Are Alcohol-Free Drinks Doing More Harm than Good?

Shelby John
A non-alcoholic drink sitting on a table next to a lemon

I was in LA for the National Council on Mental Well-Being Conference (NatCon) in May 2023 to present my TedX Style talk and I was giddy with nervous excitement. I was staying in a fancy hotel near the conference center with some lovely contemporary casual restaurants with elegant ambiance and carefully crafted décor. I loved it. 

Traveling alone is an experience that allows more freedom: the ability to try things, be on your own schedule, and buy ice cream in the hotel lobby to enjoy with a good Netflix movie. I have done it several times and for me it has never been a threat to my sobriety. I am not worried I will be tempted or suddenly risk throwing away decades of sobriety for a night out with people I’ve never met. Those days are over, thank God. 

Alcohol-free drinks are everywhere — for better or worse 

As most people know by now, the alcohol-free drink industry has exploded all over our country and there are now options that mimic every type of alcoholic drink known. And of course, LA is ahead of the curve when it comes to the availability of such products on every menu - certainly more than my suburban county in Maryland. 

When I first got sober, I wasn’t interested at all in drinking non-alcoholic beverages (of course all we had then was O’Doul’s) because I didn’t see the point. Why would I want something that tastes like beer (which isn’t that great anyway) with no effect? It’s like drinking decaf coffee. 

But of course, many of my friends and colleagues in the recovery community had their own opinions about non-alcoholic cocktails. And honestly, I am grateful there are so many options now because many people do not drink for a variety of reasons. We aren’t the same in our sobriety. Some of us are unbothered being around others drinking or can easily enjoy a beautiful mocktail with no issues. 

My experience with "alcohol-free alcohol" 

The second evening I was there, I went to the bar in my hotel to get dinner. On the menu were some of the alcohol-free spirit brands I had been seeing on social media for the past year or so. I was so thankful to see such an extensive alcohol-free list on the menu I felt excited to try one. 

Mind you, I have had many a mocktail usually with some kind of fruit and club soda and maybe a sprig of rosemary. But I haven't tried the actual "alcohol-free, alcohol" — the kind that looks and tastes like the real thing.

The lady brought the drink, and it was in a bourbon glass with a large round ice cube and some type of garnish. Right away, I could feel this was different. This drink was presented in the same way as the real thing. I took a sip, and I was shocked at the taste. It’s been a while since I have had any liquor, but my tastebuds and brain knew right away that it tasted like alcohol.

After a few sips, a switch flipped in my brain. I started to fantasize about this drink, about the feeling of a good buzz, of what it is like to enjoy socializing with alcohol. I drank the rest of the cocktail (I didn’t want to waste it) while literally sliding down a slippery slope of romanticizing drinking. I was completely shocked by this. I have been sober since July 1, 2002.

Where I stand on non-alcoholic drinks

Thankfully, those years of sobriety helped me to quickly put a stop to that thinking and return to reality but for a few moments, it was a bit scary. I still agree that having a lot of non-alcoholic options is a good idea because everyone is different. However, that moment re-confirmed after twenty-one years of sobriety that I am not like my fellows. Alcohol (or apparently even an illusion of alcohol) sets off something in my brain and starts a downward spiral into addictive thinking patterns. 

The next morning there was a twelve-step meeting at the conference, so I attended and was so comforted to be in the presence of my people. I shared the story mostly for myself as a reminder of what happened but also for anyone who might have needed that message. Recovery has given me a life worth living today and I have A LOT to lose if I ever choose to drink again. I think I’ll stick to fruity mocktails and club soda with lime as my drink of choice from now on. 

Woman in a support circle

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