Best Practices: How Author Julia Bainbridge Is Championing a New Alcohol-Free Movement

On being the “hype girl” for nonalcoholic drinks, Instagram dance party book launches, and what her self-care looks like during the pandemic.

Julia Bainbridge
Photo: Theodore Samuels

Editor's note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, and especially on small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. We could all use a little inspiration and light. That's why we've launched Best Practices, a new column for F&W Pro, to share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

Two years ago, writer Julia Bainbridge drove across the country in her 2006 Subaru Impreza to interview bartenders, chefs, and drinks experts and collect recipes for outstanding alcohol-free mixed drinks. During a stop in Las Vegas, she met a bellman in a hotel elevator, and the two began talking about her book research.

"He said, 'Oh, that's interesting. I don't drink alcohol.' And another person in the elevator said, 'Sounds like somebody's got a problem.' The bellman kind of shut down. I said, 'Yes, sir, a lot of people do.' Why bully people for that?

America has a long and difficult history with glamorizing and demonizing alcohol. Bainbridge said the aim of her book Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You're Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, is to destigmatize the act of not drinking. She does this by celebrating the creativity of chefs and bartenders who are making the N/A sections of their menus just as innovative as their cocktails, and the book taps into a growing no-and-low ABV movement that has translated into alcohol-free dinners at food festivals, new kinds of bottle shops, and a new wave of artisanal mixers and spirit-free offerings like Seedlip.

"There are all kinds of reasons why people don't drink alcohol," Bainbridge said. "It could be because of a substance abuse disorder, but it also could be religion, it could be pregnancy, it could be just a personal choice. It also could be the rising popularity of off months, like Dry January and Sober October. It could be just for this month or this week, or this night or this round. So I just wanted everybody to feel invited to this. I have in mind the people who don't drink because of a complicated relationship with alcohol. The reason why you're not drinking just doesn't need to be a part of the conversation if you don't want it to be."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you taking care of yourself during these times?

Dancing. Actually, pre-pandemic, it was kitchen dancing because oftentimes at the end of a workday, I'd come home and in the dark, with music really loud, just dance around in my New York apartment kitchen. When the pandemic hit I began posting dancing videos and other people then started dancing. It's a beautiful thing. Maybe they liked the song I posted, or whatever energy was coming out of that Instagram story. Music and dancing in general can light up our brains, especially at a time when we're all cooped up in our apartments.

I'm lucky enough to be in therapy, which has been very important. This time has really tested my sobriety, although that's not quite the right word. I don't call myself sober out of respect to the true sober community. I do consume cannabis. I am alcohol free. That's a decision I have made for myself. That's something I want to be. But the way that alcohol use disorder, which I could definitely be diagnosed with, operates in the brain, sometimes you don't sort of remember or don't believe in your own goals.

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For me, the trouble drinking used to be alone at home. I wasn't really getting wasted out with people. Unfortunately, a lot of people are slipping back into their addictions during this time because community is so important to maintaining sobriety. For me, I am home alone with nobody watching what I'm doing. Rules have been relaxed to be able to deliver all kinds of booze and wine and cocktails. So if I want, I can get a batched negroni delivered to my door, which is a recipe for my dipping back into some bad patterns of behavior.

My goal is to be alcohol free. So I muscle up with more meetings as part of my self-care package. I'm not going to meetings to punish myself for bad behavior. I need help staying the course and continuing on living this way that I've decided I want to live, so I re-enrolled in some programs that have been helpful to me in the past.

You've used Instagram in a new way to promote Good Drinks. Was this the first virtual dance party-book launch party?

It was a very strange, fun, and Julia way to have a launch party during a time when we can only do things virtually. All of our guests have an appearance in the highlights from that evening, and it is fun to look back at them all as a group. And that's when it does feel like a thing. You see all these people, song choices, you see their children dancing, it's just super silly, light, and fun. And it felt like a me way to have a celebration of any kind, and it so happened that the thing being celebrated at this time was the arrival of this book.

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It seems like a very serendipitous time to launch a book of this sort. I've talked to some of my friends who have embraced it and I think people are really gravitating towards the cover line, "Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You're Not Drinking"—and this is important—"For Whatever Reason." That seems like the real crux of the book: The lack of judgment, the lack of prescription, the lack of sort of a directive—it's an invitation. Tell me about how that that line came about.

