You may remember that last year’s London Cocktail Week, curated by DrinkUp.London introduced a lower-alcohol option in various venues which were taking part in the event. The venues taking part and the lower-strength options that they were offering were clearly listed online, so for those who wanted to take part in the festival but wouldn’t last the long haul with the usual high strength options, it was an excellent addition to the line up – and a true breakthrough in the scene if ever we saw one. This breakthrough was all thanks to Siobhan, Festival Director of DrinkUp.London’s Cocktail Week and self-confessed lover of martinis.
We caught up with Siobhan because we heard that she’s currently taking a three-month sabbatical from the booze, so wanted to find out how she was getting on and what had inspired her to do so:
So you’ve decided to take a break from alcohol for 3 months, how did that happen?! What was your inspiration? (Also well done!)
Thank you! I have some unrelated health issues that I thought might be improved by giving my body a break – and also I thought it would be interesting to see what life would be like without it! I chose 3 months because I thought it would be a proper challenge – I couldn’t just stop going out entirely for that long, which I might have done had I just done Dry January.
Due to your line of work you’ve had to continue networking and socialising, how’s your experience of these situations been without drinking?
It’s definitely been a big challenge as drinking has been a huge part of my life since I was a teenager, but it’s actually been surprisingly great. I’ve been more focused on the people I’m with, and then had the added benefit of waking up fresh every day. It’s also been super interesting, professionally-speaking, to see what’s on offer for people who aren’t drinking and I’ve often been pleasantly surprised.
Have you noticed that it’s been slightly harder to throw yourself into networking and speaking with strangers without the confidence that a few drinks provide?
The prospect of this before I started the 3 months was worse than the reality. In fact, it’s been just as easy to throw myself into things without a drink. I think I’m quite lucky in that the drinks industry is very small, and many of the people I network with I have known for many years, so I guess that makes it less daunting. After a few sober social occasions with people I felt comfortable with already, I felt pretty confident walking into a room full of strangers, knowing I could still be charming without a gin and tonic in my hand.
That’s great – a lot of people find the social element overwhelming – was there anything specific that you did to help improve your confidence?
I guess the main thing for me was repeatedly telling myself that I am still myself without a drink, and doing everything I can to support my own self-confidence. Self-esteem goes a long way when you’re taking yourself out of your comfort zone – it doesn’t always come naturally, but if you support yourself enough, you start to believe your own mantras.
Have you had to deal with/take part in any particular challenging experiences or events?
There have been a couple of occasions – a wedding, and a big awards ceremony – that I was particularly apprehensive about, but in actual fact, I had just as good a time at both without having an alcoholic drink. The weirdest was a whisky tasting I went to quite early on. I just smelled the whisky instead of tasting it and got other people’s opinion on the taste. Again that was easier than I’d anticipated and meant I could go to the gym afterwards! Bonus!
Have there been any pubs or bars that you’ve found to be particularly good at catering for people who aren’t drinking alcohol?
Yes! In fact, I’ve written a whole feature about it on DrinkUp.London. I’ve been making a note of venues that not only served delicious non-alcoholic drinks but didn’t relegate them to the back of the menu or a second thought. I don’t really like very sweet drinks – and not drinking alcohol hasn’t suddenly changed my palate – so I really appreciated it when I was served short, savoury, grown-up drinks.
Have you noticed any changes in attitude from people such as bar staff, colleagues, clients etc, when you say you’re not drinking?
Not at all to be honest. I think it goes back to that confidence thing – just never being apologetic about the fact you’re not drinking today. Other people ultimately don’t care.
How have your friends and colleagues reacted?
They’ve all been very supportive! With regards to my friends, it’s actually been brilliant as I’ve been searching out alternatives to catch ups over a bottle of wine. So we’ve become lots more cultural over the past couple of months!
