With Young People Drinking Less, Are Booze-Free Bars The Future Of Going Out?

It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The typical cool-kid crowd that defines this neighborhood is jammed into a narrow bar with a pool table, neon signs, and plush wooden booths where couples and small groups gather. A band that sounds like MGMT but isn’t plays on the sound system. A bartender with a man bun and beard is vigorously shaking a metal cocktail shaker while a girl in a faux fur jacket loudly declares, “it’s gettin’ poppin’.” Basically, it’s your average night out in NYC. The only thing missing? Alcohol.
That’s right, I’m at a booze-free bar. But Listen Bar, a pop-up, has a decidedly different vibe than that concept often implies. While sober dance parties like the popular Daybreaker demand a naturally high energy level (not to mention an early wake-up call), and groups like Conscious Family Dinner suggest a degree of, well, consciousness about the decision to forgo alcohol, Listen Bar isn’t in-your-face or overly earnest about the fact that you won’t get drunk there. In fact, if you walked in off the street, you might not immediately notice that the artisan cocktails in everyone’s hand — which cost between $10-$12, and have names like “Leather Daddy” and “Spicy Titties” — are virgin. The menu centers on complex, flavorful, on-trend ingredients that feel exciting in their own right. One drink I tried, the “Dollar Slice,” tastes kind of like a spicy Bloody Mary. Another, called “Beer But Make It Fashion” includes CBD, the of-the-moment, marijuana-adjacent ingredient that won’t get you high but might help you feel a bit more chill.
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“There’s a lot of bars that offer that [alcohol-driven] experience,” says Listen Bar founder Lorelei Bandrovschi, who spoke to Refinery29 by phone. “So why not add in some that aren't built around alcohol? That means that we are for people who don't drink, and also for people who sometimes don't drink. Being non-judgmental is a really big part of it. Like, hey, if you're coming in hungover from the night before, that's cool.”
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Bandrovschi personally falls in the latter category. She says she drinks sometimes, but after a friend dared her to take a month off from drinking as part of one of those Sober October/Dry January challenges, she found it was a choice she liked making. “When I first explored not drinking, it was this weird combination of feeling like I don't need alcohol, but then feeling like, what else are you going to do?” she recalls. “It's a familiar ritual that everyone around you has been participating in it in the same way for so long. But then you realize that when you step outside of it, there’s that record scratch moment... I surprised myself with how much fun I could have without drinking.”
On the ever-growing list of things millennials are supposedly putting out of business, drinking ranks somewhere in the middle. While heavy-boozing culture is still alive and well in colleges and young professional enclaves around the world, recent studies and surveys suggests that millennials imbibe less than previous generations. A widely-reported study out of the UK, conducted by BMC Public Health and published this year, found that 29% of 16- to 24-year olds were non-drinkers in 2015, up from 18% in 2005. And even if we’re still boozing, many of us are going out less: A survey published this year from market research film Mintel noted that 28% of “young millennials” (people aged 24-31) prefer drinking at home to doing so in a bar or club.
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Whether or not these stats resonate with you personally probably depends on a host of factors. But among the crowd at Listen Bar, one point seemed to come up again and again: Even if you’re not sober, even if you like to drink sometimes — or even pretty often — it’s nice to take a break. It’s refreshing to be in a space where you can catch up with a friend, hear some music, and not have alcohol be part of the equation. Sure, there are coffee shops and restaurants, but those close early. Or you have to buy food. They’re also places where you’re less likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger, or find yourself suddenly belting out the words to some shitty pop song playing. Bars have a certain kind of magic — but is it possible to maintain that sense of adventure without the signature ingredient?
Listen Bar isn’t the only place that’s tried: The aforementioned early-morning dance party Daybreaker pioneered the concept of partying it up sans spirits, and others, like Ann Arbor’s Brillig Dry Bar, and a non-alcoholic cocktail space sponsored by the beverage company Dirty Lemon last year in Nolita have fleshed it out. Like Listen Bar, most seem to be short-term pop-ups, leading one to question how easy it is to turn a profit teetotaling.
“I think people are sick of having alcohol being tied to social life. People want to go out and they want to go places, but they don’t necessarily want to drink alcohol,” said 35-year-old Jess, an architect with a foot in the wellness field who was waiting at table to meet a friend. “I still drink, it’s still a social thing — you go to someone’s house, you drink wine — I don’t necessarily need to hang out with alcohol-free people, but the option should be open.”
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In the past, “not drinking” has been synonymous with alcoholism, and indeed, it’s easy to envision people who are in recovery being appreciative of a place like Listen Bar, where they can hang out with friends and not feel alienated from that classic nightlife experience. But many of the people on the scene seem to have a less black-and-white relationship with drinking, citing relatively mundane concerns like not wanting a hangover or feeling like it’s hard to form genuine connections when alcohol is the driving force behind the night.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
The proliferation of wellness culture also inevitably factors in. A few years ago, a booze-free bar might seem improbable in the so-called City That Never Sleeps, but thanks to the popularity of pricey pressed juices and exercise classes that double as places to see and be seen, there’s a reference point safely in place. Though, a lot of people are also turned off or intimidated by the wellness scene, which is why Listen Bar’s slightly grunge, decidedly un-Goopy vibe is so notable. It really is just a bar. At one point, I overheard a tall man telling a nearby woman: “I live in Williamsburg and I kind of have a go-to bar, but I think it would be cool to have a go-to bar that doesn’t involve booze.”
Bandrovschi admits that it can be easier to forgo alcohol in a bar situation when you’re a naturally outgoing person without many inhibitions to begin with. “I will be that person who's like the first one on the dance floor, stone cold sober no matter what,” she laughs.
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As for the rest of us? Well, there’s a reason they call alcohol a “social lubricant.” And while the place was, as my faux fur-wearing fellow partygoer so eloquently put it, “poppin’” early on a Wednesday evening, it’s hard to imagine what it might have looked like before closing time at 2 a.m. — though Bandrovschi says on the following Saturday night, there was plenty of dancing. Either way, Listen Bar and its ilk aren’t trying to be everything to everyone. They just want to be something to some people — and those people are not only growing in number, but also raising their voices about the nightlife experiences they crave.
While Listen Bar’s current pop-up series ended on October 27, hopefully, Bandrovschi says, there will be more to come. And then, there are also people like Jess, who admitted she was looking to Listen Bar as a case study for a space she’s hoping to launch — a venue focused on alcohol-free drinks made with ancient Chinese herbs that will also have a yoga and Qigong studio in the back. There are also a growing number of companies, like Curious Elixirs, attempting to bottle some of the Listen Bar vibe for at-home consumption. All the better for those millennials who prefer to drink — er, not drink — in the comfort of their own apartments.
“There is a little bit of the sense of like, oh my God, we're about to have this incredible social experiment that we all get to create together,” Bandrovschi says. Those who choose to participate in this social experiment will have the added bonus of being able to remember the whole thing.
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