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Hold the liquor: Sober bars growing in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Before social media dramatically changed the way Americans interact, the local bar was where people gathered to unload about the day's events and get together with friends.

These days, though, a growing number of people are looking for an alternative to a mid-week hangover.

"The younger generation is choosing to drink less," said Katie Molchan, co-owner of Mixtape, a bar with a twist in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood. The bar offers cocktails and coffee, as well as a healthy offering of non-alcoholic or "mocktail" drinks. Creating a socially inclusive space, Molchan said, was important when they opened nearly four years ago.

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"I think it's for people who focus a little bit more on their health and well-being and have the desire to be social and drink," Molchan said, "but not get plastered on a Tuesday."

More than half of U.S. consumers said they were trying to reduce their alcoholic intake, according to a recent survey conducted by IWSR, which tracks alcohol trends in more than 150 countries.

Alcohol has unquestionably fueled many social ills.

Nearly 30 people die every day in drunk driving crashes. While these deaths have decreased by a third over the past three decades, drunk drivers still kill more than 10,000 people a year.

Binge drinking (four or more drinks for women on a single occasion or five or more for men) accounts for more than half of the 88,000 deaths each year that are a result of excessive drinking. A 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly one in five Pennsylvanians were binge drinkers who went on a bender roughly 49 times a year and averaged seven drinks per occasion.

The cost of all this drinking really adds up.

In 2010, excessive drinking cost the United States $249 billion, or about $2 a drink.

These costs were due, in part, to lost workplace productivity, health care and criminal justice expenses. In Pennsylvania, the costs amounted to $9.5 billion.

But the important take away from the binge drinking study - researchers said - is that these drinkers, while not alcoholics, drink to the point of impairment.


"Unhealthy or risky drinking does not begin with alcoholism," said Dr. Timothy S. Naimi, co-author of the CDC's 2015 study on binge drinkers and an alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center. "A lot of people who drink alcohol, drink in unhealthy ways. People recognize that, even if they're not a gutter alcoholic, cutting back on drinking would be good for their health."

From "Dry January" and "Sober September" to pop-up sober bars, sobriety is having a moment right now in pop culture.

"Sober Curious" author Ruby Warrington credits the destigmatization around sobriety.

"I think this is something that's been bubbling under the surface for a long time, but there hasn't been the terminology to talk about it," Warrington said in an interview.

For Warrington, the big picture is to normalize not drinking.

"I think alcohol is dying out as our social drug of choice," Warrington said. "Over the long term, I think alcohol will be the new cigarettes and will become less and less socially acceptable."

For a lot of people, the bar scene has been a binary choice: either go out and drink or at stay home alone.

"The bar can be a meeting place, but having more choices makes it comfortable for people who are not drinking or are drinking less alcohol," Naimi said.

That's why Carolyn Hilliard co-founded Empath, a pop-up sober bar in Pittsburgh.

Self-described as a woman who drank her fair share, Hilliard was a regular consumer until she decided she no longer wanted to.

Her first sober bar event was in June last year. "We wanted to build a community," Hilliard said. "When I became sober that was something that I lacked."

About 30 people attended that first event. "It brought tears to my eyes to see it was something that people wanted here in Pittsburgh," Hilliard said.

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The way Empath co-founder Donny Donovan sees it, "We're actually creating a space that supports people who just want to relax and not be around people who are drunk. We didn't realize how important it really was." The next gathering is Oct. 18 at Bantha Tea Bar on Penn Avenue in Bloomfield.

Whether pregnant and going out with friends, or an extension of the health and wellness movement, the reasons people seek non-alcoholic choices or sober spaces are as varied as the mocktails that mixologists create.

"It's not just people in recovery or sobriety, but people who want to take a night off from drinking or experience a healthy night out without a hangover," said Larry Debar, 34, of Friendship, who attended a recent Empath event.

Whatever the reason people reach for a non-alcoholic drink, local bar owners are responding.

Bartenders at Hidden Harbor in Squirrel Hill boast they can make any drink without the hooch. And the menu has a couple of mocktail options.

"We're trying to give people the same Hidden Harbor experience whether their experience has alcohol or not," said Adam Henry, Hidden Harbor co-owner.