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“I used to take wine very seriously. Now I want to do the same for non-alcoholic drinks”: A sober sommelier on braving the holidays without booze

“I used to take wine very seriously. Now I want to do the same for non-alcoholic drinks”: A sober sommelier on braving the holidays without booze
Photo courtesy of Sarah Kate

For a lot of people, hooch and the holidays go together like ginger and bread, but according to sober sommelier Sarah Kate, it’s time to rethink how we drink. After swearing off alcohol, the former marketing executive started reviewing alcohol-free drinking options for her website, Some Good Clean Fun. “I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life drinking sparkling water.” And, thanks to an explosion in the alcohol-free beverage market, she won’t have to. Here, she shares her eggnog recipe (all of the bite, none of the hangover) and explains why the Harry Potter books are surprisingly boozy.

You’ve been called a “sober sommelier,” which, to some, might sound like an oxymoron. Can you explain the title? I taste and review wine and spirits—only the ones I am writing about don’t contain alcohol. The title I prefer is “non-alcoholic drink sommelier,” just because there can still be a lot of stigma around the term “sober.” People hear it and they assume an extreme, rock bottom kind of story that isn’t going to be relatable to everyone. I am promoting alcohol-free drinking to anyone who is interested. You don’t need a label—or even a reason—to choose an alcohol-free drink over an alcoholic one.

Of course, although it used to be that, if someone wasn’t drinking, people would assume they were pregnant or in recovery or observing a religious restriction… Or they had an illness. Yes, that was definitely the case, but now I think there’s a growing understanding that people don’t drink for all kinds of reasons. The other day I heard about “zebra striping,” where you go back and forth between a boozy drink and a non-alcoholic one so that, by the end of the night, you’ve consumed half as much alcohol. And then there’s the whole “sober curious” movement—people who are reevaluating their relationship with alcohol. They’re bringing “dry-secco” or alcohol-free craft beer to a party and they’re not hiding it—they’re actually sharing it online. Social media has really democratized the sharing of information. There used to be a lot of gatekeepers who were invested in controlling the message around drinking.

Still, it seems like a good portion of social media is praying at the altar of #roséallday Oh, definitely. It’s cool and sexy, and this is what moms do—we grab a glass of wine when we get home from our long day at the office. That’s my story. I was working in communications and marketing, and over time my after-work glass of Chardonnay became four glasses. I was feeling like crap all the time. But the messaging we’ve received is that, when you wake up feeling like, “Oh, I’m so hungover,” that’s something to laugh about. Don’t even get me started on how drinking is portrayed and discussed in popular culture. When I first stopped drinking, I happened to be reading a Harry Potter novel to my son. I started using sticky notes to track the references to alcohol, and there were 70 in one book! What are young people taking away from that? What’s being normalized?

So you stopped drinking. Then what? I knew I wanted to make the change, but at the same time, I wasn’t willing to spend the rest of my life drinking sparkling water. I started playing around with things I had in my kitchen, and suddenly I was making my own shrubs—

Sorry, shrubs? Like plants? No, no—shrubs are non-alcoholic drinking vinegars, sort of like cordials. You make them by mixing vinegar, sugar, fruit and water. I had taken some wine courses when I was still drinking, so I knew a bit about the chemistry of it. I made a mango-jalapeno shrub that was delicious but also very time consuming, so I started looking for decent store-bought options. The timing was perfect. This was early 2020, and the market had exploded with zero-ABV craft beers, premium wines and spirits that actually tasted like their boozy counterparts. I started a newsletter, and eventually my website, to share my discoveries and tell others where they could find these drinks in Toronto—and also to share my alcohol-free lifestyle in a way that is really positive and inclusive. I liken it to when veganism was going mainstream—it’s like sharing delicious vegan recipes with people rather than scolding them for eating meat.

Was that market explosion driven by the pandemic? People tend to attribute the explosion to the pandemic—a reaction to the fact that a lot of people came out of lockdown wanting to cut down on their alcohol consumption. That’s part of it, but I think things were in the works even before all that. Our society has become a lot more health-and-wellness focused—Gen Z is drinking a lot less than previous generations. They’re smoking a lot of weed, though, which is a whole other story.

Non-alcoholic wine tends to get a bad rap. Is it getting better? Absolutely. Most of the options at the grocery store are still not amazing just because those particular ones are made with low-quality ingredients, but there are a lot more premium options now, and a lot of them are really good if not excellent. I have so much wine in my house right now waiting to be reviewed. It’s going to take me until April to try it all.

As an alcohol-free sommelier, is your approach similar to that of a typical somm? When I review a wine, I start with two questions: Does it have a chemical taste or smell? Which can be a thing with alcohol-free wine. And does it taste like grape juice? Not that there’s anything wrong with grape juice, but that’s not how wine should taste, alcoholic or not. I just poured a $50 bottle of sparkling down the drain because it tasted like Welch’s.

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Fifty bucks for a bottle of alcohol-free bubbly!? That particular bottle was French, though—I don’t want to share the brand name because I just trashed it. There’s a misconception that alcohol-free beverages should be cheaper, but it actually costs extra money to remove the alcohol. Normally you’re going to spend between $20 and $30 for a bottle. And, ideally, you’re still getting a lot of the best parts. Premium non-alcoholic wines have tannins and sophisticated structures. And there are blends that you don’t often see with boozy wine. The other day I tried a Merlot–Pinot Noir, which you would never get in the regular wine world. The Merlot carried that really deep flavour, and the Pinot had such elegance. You could taste the memories.

You sound like a perfect wine snob—and I mean that in a good way. Ha! Back when I was drinking, I took wine very seriously, and I want to do the same for the non-alcoholic stuff. This is a legitimate industry. People are doing great work, and there are stories to tell.

The holidays are a pretty alcohol-heavy season. Got any advice for those trying to brave the next few weeks without booze? You need to bring your own drinks to the party. I can’t emphasize this enough. Sipping a special drink is part of socializing at holiday parties. If all you’ve got is sparkling water, you’re going to get FOMO. I’ve got a great recipe for eggnog, which has always been my absolute favourite drink to sip on while trimming the tree. I came up with an alternative to the Sailor Jerry’s recipe—it combines alcohol-free amaretto, a dash of alcohol-free bourbon for some of that bite, almond milk, a dash of cream and some nutmeg. It’s delicious.

And you’re guaranteed not to be the person wearing a lampshade at the holiday party. Exactly. You can still make the Irish exit, but you won’t be wasted.

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