Kristen IngrahamKristen Ingraham

I’m a wine lover, a brewery explorer and a devotee to cocktail culture. Varietals, craft beer, mixology—it all fascinates me. I worked behind the bar throughout my college years and, I’ll admit, still love to flex my bartending muscles from time to time, to surprise and delight friends. If you’re anything like me—when I tell you that the hottest trend in spirits right now isn’t partaking in spirits at all—well, you’re bound to have a lot of questions.

Why has ‘sober curious’ become popular?

The term “sober curious” was first coined by the author Ruby Warrington, who wrote a book on the topic in 2018. What began as a moniker for folks exploring the simple idea of mindful drinking has now become perhaps the biggest movement in the alcohol industry.

There are plenty of theories behind the rapid increase in “sober curious” popularity, but two most often lead the conversation: Gen Z and marijuana legalization.

Is Gen Z steering the way on “sober curious,” or have other substances surpassed alcohol’s popularity? The answer is both. Many Gen Zers are proudly—and loudly, thanks to TikTok—taking a step back on drinking or cutting out alcohol altogether. According to a recent Think by Google study, drinking is in full decline among the younger generation. The study found three key behavioral motivations impacting and empowering the drinking decrease:

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Public image: nearly half (49 percent) of Gen Z claim their online image is always at the back of their mind when they go out socializing and drinking, and 76 percent feel it’s important to be in control of their image at all times.

Productivity = success: Gen Z places work and school performance above socializing in their priorities and will adopt behaviors that support higher productivity to achieve their success.

Health concerns (mental and physical): 86 percent of Gen Z feel mental health is just as important a consideration as their physical health when considering drinking. 70 percent of Gen Z consider binge drinking a “very risky” activity and 41 percent negatively associate alcohol with “vulnerability,” “anxiety” and “abuse.”

But the “sober curious” movement isn’t only growing in accordance with a new generation of legal drinkers—it’s also growing in accordance with a new reality of legal substances. Enter “California Sober.”

According to a recent piece in Real Simple, “California Sober” is a term typically used to describe people who decide to quit consuming drugs and alcohol, with a few exceptions. Sort of like a mini-movement in the larger “sober curious” trend. While everyone interprets this lifestyle choice differently, marijuana is the most commonly cited “acceptable substance” (i.e., alcohol alternative) for someone who considers themselves “California Sober.” There are other alternative substances, but they’re not yet legalized in the United States, so we’ll stick with cannabis specifically.

Is this really a new concept—consciously choosing not to mix alcohol and marijuana—or does it just feel new because cannabis is no longer illegal, and people feel comfortable talking about their habits? Again, the answer is both, but I think it’s more of the former. The concept feels new. It used to be that there were two choices when it came to drugs and alcohol: you used, or you abstained. Now there are so many preferences and so much personalization to apply, and they’re all welcome under the “sober curious” umbrella.

Whether it’s choosing quality over quantity when it comes to reduced booze intake, limiting yourself to one specific substance of choice or swapping to a low-or-no ABV beverage to accompany cannabis—all are welcome in the “sober curious” lifestyle. And every choice is intended to accomplish the same two things: removing all judgment from personal choices and not feeling terrible post-consumption. In that vein, Gen Z and California Sober are united in amplifying the adoption of a “sober curious” life.

What ‘sober curious’ means for the food and beverage industry landscape

It means change: in what consumers are ordering when they’re out socializing; in the key beverages in development and impacting sales and in the larger cultural moments where alcohol has been a centerpiece.

Hospitality: mocktail mania on menus. According to the Datassential 2022 Trends report, this new sobriety movement is capturing the attention of all consumers, with 57 percent aware of craft “mocktails” and 48 percent seeking to try them. Restaurants and hospitality groups are accidentally (or purposefully—hello upselling!) helping to expedite the adoption of this “sober curious” experience with growing mocktail offerings. Even major players, like Hyatt, are committing to consumers’ interest with the launch of the brand’s Zero Proof, Zero Judgment beverage program, an entire menu for mocktails. These are not your run-of-the-mill Shirley Temples, but an entire artisanal menu full of flavors and aromas that share the same cultural and culinary exploration found primarily in wine and spirits menus, until now.

Spirits industry: the rapid rise of alt-beverages. Consumers have picked up on the growing non-alcoholic beverage market, too. Non-alcoholic spirit sales nearly doubled in 2022, according to Nielsen IQ data. As of August 2022:

  • Non-alcoholic beer took up 85.3 percent of sales, with a market worth $328.6 million, up 19.5 percent from 2021.
  • Non-alcoholic wine took up 13.4 percent of sales, with a market worth $52.04 million, up 23.2 percent from 2021.
  • Non-alcoholic spirits took up 1.3 percent, worth $5.03 million, up 88.4 percent from 2021.

Entertainment: more inclusive inclusivity. The “sober curious” movement has even spread to the biggest stage for food and alcohol consumption: the sports arena. Look no further than the NFL. Stadiums nationwide—led first by the Green Bay Packers Section Yellow, a completely sober section of the stadium devoted to those in alcohol recovery and those who just prefer to surround themselves with other like-minded abstainers—have adopted a far more welcoming approach to those looking to enjoy the game without needing to enjoy an ice cold beer. According to an interview with the “Today Show,” the NFL expects every stadium in its league to offer a similar sobriety section in the next couple of seasons.

What’s the key takeaway

The “sober curious” movement is not to be ignored. In fact, it should be embraced. At its core, it’s all about the removal of judgment. Brands have an entirely new way to connect in and around this trend—whether by seeking greater inclusivity in cocktail culture, celebrating sober socialization, innovating low-to-no ABV flavors or simply creating connections to an incredibly welcoming—and highly influential—group of consumers. It’s time for us all to sit down and start sipping with the “sober curious.”


Kristen Ingraham is Senior Vice President, Group Lead at Padilla.