It’s Dry January. Here Are Some Chicago Efforts to Normalize Sober Spaces and Living Alcohol Free — Without the FOMO

“Mocktails & More” event hosted by Chicago AF in partnership with the Morton Arboretum on July 21, 2023. (Courtesy Kate Scott)“Mocktails & More” event hosted by Chicago AF in partnership with the Morton Arboretum on July 21, 2023. (Courtesy Kate Scott)

For those who typically intertwine social outings with drinking alcohol, going to social events completely sober can be awkward at first. Carrie May, who founded Chicago AF and hosts sober social events throughout the year, knows that all too well.

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“We know people are gonna be awkward when they show up at social events,” May said. “Nobody has the filters up and it’s fun because people get a chance to practice socializing sober, which is really important because it doesn’t come naturally to people. It’s like anything else, you have to practice it.”

During the month of January, more people might be choosing to practice just that — cutting out alcohol — in what is known as “Dry January.” The month offers an opportunity for people not only to experience the effects of not drinking alcohol, but also to reflect on their own relationship with it and the role it plays in their lives.

Thirty-eight percent of U.S. adults do not drink alcohol, according to a 2023 Gallup poll. The most commonly cited reason was because they simply had no desire to or did not want to, the poll found, accounting for about a quarter of the nondrinkers in the survey.

Other common reasons, according to the poll, include that people don’t like drinking, it’s unhealthy, they are afraid of the consequences, they have had a bad past experience with alcohol, health reasons prevent them from drinking or that it is against their religious beliefs.

Events hosted by Chicago AF, which stands for “alcohol free,” bring out all kinds of people who have their own different reasons for not drinking alcohol, May said. While there isn’t a requirement for attendees to be sober for a certain amount of time to participate in events, the group expects attendees not to drink alcohol during the events themselves.

The group hosted a nonalcoholic tasting event Saturday in the West Loop. The event was expected to feature 20 different vendors offering a variety of nonalcoholic beers, wines and spirits.

But, the group’s social events aren’t just about recreating a bar scene, May said. Chicago AF has also held sober social gatherings at Cubs games, Ravinia performances, escape rooms, brunches and dinners, and even hosted “no booze cruises” on Lake Michigan.

May is based in Arlington Heights and has been sober since 2016. She started Chicago AF in 2020 to connect with other people after finding that the sober scene at the time felt “dim.” There were points during her sobriety where she felt alone, having not known anyone else like her who didn’t drink, she said.

Since becoming sober, May said she has had to pave her own path. With that, the social connections she makes and the relationships she has in her life have changed.

“I feel like the relationships are truly authentic,” May said. “You’re more selective about who you’re going to hang out with and who maybe is just not the right person for you.”

Left: In Good Spirits co-founders Hector Diaz and Adriana Gaspar. Right: Inside of In Good Spirits, located at 858 N. Ashland Ave., in West Town. (Courtesy Hector Diaz)Left: In Good Spirits co-founders Hector Diaz and Adriana Gaspar. Right: Inside of In Good Spirits, located at 858 N. Ashland Ave., in West Town. (Courtesy Hector Diaz)

In recent years, more bars and restaurants in Chicago have begun offering nonalcoholic beers, wines and cocktails. Further, alcohol-free bars and bottle shops in the city are now other options for those who choose not to drink alcohol.

In Good Spirits, located in West Town, is one of the latest alcohol-free bar and bottle shops to open in the city. Co-founders Hector Diaz and Adriana Gaspar are the couple that runs the establishment, which opened this past summer.

For the duo, who are Mexican American and were raised in Chicago, creating an inclusive space was ingrained in the mission to open In Good Spirits.

“In Latino culture, just like a lot of other cultures, drinking alcohol is a big piece of it, it’s definitely a big pillar of community,” Diaz said. “For us, it’s kind of exciting to be Latino, obviously, and very proud of it, and just to create something different.”

Diaz said a story he loves to tell was when their families attended the grand opening of In Good Spirits last year. “Everyone just had a blast,” Diaz said. “Everyone was themselves, having a margarita and just having fun, laughing, being loud, vibrant. We love that. That drives us, that makes us feel really good about what we’re doing.”

The patrons at In Good Spirits range from those who abstain from alcohol completely to those who are “sober curious” and are interested in having a nontraditional bar experience, Diaz said.

While the drink menu changes throughout the seasons, some popular drinks include the hibiscus margarita, the spicy margarita, mulled wine and the espresso martini. Just during the few years leading up to the opening of the bar, Diaz said that more awareness of nonalcoholic options has grown.

“We would talk about what we’re doing and a lot of people didn’t really understand it or they were like, ‘What does that include? Like sodas?’” Diaz said. “It’s just a very foreign concept and fast forward almost two years now and the awareness is definitely growing with individuals across all ages.”

More awareness of nonalcoholic options also helps to lessen the social stigmas sometimes associated with sobriety, which was one of the challenges May faced during her sobriety journey.

But, today, her experiences are a lot different.

“I felt like there was the societal stigma around saying that you can’t drink and now, it’s really cool because no one asks me why I don’t drink.” May said. “Especially being in Chicago, if you’re not drinking, nobody cares.”

Contact Eunice Alpasan: @eunicealpasan | 773-509-5362 | [email protected]

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