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7 bartenders on what it’s like to be sober in the booze industry
A bartender’s job is to make drinks — so how does the work change if you’re a sober bartender? Max Ksenofontov/Shutterstock

The liquor industry is a dynamic one, fueled by craft, alchemy, hospitality and — of course, its lifeblood — booze. But what happens when the negative effects of an alcohol-heavy lifestyle begin to manifest? Though sobriety can seem like a clear choice, it’s easier said than done, as many who’ve given up the bottle will tell you. And the community of sober bartenders — one that’s both serious and necessary — is growing. Here, seven industry professionals share their experiences with sobriety from behind the bar. All interviews were conducted by email and have been edited and condensed for clarity.

“Now and then I get called boring or a guest is offended that I will not take a shot with them”

For nearly two years, Billy Ray of Mixwell has been navigating the Los Angeles bar scene sober. Ray found his sobriety after a tumultuous relationship with the very substance that made his career.

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“I couldn’t imagine a life without alcohol, yet I wanted to stop,” Ray said. “But I could not. I tried everything from sober January to limiting myself to just beer and wine. The fear of getting sober in our industry and losing everything from friends, jobs and my identity was so overwhelming that I had the thought run through my head that I should kill myself. I thought it was my only way out. So I set out on my last night of drinking and goodbyes and went home to slit my wrists. The last thing I recall was sliding down the corner on Melrose after leaving [Melrose] Umbrella Co.; I was crying not because I was scared, but they were tears of relief that everything was going to finally be over. The next thing I recall was opening my eyes and seeing my dog Darby and not knowing if I was dead or alive and if I killed him as well as myself. Later that morning I called my mom and told her I was an alcoholic and needed help.”

This was among Ray’s lowest days, and he’s since chosen a sober lifestyle while remaining in the bartending community. “[It’s been] positive for the most part,” he said. “Now and then I get called boring or a guest is offended that I will not take a shot with them. But I have had a lot of people talk to me about what they are going through when it comes to drinking. I am able to share with them what I have walked through and help in any way I can.”

“Self-care is one of the last things that is prioritized in hospitality”

Joanna Carpenter is the bar director at Town Stages, a private event space in New York City known for its beverage program. Carpenter elected to omit hard liquor from her intake for health and wellness reasons in January.

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“Bartending sober is, in a word, hard,” Carpenter said. “You are spending most of your time surrounded by booze and the people consuming it. Everybody experiences a different level of struggle, but for me, one of the toughest things has been the sense of expectation from customers or my peers when I told them I don’t drink liquor. There’s always a moment where they just stare at you, and I can never tell if they’re expecting me to crumble out of desperation for a drink or if they’re waiting for me to wax poetic as to the reasons I don’t imbibe. Objectively, I’m inclined to do neither of these things, but the people pleaser in me always feels like I have to walk around with a stash of explanations.”

Internal battles are a considerable part of the sober or semi-sober bartending lifestyle. “Admitting (to yourself, before anyone else) that boozy things, or certain types of boozy things, are not good for you is daunting,” Carpenter said. “It can bring up a rush of fear – fear of being judged, fear of having the stigma of alcoholism attached to you or fear of being a wet blanket around your partying friends. Believe it or not, self-care is one of the last things that is prioritized in hospitality, so to actively make the choice to cut out the lubricant that gets us all going feels like a scary upstream swim.”

Carpenter has found her own way to overcome her trials and tribulations. “I’ve had so many nights where all I wanted at the end of the night was to take some tequila straight to the face, and I’ve had to step away from the bar for a few minutes to ‘come back’ to myself a bit,” Carpenter said. “When I say ‘come back,’ I mean taking a moment to sip some water and exhale out the energy of the previous few hours while thinking through exactly how I would feel the next morning if I gave into the urge. Some days are easy and some days are hard; all days are opportunities for me to take care of myself in the way that’s best for me, while making sure I’m the best hospitality-maker I can be, which doesn’t have to be defined by how much I drink.”

