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Sobriety is the new cool - and here's the reason

Liz Connor speaks to experts to find out why millennials are opting for sobriety

Drink aware: more people are enjoying non-alcoholic days and nights out
Drink aware: more people are enjoying non-alcoholic days and nights out

From pint-filled freshers weeks to tequila-fuelled Club 18-30 holidays, it's safe to say that being in your 20s used to be synonymous with unbridled binge drinking. But the tides are turning on young people's love for booze as many seek out healthier lifestyles.

A recent survey found that millennials drink less as a generation than any other, shunning nights out at the local for healthy smoothies, hangover-free brunches and wellness retreats instead. Plus, only one in 10 of us now see getting drunk as cool - the rest describe it as "pathetic", "embarrassing" and "belonging to an older generation".

Essentially, young people are turning to mindful drinking.

"Attitudes are changing and we're becoming more accepting that people may make different choices around their diet, for health or ethical reasons," says Laura Willoughby, a co-founder of the Mindful Drinking Festival.

Willoughby gave up drinking six years ago and started mindful drinking network Club Soda in an effort to meet other like-minded teetotallers. After being inundated with requests from other members about what to sip on instead of beer or wine, she set up the festival to introduce others to some of her favourite booze-free drinks brands.

The event, which is held in Glasgow, is the only festival in the UK that's solely dedicated to the new wave of 'sober curious', and brings together alcohol-free beers and spirits as well as kombuchas, shrubs and elixirs in one place for people to try.

While the average millennial consumes just five units of alcohol a week, which equates to about two small glasses of wine or two pints of beer, abstaining altogether is becoming more mainstream as over 25% of young people class themselves as "non-drinkers".

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Drinks industry giants are responding to this seismic health shift with alternatives that go far beyond orange juice and sugary soft drinks. Notably, Diageo has invested in fashionable non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip, Pernod Ricard is distributing non-alcoholic alt-gin Ceder's and Heineken have launched 0.0 - a non-alcoholic pale ale. Major retailers and bars are listening up and consumers should get ready to see more of these grown-up alternatives stocked in their locals.

"When I gave up six years ago there wasn't really anything out there, apart from Beck's Blue," says Willoughby.

"In the last two to three years there's been this massive boom in alcohol-free drinks designed for adults, and, for me, that's important, because once you give up drinking it doesn't mean you suddenly want to switch to fizzy pop. I'm not 12 anymore - I want to go to a restaurant and have a drink that goes with food."

Willoughby says that while she's seen a sharp incline in young people mixing at her events, many who have never been drinkers, the health-conscious shift is hitting all ages and demographics. Drinkaware statistics show some three million people are trying to moderate their alcohol, while 2018 saw 4.5 million people take part in Dry January.

"I think with online and with social media you're able to find your tribe a little bit easier," says Willoughby. "That gives people confidence to then make that for their health, or because they're interested in sport, they're not going to drink."

Punchy Drinks is just one of the brands on the festival bill. It's a drinks company set up by a group of entrepreneurs in their mid-20s who are riding the new wave of neutral drinking. They sell the world's first 0% spiced rum punch that's sold alongside a 4% version, offering both alcoholic and alcohol-free products that can be bought together in a multi-pack.

"We're a booze brand with a bit of a difference - we promote moderation, not binge-drinking or teetotalism," says 25-year-old co-founder Paddy Cavanagh-Butler.

"I think we recognise the fact that a lot of people aren't actually one of those extremes, but they operate in both camps. So, they drink on the weekends, but then abstain most of the week."

As a generation, the digital world has made us more 'woke' about the health risks of drinking. It raises the risk of liver disease, heart attack and cancer and then there's the mental effects too. Issues like anxiety and depression can be exacerbated by alcohol, and 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem in our lifetime.

"I worked in advertising before I set up Punchy, and I experienced first-hand the struggle of having a social life and a demanding job, and that sensation when you get into work and you've got a bit of a hangover," says Cavanagh-Butler.

For now, the options are expanding both for people who've made the choice to abstain, and those that simply want to don't want to have a beer in hand at every social occasion.

Whether you drink or not, the new normal suggests you won't be hounded to down a pint when you don't fancy it, and there'll be plenty of alternatives behind the bar to whet your whistle.

"If we went into a pub, even five years ago, and said we've got a non-alcoholic rum punch, we'd probably get laughed out of the door, but it's a thing that people now are much more responsive," says Cavanagh-Butler.

"It's all about giving the choice to your consumer and empowering them to make a decision.

"As long as it's their decision to drink or not, it's the right decision."

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