“There’s nothing awkward about not drinking”: a Q&A with the co-founder of Toronto’s new alcohol-free happy hour

“There’s nothing awkward about not drinking”: a Q&A with the co-founder of Toronto’s new alcohol-free happy hour

Photo by Jennifer Rowsom

More Booze-Free Stuff

A few months ago, Toronto writer and producer (and non-drinker) Liisa Ladouceur gathered a group of friends for a night on the town minus the tipple. The informal sober hang has evolved into Abandon, a monthly hooch-free happy hour series located at bars around the city. The next one is February 12 at the Melody Bar in the Gladstone Hotel. Here, Ladouceur tells Toronto Life about the rise of quality mocktails, her goal to normalize not drinking and why dancing sober isn’t such a big deal.

What prompted you to start up this monthly sober drinking session?
Well I didn’t initially think it was going to be a monthly event. I’ve been a non-drinker my whole life—I’m straight edge. When I was in my 20s, I was the only person in my group of friends who didn’t drink. Now in my 40s, that’s no longer the case. I have friends who aren’t drinking for a whole variety of reasons. Just because you don’t drink alcohol doesn’t mean you can’t go out in the city and have a good time—and that’s the idea behind Abandon. In the fall, I went with a group of friends to Pretty Ugly. They’ve been doing Placebo Cocktails for a few years now. It was a big success and my friends and I realized there might be a wider interest in this kind of thing. Abandon is basically happy hour for people who don’t drink—it’s happy hour without the hangovers.

You say the event is for people who are sober for one night or forever. Does the crowd tend to be more of the former or the latter?
It’s really a mix. You get people who are trying to drink less, and people who are recovering from alcohol addiction. At the last event, one of the people there was three years sober. There are also people who have health conditions, who are pregnant, who are athletes in training. One of my goals is to raise awareness about the fact that there are so many reasons why a person might not drink. And also that nobody needs to explain why they don’t.

Is that something you’ve been asked about a lot over the years?
It’s just one of those things when you tell someone you’re not drinking, suddenly they want to ask you a lot of questions. I’ve had guys get mad when I didn’t accept their drinks at a bar. I’ve had waiters go sour on me when they realize I’m not going to order a bottle of wine with my meal.

At the risk of impertinence—is there any particular reason drinking never appealed to you?
I’m happy to answer. The point is not that people can’t share their stories—just that they shouldn’t have to. Like I said, I’ve been sober for my whole life. There was alcohol in my house growing up, but it never interested me.

You were never swayed by the siren song of peach schnapps in your teenage years?
I was a bookish kid, I didn’t feel the kind of peer pressure that you see in after-school specials. I started going to nightclubs on all-ages Sundays where they didn’t serve alcohol. That was my introduction to dance clubs, so it never occurred to me that you couldn’t dance if you weren’t drinking. Not drinking hasn’t stopped me from staying up until 2 a.m. to watch a band, or even from visiting the Guinness factory when I went to Ireland.

You mentioned one of your goals was normalizing not drinking. What are the others?
I want to normalize the act of ordering a non-alcoholic beverage in a bar that serves alcohol. So far, we have been hosting the Abandon events at bars and restaurants that have alcohol-free options on their menu. Any good bartender can make you a mocktail if you ask for one, but I want to support the places that have made a point of treating non-drinkers like any other customers.

Speaking of mocktails: what makes a great one?
What’s important is that they’re more than just cranberry and soda—or a margarita, hold the tequila. A great mocktail is designed with a flavour profile and with quality ingredients. Someone has crafted it the way they would any other signature cocktail, and often there is even more creativity involved. A martini or a Manhattan—those are pretty well-established recipes, but when you get a really good mocktail, chances are it it’s a bartender’s original creation.

Current favourite?
I don’t have one favourite, but I love the Dante’s Detox at Luma in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It’s got jalapeño and ginger beer in.

“Abandon” can be interpreted in a few different ways. Is it abandoning preconceived notions? Abandoning inhibitions? Abandoning booze?
The multiple meanings are intentional. I didn’t want a name with that contained the word “sober” or “teetotal” or “temperance” —or any other word that was about giving something up. Abandon is about embracing the freedom of abandoning yourself to something new.

Some people use alcohol as a social lubricant. Is it ever awkward to be sober with a bunch of strangers at a party?
I think the whole point is that’s there’s actually nothing awkward about not drinking alcohol. We’re coming up to Valentine’s Day, and I’ve had people say that they wouldn’t want to date somebody who doesn’t drink because they wouldn’t know what to do with them. I think that’s pretty sad. This is the age of consent where it’s about really talking to people and getting to know them—and not just getting them drunk so they’ll go home with you. Abandon is a great way to practice that. In terms of awkwardness, you can always talk about the mocktails and which ones you like best. I consider myself the host of Abandon events, so I definitely go around introducing people and helping to start conversations.

Any chance of an impromptu dance party?
We haven’t had that happen yet, but I’m definitely open to it.