There are all kinds of reasons why people don't drink alcohol. The decision not to drink could be because of a substance abuse disorder, but it also could be religion, it could be pregnancy, it could be just a personal choice. It also could be the rising popularity of off months, like Dry January and Sober October. It could be just for this month or this week, or this night or this round. So I just wanted everybody to feel invited to this. I have in mind the people who don't drink because of a complicated relationship with alcohol. The reason why you're not drinking just doesn't need to be a part of the conversation if you don't want it to be.

Tell me more about that.

If you're out at a restaurant with friends and they order wine and you say, "Oh no, I'll have some water," or whatever else it is, usually there are questions about that. For the person who is still trying to maintain sobriety or just reckon with their relationships with alcohol, I want this question to go away.

That's also why I didn't really include my story in the book. I think some people were expecting me to be a bigger part of it. Really, this is a celebration of delicious drinks. And they don't have alcohol. It is meant to be celebratory. It is meant to be sexy, as you can see from the photos. And it is meant to drum up excitement for the people who don't drink and have historically felt like second-class citizens, because when they go out they get a syrup and soda in a glass with a stripey straw and feel like children. So these drinks in the book look sexy. Adult.

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My story doesn't belong in this particular book, which is the celebration of delicious drinks. It's a cookbook with recipes. As much as I am fine to talk about it, the minute you invite that in and people perceive it as a sobriety book, I do think you—intentionally or not—make people feel as if you have shut the door on them. And I really did want everybody to feel invited to this party. There's a lot of anxiety around the menu nomenclature and what to call these drinks. We are trying to come up with something to replace "mocktail."

You're clearly on to something. Do you consider yourself a leader of any kind of alcohol-free movement?

Oh my God, no. No. I'm a champion of this movement. I am a champion of great work done by bartenders and chefs on whose work this book rests. It's very much a compendium. You can say this book is journalistic in that I'm not the recipe developer, I'm the hype girl. I do get messages from a lot of people who don't drink or who are sober, who feel really seen but also feel excited.

Part of the mission of this book was to celebrate the great work being done in the industry and to shine a light on the people who are at the forefront of this and are doing the work of true hospitality, meaning thinking about all kinds of drinkers, including some who didn't feel like part of the celebration before. Remember fun? There's this couple in Maryland who've been cooking their way through this book and I get the sense that one of them drinks and one of them doesn't. And so every night they're having a cocktail hour. I'm messaging with them through the process. The one who doesn't drink is having so much fun. It's just a real joy. If that's all I did with this project, then I really succeeded.

There's a great shop here in Birmingham called LeNell's. The owner had a wonderful store in Red Hook, Brooklyn for many years that was known for her bourbon selection and her bottle shop here now has several non-alcoholic options. And that's happening here in Birmingham, Alabama. There's clearly a demand for that. That wasn't happening a couple of years ago, and I'm also seeing the drink space overall, be it alcohol or non-alcohol, it seems to be the industry where the most innovation is happening right now. Almost like atoms are splitting on a daily basis. And that's what I mean by the timing.

A number of these products weren't on the market at the time that I filed a manuscript for this book. So that shows how quickly this space is moving. This is definitely new. I'm really excited by all the creativity I'm seeing from the recipe development side, but also from the bottling side. I think that's the reason why Ben Branson created Seedlip. He had that whole experience where he went out to dinner with his fiancée and she ordered a glass of Bordeaux. He wanted something non-alcoholic, and he got the pink fizzy drink with a stripey straw. And he was like, "We've just got to do better." It didn't fit the food. It didn't fit the ambience. And so he launched Seedlip in 2015. He really broke that space open. I'm excited by the new products that are leaning into bitterness. Playing with things like gentian roots to really get you to a similar experience. What I love about, say, whiskey, is that it slows me down. These are drinks around which we gather, it's about socializing. So when I've got a fizzy water that I crush in five minutes while my friend is slowly sipping this nuanced thing that opens up and changes over time, you want to be able to keep pace.

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Recently a shop called Spirited Away launched in New York, which is a brick and mortar non-alcoholic bottle shop. And my hope is that what we'll see happen eventually is more of what you've mentioned at LeNell's where these are just part of the offerings at bottle shops in general. I don't love the idea of segregating the drinkers and non-drinkers; that's kind of why I don't necessarily love going to alcohol-free bars. I'm so glad they exist for people who do want them and for people who may be triggered by being in a space with alcohol in it. My mission is to agitate for better drinks at existing bars, so everyone in one space is having an equally delicious experience.

If we think about cocktail culture even, remember in the late '90s it was still vodka soda. This whole golden era of cocktails has all happened really quickly. And finally it's happening in the non-alcoholic space, too.

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