Credit: Laura Hayes

D.C. is the next stop for a national roving pop-up bar that doesn’t serve booze. Sans Bar was founded in Austin by addiction counselor Chris Marshall. He teamed up with Bethesda resident Laura Silverman for the D.C. event on May 4. Like Marshall, Silverman is in recovery and runs the blog The Sobriety Collective. But Sans Bar is “not just for 12-step fellowship,” according to Silverman.

“We’re tapping into the momentum of the full sobriety spectrum,” she says. “That encompasses everyone from hardcore recovery people and straight edge people who’ve never had anything before to the sober curious and our pregnant friends who want a night out without feeling like they’re the party pooper.”

Some people who drink might just want a night off. “It can appeal to everyone who wants a chill environment that fosters authentic connections with fun things to do and no pressure to drink if they don’t want to,” Silverman continues.

In addition to an open bar of spirit-free drinks like a rosemary ginger mule or lavender lemonade there will also be tarot readings, a DJ, and a marketplace for sampling made-in-D.C. products. Sans Bar runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at The Viva Center, 1731 Connecticut Ave. NW. General admission tickets are $35. VIP tickets are sold out. 

Silverman believes more Americans are interested in staying sober, at least some of the time. “There’s just a lot of buzz now, forgive the pun, about all of this,” she says. “I think it’s the right time, but it’s been brewing for a while.” The Atlantic and Bon Appétit both explored the topic in the past two months. The latter article focuses on new products such as an alcohol-free distillate called Seedlip that’s already become a plaything for bartenders who make mocktails. 

Vox also recently explained the term “sober curious.” The article focuses on a new book by Ruby Warrington, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol. It looks at cutting back on booze as part of an overall trend toward wellness. “There’s a huge movement of holistic health coming to the forefront,” Silverman concurs. “Yoga, juice bars. It’s becoming trendy to be healthy.” 

Bars can either balk at the trend or get on board. “It’s a conversation that I don’t think is being respected by enough bartenders,” says Himitsu co-owner Carlie Steiner, who is also behind forthcoming Petworth bar Dos Mamis. “I spent so much of my bartending career getting disappointed when someone didn’t want to order a cocktail. I get excited to make cocktails. When someone orders a seltzer, you think, ‘Oh man, bummer!’”

Then there’s the financial considerations. “I think that it’s also easy to look at people who are not buying cocktails as someone who’s not spending the same amount of money at your establishment, but I’d argue the responsibility is on us, the creative people. We didn’t give them anything to purchase besides juice and soda.”

Steiner’s done an about face and just developed a menu of spirit-free drinks that she plans to offer across all of her businesses starting June 1. She calls it “Sobrio.” “It’s not just for people who are sober all of the time, but people who want to be sober for a night,” she says. “People who want to continue to party and hang out with people but don’t want to wake up with a hangover.” View the full menu at the bottom of this post.

Another market force that may be driving Washingtonians to order less alcoholic drinks is the popularity of cannabis, used either medicinally or recreationally. “A lot of our generation is drinking less,” Steiner says. “I would argue that weed is a huge component of that. I think there are a lot of other legal alternatives that don’t make you feel terrible in the morning and aren’t necessarily as bad for your liver.”

Forbes reported in 2018 that states with fully legal marijuana, “where adults 21 and older can walk into a dispensary and purchase a variety of cannabis products, experienced 13 percent less binge drinking than areas of prohibition.” 

Steiner plans to make some of the ingredients for her mocktails herself, such as a virgin vermouth. She’ll take verjus (the juice from pressed unripe grapes) and add herbs and other aromatics to achieve the same flavor profile. “I would be more prone to skipping a drink every other drink if I could get a non-alcoholic drink that was thought about the way a cocktail was thought about,” she says.  

Mocktails are landing on D.C. drink menus with greater frequency. Newly opened Seven Reasons on 14th Street NW offers three options: Guava papaya limeade; the “Día Morado,” with fresh pineapple, Chicha Morada, lemon, and ginger ale; and the “Rhubabu Y Naranja” with fresh orange juice, rhubarb, tamarind, and tonic flavored with Indian spices. 

Middle Eastern cocktail bar The Green Zone serves three mocktails in addition to three other non-alcoholic drinks—fresh-squeezed orange juice, Barbican raspberry malt soda, and Turkish coffee. The mocktails include the “Royal Jallab,” flavored with jallab (a syrup made from carob, dates, grape molasses, and rose water), pine nuts, raisins, and pistachios; mint or cucumber lemonade served frozen or on ice; and “Qamareddin and a Half” made with tangy apricot soda. Owner Chris Francke says a number of the bar’s alcoholic drinks can be made virgin, too.

“So many of the flavors present in the cocktails at The Green Zone reflect flavors found in the traditional and highly popular non-alcoholic drinks of the Middle East,” Francke says. “In much of the Middle East, ‘cocktail’ refers to a mix of fresh juices as found at ubiquitous street-side juice stands, so we offer fresh-squeezed orange juice year round and pomegranate juice in season. Many of our guests love our vibe and our food, but don’t drink. We’re more than happy to provide them with delicious, well-craft non-alcoholic options.”

Sobrio’s menu: