Alcohol free Christmas: how to go sober at the work Christmas party

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Hannah Keegan
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With the mindful drinking movement still on the rise, what does that mean for the party season?

This Christmas is unusually busy for Redemption Bar, a non-alcoholic, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan restaurant in London. The menu is the same (fermented nut cheeses, kimchi, burgers made from mushrooms and quinoa), as is the bar (ashwaganda and rosehip tonic, charcoal ‘martinis’ in delicate glasses). But the customers are not. Women who once rolled their eyes at these kinds of places are walking in and considering the rose water. So, too, are the corporate parties.

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“It’s been huge. Requests for corporate events and Christmas parties have doubled this year,” says Catherine Salway, founder of Redemption. “Companies are telling 
us they suggested no-alcohol in previous years and around 50% vetoed it, whereas this year maybe only 10% did. And we expect this trajectory to continue.” Whether that sounds like bliss or Dry January come early, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Might this be the year to hold off on the mulled wine?

The ‘sober curious’ movement has been A Thing for some time. In 2017, a survey looking at adult drinking habits in the UK revealed that people between the ages of 16 and 24 were less likely to drink than any other age group, while 20.4% claimed to be teetotal. According to the The Diageo Drinks Report 2019, 46% of those aged under 35 are likely to order a mocktail on a night out. 

It started with events. Club SÖDA (Sober Or Debating Abstinence) began hosting parties and panels in New York in 2016, followed by similar UK set-ups such as Sober Is Fun comedy nights across London and Essex. Then came books: Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington, Mindful Drinking by Rosamund Dean, How To Be Sober And Keep Your Friends by Flic Everett and, of course, the online communities, such as Sober Girl Society and the meme account @fucking_sober

In the States, app Loosid connects users with a “tribe of like-minded individuals” to make sober friends, date and travel, while New York-based British writer Ruby Warrington hosts sober retreats in Massachusetts for people who “want to create a sustainable shift in their lives”.

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But has this infiltrated Christmas party season? Are we all for the buzz without the booze? Retailers and advertisers certainly think so. Diageo, the world’s largest maker of spirits, recently upped its stake in Seedlip, the non-alcoholic spirit, to a majority share. In London, 55% of restaurants now provide a choice of alcohol-free options, according to insight consultancy CGA.

Earlier this year, Heineken 0.0 launched a £6million campaign “to make alcohol-free beer cool”. And forget wine. Water sommeliers are springing up in hotels and restaurants around the world, such as The Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Park Hyatt in Shanghai, to impart their knowledge of pH balance, depth, region and – if you would believe it – food pairing (for the record, still water is apparently good with seafood and soup as it doesn’t overpower the dish, while lightly effervescent water goes well with poultry, according to the Fine Waters Society).     

It doesn't count if you just sniff it, right?

Social conscience

From our own perspectives, the shift to more sober Christmas parties seems like a natural next step. After all, the boozy work lunch is already long dead. This year a 2016 YouGov survey found 60% of people thought drinking at lunch on a work day was unacceptable. Probably because we only spend 31 minutes at lunch, according to Glassdoor.

Nor do we care for an all-inclusive booze cruise or a week partying abroad, either. Thomas Cook, the owners of Club 18-30, a travel company founded in the 1960s to offer package holidays to young travellers, retired the trips last year suggesting they no longer fitted with the desires of today’s consumers. 

Excess no longer seems to be in our vocabulary – in both our personal and professional lives. Am Golhar, 34, founder
 of Abstract PR, still enjoys a drink but in moderation. “I’ve become more aware of what I’m putting in my body, my mental state and
 how it’s going to make me feel the next morning,” she says. “I still love a glass of red wine from time to time, but being focused without a fuzzy brain is more my lifestyle.” 

