner and a single mom during the pandemic, especially as she transitions her café into a social enterprise to help feed underserved folks in the community.” 

Before the pandemic, Arlington Five would often host events in the evenings, so the decision to forgo a liquor licence wasn’t an easy one, as booze sales are often key to most restaurant and event spaces. But Duffy and her team wanted to flip the narrative. The coffee shop is an intentionally dry space helmed by Kyle Ratchford, who has worked for Happy Goat coffee and Sloane Tea and now operates Cortado Culture, a mobile coffee operation. Ratchford combines his passion for coffee and tea creations with the same principles that go with making any good cocktail: balancing flavours and using quality ingredients. 

When this article was written, there were no parties or bars to navigate with a seltzer in hand, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to keep things dry — the loss of routine and other coping mechanisms have made sobriety at home difficult for many. There’s no question the tide is changing. In the three years since she’s been sober, Reid has noticed an uptick in products catering to sober drinkers. Along with the explosion of the wellness industry, Parniak says, the rise in the sober movement is more than just a flash in the pan. “People are feeling a lot of freedom and empowerment to choose their own lifestyle.”