Everyone is getting sober now; you’re gonna love it. It’s the coolest.

This is a recent text in a group chat from a friend—someone who has been sober for years, and is one heck of a bartender. They are currently running a bar and said they’re a better bar manager than ever.

Bar prowess aside, is my friend right? Is drinking passé?

I am starting to think that it is. My daily doom-scroll usually has some clickbait article about how “Doctors Say One Drink A Week Causes (insert chronic illness here).” Somebody has to be clicking on those, or they would stop.

We all know bars aren’t health clubs by now, don’t we? Bars are fun; drinking is fun, right? We accept the risks. But what if there was another way?

It’s pretty well-accepted by those of us in the industry that the generation born after 1996 (call them what you like) is more sober than Millennials, Gen X and the Boomers. I have had many a conversation with my comrades in the industry who mourn that the “kids these days” are prudish people who tribally sit in large groups—with maybe half of them having a drink, and nobody having a second. It’s not just in this country; things are similar throughout developed “Western” nations, according to the BBC.

It’s staggering to think that, according to the article, the largest portion of young Europeans polled (legal drinking age to 39), at 27%, drinks only once a month, while the largest group of their American peers, at 25%, drinks only once a week. Publications and other news sources, from Vice to The Guardian, have pieces on how sober is cool. Any bar program worth its salt these days has a mocktail section, not just a faux-jito. An alcohol-free “spirit” won Spirit of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail conference recently. Sober people can show off their teetotaling with brands like “Sober Is Sexy” while doing NamaStay sober yoga and posting it on #SoberTok. Drinking is cultural—and the culture is clearly shifting.

I grew up in the Boston area, and I can’t think of anyone I grew up with who didn’t drink, at least on occasion, and many of my childhood friends are still heavy drinkers. Drinking at my prestigious Catholic alma mater was so prevalent that it wasn’t until my early 20s that I even considered sobriety. One day in my 23rd year, I went cold turkey—high on my own superiority and throwing cash by the handful from my first bartending job into coffee cans and books. About a year later, a piña colada at a Scottsdale resort was the end of that, and the “party train” became a bullet train for more than a decade. Sure, I would take breaks—a month here, a week there—but I spent most of my 20s and 30s bloated and hungover, or worse. I have to say: Part of me really envies the “kids these days.”

It’s pretty well-accepted by those of us in the industry that the generation born after 1996 (call them what you like) is more sober than Millennials, Gen X and the Boomers.

So what changed things with this generation? One easy answer, of course is the pandemic: A lot of people turned 21 while stuck inside and celebrated with a Zoom party. While the Millennials got “vaxxed and waxed” for the short-lived “Roaring 20s,” the younger ones didn’t have the blurry but fond memories to coax them into risky situations. Even, I, your intrepid drinker, went dry for most of a year. I didn’t miss drinking much, to be honest, and the only downside was that I began making really embarrassing TikToks about philosophy or spirituality or something. When I began drinking again, I still avoided bars—except for maybe once a month.

Recently, as I moved on from one job and got ready for another, I decided to use the break to try sobriety again. These are my honest thoughts, now that I am back behind the stick again with more than a couple of dry weeks.

Bartending sober is more fun. Not many jobs tolerate, or even encourage, drinking on the job these days. I’m not sure how those guys in the ’60s and earlier got anything done, to be honest. But bartending is different. You don’t even realize you’re drinking sometimes; it can just become as natural as breathing, if you’re in the right (or wrong) place. This doesn’t mean the bartender is getting “drunk,” but it’s rare at many places to not have a drink or two during the course of a busy (or extra-slow) shift. However, when alcohol is completely out of your system, you don’t need that “shot of courage” as much, ironically.

I have less temptation to drink because of my job, not more. Some of my favorite bartenders back in Boston are sober—some with decades of sobriety. Having done stretches that way myself over the years, it makes sense. Even one drink makes the buzzed person at the bar seem pretty normal. When you are free from the substance, that person is downright silly, and the drunk guy walking in the door is, frankly, pitiful. The shots you just poured for the bachelorette party look like straight poison, because they are. The sober bartender sees through the glamor of the party and is comfortable in their own skin. 

I don’t feel “stuck” bartending. I’ll be real here: Aging as a bartender (or a server, a cook, or anyone in the industry) is tough. You see your friends move on in life to more “stable” careers. You feel the aches and pains more; the hangovers take you out harder; and you realize that many of your “friends” are young enough to be your kids. (Yes, that explains my knowledge of hashtags on TikTok, if you were wondering.) It’s really easy to feel like you’re stuck in the mud sometimes. But in just this short time, I already feel like the sky’s the limit—in the industry or out of it. I have so much more energy.

I didn’t get all of these benefits when I would stop drinking for a week, or a month, when I had a date when I planned to go back to boozing. This time, it is an experiment in living sober, not taking a break. It’s not a “rock bottom” penance; life is great; and I want to actually enjoy it for what it is and not through a shot glass, darkly.

So, yes, my sober bartender friend, I do love it—and maybe the kids are alright after all. Just don’t go getting ideas, the rest of you: A guy’s still gotta make a living!

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant and the co-owner...

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