When I walk into the Understudy Coffee & Bookstore in Chicago, the lights are dim, so dim I almost run into the wall a few times. The walls might be bookshelves, but there’s tons of space for dancing and taking photos. I’m super nervous. I’m dressed in a white oversized shirt, a black slip dress, and green go-go boots, and I keep fumbling with my earrings.

Can I even socialize at a party without alcohol?

It doesn’t help my nerves that no one’s as dressed up as I am or that I’m already drenched in sweat from running in heels to make my bus. I get into the drink line and order a Blueberry Mule, the first of many mocktails I enjoy that night, from one of the three bartenders working with expert rapacity to supply us thirsty partiers. After a few sips of what can only be described as a blue Sour Patch Kid in drink form, I find myself calming down a bit.

Everyone at this party is probably feeling just as awkward as I am, worrying about what they’re like at a party without the social lubricant of alcohol.

Instead of becoming a wilting wallflower, I decide to put myself out there. Because the DJ is absolutely mesmerizing my eardrums, I’m quickly shaking out my nerves on the dance floor. At first, there’s only a few other attendees strutting their stuff, but soon the floor is packed. Thankfully for everyone in the room, because I’m not drinking alcohol, I’m in full control of my limbs. I have unusually spikey elbows. 

Joelle Stephenson

After about ten minutes of dancing, I take a break and find myself talking with a group of young women. It’s a relief to see so many people my age looking for the same nightlife experiences, and I can feel the awkwardness evaporating away with my sweat. For some, being here is part of their sobriety journey. Others are just looking to party without alcohol to escape the usual miseries related to inebriation, like a complete and utter loss of coordination.

These days, when someone says they’re sober, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a tumultuous relationship with alcohol. Many people join the sober community because they don’t enjoy drinking or don’t like the way they act while under the influence of alcohol. In fact, according to research conducted by Forbes, Gen-Zers drink 20% less than millennials, who already drink significantly less than the generation before them. Why? Forbes posits that Gen-Zers and Millennials are more aware of the dangers and long term effects of alcohol, opting for sober drinks that satisfy their taste buds while supporting a healthier lifestyle. 

Joelle Stephenson

All through college, there was no party without alcohol. Party planning essentially boiled down to how much vodka we were buying and how we were going to get it. As I entered my twenties, I continued to associate having a social life with drinking alcohol. That is until a particularly wild night left me in bed with a headache for a solid week. In the aftermath of this harrowing event, I started researching non-alcoholic drinking options. I wanted to continue partying with my friends without waking up the next morning with my pillow smeared with makeup, my hand stuck in a half-eaten bag of sour gummy worms, and a monster hangover. Which is why on June 8, I attended my first non-alcoholic pop-up party hosted by Absence of Proof at the Understudy Coffee and Books in Chicago.

Joelle Stephenson

So, why should you care? Well, this pop-up is one of many sober-curious events and dedicated sober bars showing up across the country. Post-COVID, many people are saying goodbye to booze or, at least, heavily limiting their intake. And yet, limiting alcohol’s presence in your life shouldn’t mean the complete loss of your social life. These non-alcoholic pop-ups and sober bars are attempting to fill in the booze-free gap that is growing for Gen-Z.

The Absence of Proof pop-up events are meant to be both inclusive and welcoming. “We want our events to be known as a place to go to meet awesome people,” said Elizabeth Gascoigne, founder and CEO. The quote “absence of proof is not proof of absence” was essential to Elizabeth’s approach to a non-alcoholic drinking experience. “I wanted to be healthier and make more intentional choices,” she said. “I wanted to truly live my best life and I didn’t feel like alcohol contributed to that. I think others thought the same way.”

Joelle Stephenson

Although her pop-ups mimic the bar experience, Elizabeth realized that not everyone enjoys themselves in a bar.

After opening Lucky, an East Village dive bar, Abby Ehmann noticed something similar, that more and more people were opting for a sober experience. In response, she opened Hekate Café & Elixir Lounge across the street. The biggest difference between a sober and alcoholic dive bar is that, at Hekate, “no one is slurring words or spilling booze on you,” Abby said. “No one is inappropriate, and the bathroom is tidier. It feels like a regular bar, just without the drunk people.”

For her pop-ups, Elizabeth decided to cultivate “a variety of events, something for everyone in our community.” Sometimes Absence of Proof pop-ups are hosted in yoga studios, baseball stadiums, bookstores, and theaters instead of a more typical bar experience. At every pop-up, there’s tons of games like Jenga, Clue, and Scrabble to keep people entertained. Games also help calm nerves and get people out of their heads so they can more easily socialize. In the same vein, Abby understands the sober customer’s need for both entertainment and social icebreakers. At Hekate, there’s a near-full time tarot card reader and a variety of weekly events like book signings and music performances. 

Joelle Stephenson

After a glorious night of dancing, drinking glamorous mocktails that didn’t cause me to throw up in any potted plants, and eating post-party burritos with new found friends, I was able to get home before 12 a.m., do my nighttime face routine, and head to bed. The next morning, I woke up refreshed, with some amazing photos to post on my Instagram. All this can be yours, if you give your sober-curious desires an outlet.

Hekate isn’t the only sober bar in the country. Here's are running list of sobers bars to check out near you:

Listen Bar and Fat Tiger in New York City 

- Sans Bar in Austin, T.X.

- Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco, C.A.

- Wildcrafters in Jacksonville, F.L.

- The Nixer in Phoenix, A.Z.

- Sans Bar STL in St. Louis, M.O.

- Bendición and Praxbar in Chicago, I.L.

- Alt Bar in Rochester, N.Y.

- Umbrella Dry Drinks in Alexandria, V.A.

- Gem Life + Bar in Pitman, N.J.

- Binge Bar in Washington, D.C.

- Inmoxicated in Racine, W.I.

- soBAR in Ocean City, N.J. 

- Sobar in Ellicott City, M.D.