For most Canadians, the holidays are a time “to eat, drink, and be merry”—but in this writer’s experience, that has often translated to “eat, drink, and be hung over.” Drinking in excess is very much the norm during the month of December, so for folks who are trying to avoid alcohol, it can be a challenging time. But as more people choose to lead “sober-curious” lives, alcohol-free options abound, and thankfully, they’re infinitely better than your grandad’s near-beer.
Social pressure on high
“I think for the majority of people, the pressure to drink is higher during the holidays,” Naomi Grace tells the Straight by phone. Grace is a self-described multi-sensory medicine-maker, artsy-fartsy rabble-rouser, and sommelier with two decades of experience in the hospitality industry. She has lived an alcohol-free lifestyle for four years and specializes in crafting zero-proof cocktails that offer all the balance and viscosity of their alcoholic counterparts (without the lousy side effects).
“When I worked in the service industry, holiday Christmas parties basically meant ‘booze fest.’ For people who don’t drink, there weren’t many options,” she says. “It can feel very isolating, and often people who are planning office parties don’t think about folks who don’t drink unless they don’t drink themselves.”
Fiona Hepher is a co-founder of Sansorium, a Vancouver-based online retailer of non-alcoholic wine, beer, cider, spirits, mixers, and cocktails, who, like Grace, avoids alcohol. Although she knew from the age of 17 that it wasn’t for her, the social pressure to drink was omnipresent.
“I did drink for a while until I was pregnant, and then I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” she says. Learning about the term “sober curious” gave Hepher the language to talk about her relationship with alcohol.
“I really wanted to be myself and feel authentic when I went out, so you’ll still see me dancing on tables without it,” she says. “I found innate joy in myself that was already uninhibited. When I took alcohol out, people wondered what I was on.” (She says people are often shocked when she responds with, “It’s just me.”)
Zero-proof doesn’t mean zero fun
Until recently, alternatives to alcohol haven’t exactly been sexy, and part of the problem has to do with the language we use to describe them. For Grace, the word “mocktail” is a prime example of the insinuation that something is less-than because of its absence of alcohol.
“‘Mock’ denotes something fake, and that for a drink to be legitimate, it needs to have alcohol,” she says. “There’s so much to the act of sharing drinks as a group. There’s the ritualistic aspect, the communal aspect, the chemistry aspect, the artistic aspect, and the sensory aspect. Alcohol is just one part of the cocktail.”
This idea was something Hepher came up against when starting Sansorium: “There’s so much language around sobriety attached to abstinence implying less fun, less adventure, less experience; that it wasn’t as beautiful, as sensual, or as sexy.” Her curated online shop is a counterpoint to the idea that alcohol is required to have a good time.
“Alcohol inspires us to think it’s going to make us more comfortable, when in fact, that’s probably happening for about 30 minutes. That’s definitely not the case at 2am, and probably won’t be the next day,” says Hepher.
Sansorium’s alcohol-free lineup offers a way to extend the comfort and pleasure of the drinking experience, she says: “It’s something that reflects the technicolour version of life that I think being alcohol-free means.”
Flavours for the holidays
If you think it’s impossible to recreate holiday classics like spiced eggnog, mulled wine, or a rich stout without ethanol, Sansorium’s collection is out to prove you wrong. But it’s not spirits or beer the shop is known for—it’s the wines.
“We put a lot of focus on high-quality wines,” says Hepher. One customer favourite, Australia’s Edenvale, has been creating non-alcoholic wine for more than 13 years and has won several international awards.
“Their sparkling Shiraz is one of the best non-alcoholic wines I’ve tasted to date,” she says. “It’s definitely a full-bodied experience, and we know especially in the reds, it’s hard to achieve that when you take out alcohol.” It’s the sparkling whites, though, that Hepher considers the “gateway” from alcoholic to non-alcoholic wines for their flavour profile, consistency, palate, and tone.
One of Grace’s favourite holiday beverages is inspired by her Afro-Caribbean roots.
“Something we drink every Christmas is called sorrel, a cultivar of hibiscus known by many names throughout the African diaspora,” she says. “It’s a red drink made from hibiscus tea, and the way that I grew up drinking it was boiled with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, and allspice.”
To transform it into a zero-proof cocktail, Grace blends in ginger beer and a zero-proof spiced rum—a drink she’s named the Rosemary Brown, after the first black woman in Canada to be elected to a provincial legislature.
“I think alcohol is here to stay because it’s steeped in tradition, but if event planners are willing to offer more options, it’s going to allow more people to feel included, and it’s also better for their bottom line,” says Grace.
“I’m glad to see there are more elevated non-alcoholic options available. It’s a market that hasn’t been fully tapped into yet, but it’s a market that’s always been there.”
Zero-Proof Cocktail Recipe: The Rosemary Brown
Made from a mixture of hibiscus tea and spices, this zero-proof cocktail is inspired by a red drink made from the flower of the Roselle plant, known by many names throughout the African diaspora, including Sorrel (Caribbean), Bissap (Senegal), Zobo (Nigeria), and Agua de Jamaica (Latin America).
1 cup dried sorrel
1 cinnamon stick
10 allspice berries
4 cups water
Sweetener (to taste)
Boil sorrel, cloves, cinnamon stick, and allspice berries with macerated ginger and sweetener in water for six minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Transfer to an airtight container and chill in the refrigerator for six days. To make the Rosemary Brown, strain tea and pour over ice, filling glass two-thirds full. Top with ginger beer and a shot of rum.
Sangria variation: Combine one-third tea, one-third orange juice, and one-third dealcoholized red wine. Pour over frozen fruit and serve in a wine glass for a refreshing sangria.
Champagne variation: Put a sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute. Add a dash of non-alcoholic bitters and a splash of hibiscus tea. Top with dealcoholized sparkling white wine and lemon zest for a decadent "champagne” cocktail.