In a way, I’m lucky in the industry I’m in because we all take drinking so seriously. Because those working in hospitality are around alcohol all day every day, we are all very conscious that we have to look after each other and our health, and if for some members of the circle that means taking a break, that’s completely accepted. But I know that for those in other industries, especially those in the City, getting that acceptance is a much bigger challenge.
Have you had any moments when you’ve slipped up, or almost slipped up?
No. There are one or two events I’ve said no to, such as a lavish cocktail pairing dinner, which it would have been impossible to go to and not drink without causing the hosts a whole lot of headache. But ultimately I’m quite pig-headed so I’ve not given myself the option of slipping up.
Has your experience inspired you to further reshape any of the events that DrinkUp.London curate, or to create different events catered to those who may not be drinking or who are moderating their drinking?
Catering to the non-drinkers and moderators was already very much on our radar. Our industry is increasingly under a lot of scrutiny to be socially aware, and so we’ve been making an effort for a while to be more inclusive. However, I’m definitely more aware that we still have a long way to go, and that will certainly feed future planning.
What’s your overall perception of the ‘Mindful drinking’ movement?
It’s something I’ve really admired for some time, and I think it’s really important. At DrinkUp.London one of our mottos is “drink less but drink better” and we consider it our responsibility to turn more people into cocktail aficionados by encouraging them to order more mindfully and to appreciate the drink itself. It’s about the quality, craft and complexity of that drink, and the occasion for drinking it rather than getting drunk.
What’s great about resources like Club Soda is that it offers the support that is really needed when you’re making a very powerful and difficult choice – whether that’s to abstain or moderate. I’m thankful I have a solid support network in the industry I work in but I know full well that’s not always the case.
Do you think we still have a long way to go in terms of social perception towards those who don’t drink or are more mindful of what they drink?
Definitely. Drinking is a huge part of the culture in the UK and the social norm. However, I do think there has been a shift in perception over the last couple of years, and I think things are going to continue to become more inclusive.
Have you noticed any improvements or changes in yourself since taking a break?
I’ve definitely become a lot more clear-headed! I get quite bad hangovers when I drink, and abstaining from alcohol also means abstaining from hangovers, so that’s an absolute bonus! I’ve also taken the opportunity to get a bit fitter, which has been great.
Are you looking forward to the three months being over or do you think this will change your drinking behaviour longer-term?
I think the three months has definitely reset my relationship with alcohol. Whilst I definitely don’t want to completely give up alcohol for good, as I do think it can be a joyful part of life, it’s definitely made me notice how many occasions I’d have a drink without pause, and I plan to pick my moments more mindfully now, rather than defaulting to a gin and tonic or glass of wine as a habitual order.
If you’re thinking of moderating or mindfully drinking in the future, do you have any plan of action in mind to make it successful?
For me, it’s about having a solid plan and sticking to it. I find that it’s much easier to say no to the first drink than to the second, so now I will be carefully choosing in advance the occasions on which I wish to drink, knowing that the experience of those occasions might be elevated by having a good cocktail or glass of wine. On other occasions, I will pass completely and these three months have given me the confidence to do that. I’m now not daunted by the prospect of going weeks or months without a martini if the occasion for a perfect one does not present itself.
Finally, what would your advice be to anyone who’s thinking of taking a break from booze or cutting down?
I read a lot of great resources in the first month. This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace, really helped to change my mindset around drinking (she also has a podcast!), and A Happier Hour, by Rebecca Weller was one I could really relate to. I also really enjoyed The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray, because she lives in London, and so I could appreciate the social challenges she faced as part of work. I also followed a number of sober influencers on Instagram – so my feed was less full of drinks images!
I’d also say that alongside the literal act of giving up or cutting down on alcohol, it’s really important to work on your own self-esteem because I understand that you don’t have to work in the drinks industry for drinking to be part of your identity! I really think that building self-confidence makes it a whole lot easier to step out of your comfort zone.
You can keep up to date with Siobhan and the alcohol-free delights that she likes to drink, plus her preferred venues via her Instagram page here.