A Woman Not Under the Influence Enjoys an App Date

Writer Briony Smith tries dry dating—and drinks it right up

Fun fact about me: I didn’t really drink until I was old. As a pup, I didn’t love the taste of liquor or how quickly a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade could make you barf your dinner back up. (Moderation has, uh, never been my strong suit.) And I was a pretty confident person, meaning I didn’t feel the need to guzzle booze to boost my boldness the way many seemed to. But a few factors converged in my early thirties that made me start drinking at a slightly more normal rate. There were the endless fashion parties filled with free drinks. The hard-partying crew I ran with at the time and peer pressure from my pushy best friend. And going on dates. A lot of dates.

As I started drinking in my social life, I started drinking in my dating life, too. My bestie encouraged me to switch from watered-down vodka to straight whiskey because “boys like it.” It turned out I liked whiskey, too. There was something so nonchalant, so la-di-da, so sexy about ordering a scotch on the rocks. The clink of the ice in the glass, the smoky taste. Very femme fatale. If the date was going well, the hooch would calm my nerves. If the date was boring, getting slightly blitzed made it go by faster. My behaviour was, apparently, common. Tinder recently partnered with Ipsos on research around drinking and dating habits and found 7 in 10 young adults usually enjoy a drink on dates—and 37 percent admitted feeling social expectations to drink alcohol on a date. A release revealed that “a majority of the young adults surveyed in Canada find dating easier (55 percent) and more fun (51 percent) with alcohol, yet over half wish there wasn’t so much expectation to drink while dating.”

(Related: A Science-Backed, Data-Forward, Awfully Sobering Guide for Women Who Drink Alcohol)

Drinking on dates came with risks for me, too, however: hangovers, potentially nauseating makeouts, blurting out my deepest secrets. It could also, apparently, hamper real connections, according to holistic sober coach Amy C. Willis of HOL + WELL. Or even remembering the date at all. “Alcohol also slows us down cognitively, making how we think, speak and process information much slower, which can have a direct negative impact on our ability to connect with our dates,” she says. “In many cases of overconsumption, our brains’ ability to make and store memories is compromised, which isn’t in service to our mental and emotional well-being.”

I recently started dating again after a surprise split from my life partner of eight years. A few months into it,  I wrote a story about test-driving a drink-tracking app during Dry January. I was a bit horrified at the weekly tally; the numbers made it clear that dating anxiety was a trigger. I never really drink at home (I don’t like beer or wine), but I’d started having the occasional highball before dudes came over or while entertaining gentlemen. It was a good reminder that while I may be a confident gal, I wasn’t above tossing back a bourbon or two to smooth out sex nerves. The Tinder survey attributed drinking on dates to a variety of reasons, including the aforementioned nerve-soothing (38 percent), along with making it easier to chat (16 percent) and the nebulous “having a good time” (10 percent).

So when my editor asked if I wanted to go on a sober date again to see how it felt, I was game for something a little different, something a little healthier perhaps. As Willis says, “by choosing to date sober, not only are you able to be fully present for the experience, you are also giving your date the chance to get to know you, unfiltered, and vice versa if your date also isn’t drinking.” Without alcohol, we’re able to connect more authentically, says Willis, and figure out a little faster if we’re interested in getting to know this person more.

Since I’ve been dating people more casually at first—I use the term “dating” loosely—going for drinks has been a good option, since it’s really more of a perfunctory vibe check before you go home together. But what if you’re meeting for a sober date? Does that change the dynamic, or the type of person you choose? I decided to err on the side of caution and ask the one dude who I was more interested in and thus would hopefully be enjoyable to chit-chat with for an extended non-drinking period on this sober adventure. And, in a bit of a twist, he said he didn’t drink, either, so it would be a double-sober date.

