My history with drinking goes something like this: it was a lot of fun, then sometimes it was fun and sometimes it was terrible, then eventually it was no fun at all.
Still, I often longed for the ritual of enjoying just a single drink, preferably outside on the first warm day of the year, even if I hadn’t exactly been known for ever enjoying just a single drink. Five years after I quit, I now find myself indulging in a nightly cocktail hour with the enthusiasm of a ’70s swinger in a conversation pit—and without the alcohol. It all started when I had the chance to try a new non-alcoholic aperitif called Æcorn. (It’s currently only available in the U.K., but hitting the U.S. this spring.) (Please don’t ask me how to pronounce it.) One night in early January, in between shutting my work laptop and sitting down to dinner, I poured myself a glass over ice. The Bitter variety of Æcorn is ruby red, borderline syrupy when chilled, and true to its name. It’s also rich and complex and akin to Campari, but somehow better. I was immediately hooked.
Soon, I simply needed to have my bitter little drink every single evening. My husband and I began to punctuate our work days by putting on some music, pulling out our nice glasses, and pouring ourselves one. It’s the liquid equivalent of an exhale, a small but fortifying moment of pleasure. I feel a bit like Frasier and Niles having their foppish nightly sherry, but I embrace it. And taking up this ritual made something else come into relief. When I stopped drinking, the way I approached my life did a 180: I worked harder, for more hours, woke up before the sun rose to run miles and miles, and was looking at a screen more often than not. The parts of my life that should have been most pleasurable sometimes felt more like killing time between everything else. I had become—I shudder to admit this—productive.
The case for a sober cocktail hour is, ultimately, the case for any cocktail hour: because our culture, by and large, forces us to be productivity obsessed. Taking this time carves out a moment to unwind from the day, to reconnect with others, to be present. It offers a liminal third space between work and home, even if all three spaces happen to be in our homes right now. I’ve always loved the Italian ritual of aperitivo, and people who get the entire month of August can’t be wrong about anything relaxation-related, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how little booze has to do with it.
If you’re not drinking alcohol right now, there’s never been a better time to take up this habit. For any sober person who’s spent a night out at the bar nursing seltzer or a Diet Coke and feeling like they’re at a six-year-old’s birthday party, I have excellent news: there are more and better non-alcoholic drinks on the market than ever before.
Ghia, which fashions itself as being inspired by Mediterrean apéritif traditions, is the most aesthetically pleasing bottle of the bunch, but it’s not all for show. The bitterness delivers, and it delivers a transportative experience as is, on ice with an orange slice garnish. For Bitter or Worse is the crunchy Pacific Northwest option, down to the folksy florals on the bottles. The cocktails are thoughtfully premixed, and the varieties run from refreshingly effervescent to deep and smoky. Lyre’s provides a full range of spirits meant to parallel the alcoholic version. I tried the range that allows you to mix up a non-alcoholic negroni and found they lean a bit syrupy and sweet, but if you’re not a fan of bitter, they’re a good gateway.