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As well as giving up this party season, we are also starting to give back, with charity becoming a focus of the Christmas do. Events company o3e, who work with the likes of Coca-Cola 
and Google, specialise in team-building parties, where guests earn gifts for a chosen not-for-profit. “This year, we have three blue-chip companies due to take part in charity bike builds and our philanthropic challenge because they want a Christmas party with purpose,” says Elly Isaac, project manager.

But when the focus isn’t drinking, what is there to do? Well, we want to be entertained, says Rosalind Shelley, managing director of events company Story Events. “Escape rooms or immersive games are often requested as part of an overall brief,” she says. “Fewer companies are also opting for extensions to finish later. And when it comes to providing non-alcoholic beverages we have to be more creative – lemonade doesn’t cut it any more.” 

This is something Matteo Vanzi, food and beverage manager at the Bulgari Hotel, is aware of. “Our client’s knowledge about non-alcoholic options has changed, and so too has the specificity of their requests,” he explains. “Rather than being the sales people, we’re having to tailor our offering to what the customer is asking for.” At their bar Nolita Social, a dimly lit haunt in west London, the Green Mule is having a moment. It’s made of Seedlip, a non-alcoholic gin, cucumber and pepper water, lime and ginger beer. “It’s a healthy drink,” says Vanzi. “And you can drink
a lot more than you can with Coca-Cola.”

Elsewhere, at Fugitive Motel, a restaurant, bar and workspace in east London, green vines hang from the ceiling, a sign reading ‘Find Your Freedom’ sits above the bar and the crowd often leans towards the non-alcoholic options. This Christmas, their party package involves alcohol-free sparkling wine, kombucha and beer, and activities like shuffleboard. “It’s popular with companies because it takes the pressure off drinking,” explains co-founder David Burgess. “There’s a huge amount of corporate risk with taking your team out and getting them sozzled.” 

Would Christmas dinner be the same?

At psychotherapist Francesca Moresi’s practice in west London, it’s a dilemma that comes up regularly. “Clients will tell me they want to cut back or stop drinking for a while, but they struggle massively at work events: the dinners, the drinks. And then there’s the endless questions. Why aren’t you drinking? No answer satisfies people and it leads to them removing themselves from the situation altogether.”

Millie Gooch of Sober Girl Society remembers this feeling well. “I was really defensive in the beginning. I worked in the media industry, where after-work drinks were the norm. I remember attending work dinners where all the company had accounted for was wine. If I asked for a Diet Coke they’d say it hadn’t been budgeted for, would I like a water?”

A new way to celebrate

These days, Gooch brings her own drinks to office parties and scans the menus of the bar or restaurant before she arrives. Her relationship with her colleagues is also different. “I think alcohol bonds you with people you don’t have
a natural bond with,” she says. “What I’ve found is that I have friendships with colleagues
I genuinely like and colleagues I wouldn’t get
on as well with outside of work have just stayed professional. There’s less of a blurry line now.”

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We’re increasingly aware of how we act in
a work setting, too. “The work event isn’t the place where you want to let your hair down and get drunk like you used to,” says Salway. “There is so much more consciousness around behaviour and respecting boundaries, which the #MeToo movement woke people up to. Alcohol makes people forget rules, other people’s boundaries and their own inhibitions. Sometimes that can be nice and helpful and fun, but other times it goes beyond what’s appropriate.”

Gooch has noticed this change too. “These days, when 
I tell someone I don’t drink, I find the response is, ‘Fair play, I’m thinking of cutting down, too’.” 

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Come Christmas, many of your colleagues will likely share the same sentiment. Tinsel
 will appear around computer monitors. The big night might still happen in a pub or karaoke bar, hired with the intention of stretching into the early hours. But on the night, you might discover what’s changed is the mood.

“The Christmas party was where everyone snogged under the mistletoe, wasn’t it?” says Salway, who will be preparing a ‘whisky’ sour with lemon and hibiscus tea for party- goers at Redemption. “But that’s no longer very cool.” 

Images: Getty


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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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