This is becoming more and more normal. With the expansion of the sober-curious movement, the inception of mindful drinking and the ever-growing emphasis on wellness, more people are generally thinking differently about how and when they consume alcohol and the impact it has, according to Willis. “With this and in some circles, alcohol is no longer viewed in the same ways it once was. Folks seem to be more discerning about consumption; drunk dates are less appealing and many just aren’t interested in spending their time at the bar,” she says. Willis says that dating apps play a useful role in sober dating as well, as many apps now allow you to self-identify what your relationship to substances is on your profile, which can function as a filter for dating prospects while also normalizing the choice to not drink.

(Related: 10 Canned Mocktails for Buzz-Free Socializing)

As I was getting ready to go out, I had the urge to pour a nice li’l whiskey to sip on while getting dressed. I paused: what was I doing?! I couldn’t have a drink before the sober date! Who had I become?! As someone who had always seen myself as more of a non-drinker, it was utterly bizarre to see how within a few short months, drinking pre-date had become a standard option. I thought about the 10 percent of people in the Tinder survey who didn’t even know why they drank on dates. I decided to virtuously skip the liquor and finish getting ready, then hopped in an Uber to the bar.

I suggested meeting at one of my usual go-tos, Famous Last Words, a renowned cocktail bar in Toronto where all the drinks are based on books. Their libations are always delicious, and they have a selection of non-alcoholic options. I barrelled into the dim bar, slightly late as always, and was immediately flustered even further by how cute my date was, perched on the overstuffed couch. He asked me whereabouts I was coming from and I started blathering about intersections and neighbourhoods—and immediately started yearning for a stiff drink to help me calm down. Then I realized: there would be no stiff drink forthcoming, only a GIANT TUMBLER OF FRUIT JUICE AAARRRGHHHHH.

I paused, and took a beat to register the booze craving (boo, hiss) then reframed the scene as an opportunity to enjoy a yummy mocktail and be here, now, sans the chemical interference of substances. I ordered one made with non-alcoholic spirit, mango juice, elderflower and rhubarb bitters, while my date had one with pear juice, honey-thyme spirit and walnut bitters. While it didn’t have that tantalizing sting of alcohol, it was utterly delicious: refreshing, fun, vibrant.

I asked him why he had stopped drinking. He had, in fact, used Reframe, the same app I had test-driven for that story, and found that drinking less and then not at all had had many positive effects on his life: he lost weight, reduced anxiety over drunken-creeper risk (as an inveterate drunken creeper myself, that’s an appealing perk for me, too). He said it could be hard to go out with people who still drank a lot, or to places with few non-alcoholic options, but still, he didn’t want to go back to drinking. I thought the fact that he had made such a drastic change surprisingly…hot?

For my second drink, I chose a mocktail made with apple cider, cinnamon and cherry, and my date went for a custom virgin take on a Negroni. Trying all the non-alcoholic options together was also a nice date activity, it turned out, as we could sample each other’s novel drinks and ponder which of the exotic mocktails to try next. I also didn’t have to worry about how many drinks I was having (as my ex used to say about me, “third double, you’re in trouble”). The only risk I incurred was more frequent bathroom breaks.

The hours slipped by, even without the lubrication of alcohol, and we finished up with a third round. The bartender was starting to tidy up and I realized we had been chatting for 2.5 hours, not a drop of liquor consumed.

My date offered to drive me home and I was about to say he shouldn’t be driving since he had been drinking—and then remembered that neither of us had actually been drinking. Funny how ingrained these behaviours become. We strolled back to his house, and I shivered a little in the winter chill, no booze to warm my bones. But it was nice—I felt present, alive. He invited me in to hang out a little longer, and I cozied up in the corner of his couch, while he poured me a splash of rose-scented non-alcoholic spirit. “I just thought you might want to try it,” he said. “I do,” I said. And smiled.

Afterwards, he did drive me home. The next morning, there wasn’t a trace of a hangover, just the first small bloom of a crush, possibility unfurling.

Next: Our Favourite Grab-and-Go Booze-Free Drinks

Originally Published in Best Health Canada