“I remind myself that I would never be able to have just one”

Jack McGarry is a managing partner of one of the world’s top cocktail bars, The Dead Rabbit in New York City. In 2013, McGarry was named International Bartender of the Year by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. A Belfast native, McGarry has followed a sober lifestyle since March 2016.

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Like many other sober bartenders, McGarry reached a harrowing point that served as the impetus for choosing sobriety. “My life was spiraling out of control,” he said. “I was unable to work for a year up until I got sober with my addiction, anxiety and depression. I went out on a huge bender March 25 and woke up in hospital with my stomach pumped. That’s when I hit rock bottom and decided to give up on drink. It wasn’t helping me.”

How does a sober lifestyle affect the work of a bartender? “I spit taste cocktails when going through research and development and when spot checking in the venues,” McGarry said. “It never goes down my throat and I’m careful to not taste too much and also not too frequently. It was tough at the beginning. My relationship to tasting is work. I do not taste to get a buzz.”

Sobriety has impacted his work in other ways, too. “A lot of people are happy for me because they heard how bad I got,” McGarry said. “I’ve also lost work in terms of judging competitions and such. I understand that and I don’t really take any work now unless it’s something I genuinely want to do or the money is good.”

So how does McGarry deal with stress? “Sometimes I’m envious of the way people get to drink if they’re stressed out, or to get them to a higher place,” he said. “However, I remind myself that I would never be able to have just one. I don’t do normal. So I just remind myself of that and my previous relationship with alcohol, then I snap out of feeling sorry for myself. I don’t like big crowds nowadays. Particularly when alcohol is the focus, like Tales, WB50, London Cocktail Week or Bar Convent Berlin. It’s too much for me. I like to deal with people one-to-one and be present.”

“The main reason my alcohol intake reached the levels it did was to alleviate stress”

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Jim Kearns has had extensive industry experience, and is currently the corporate beverage director at Golden Age Hospitality, which includes the bars Acme, Tijuana Picnic, the Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley in New York City. Kearns has just recently passed the three year mark in his sobriety.

“I had crossed the line from functional alcoholism into nonfunctional alcoholism and severe physical addiction, which can be deadly,” Kearns said. “I wanted to keep my relationships, my career and my health.”

For work, “I taste cocktails and I do not spit,” Kearns said. “Swallowing, and the retro-nasal tasting that accompanies it, is an imperative part of tasting. I just limit the amount that I do it and take great care in doing so.”

In order to achieve balance in the sober lifestyle, Kearns seeks methods of problem-solving that don’t involve alcohol. “Finding other outlets for stress and anger, and ways of dealing with those emotions, is the most challenging thing for me,” he said. “As an anxious person, I’ve found that the main reason my alcohol intake reached the levels it did was to alleviate stress. Now, I have to acknowledge it and deal with it in a more straightforward manner. The recovery community refers to this as ‘living with discomfort,’ which is an important part of understanding how to cope with the lifestyle changes that accompany altering an addictive behavior and facing the underlying issues head on. I understand that my anxious nature can be an asset, as it’s a great motivator and makes me great at preparing and planning, but I also have to recognize when it’s inhibiting my happiness or well-being and find different ways of coping with or alleviating stress.”

“I don’t tend to tell guests about it unless I’m backed into a corner”

In New York City’s Greenwich Village, Chaim Dauermann, beverage director at The Up & Up, adopted the sober lifestyle in December 2016. Dauerman is also the owner of new cocktail bar Stay Gold in the Kips Bay neighborhood.

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“I had two realizations that led me to sobriety,” Dauermann said. “The first was that I was incapable of controlling how much I drank. The second was that I would never have the life I wanted, or be the man I wanted to be, if I continued to drink. I knew it was possible that I still wouldn’t have those things even if I quit, but it was certainly worth the risk.”

Where guests of the bar are concerned, he chooses to reveal this part of his life only when absolutely necessary. “I don’t tend to tell guests about it unless I’m backed into a corner,” Dauermann said. “It seems inhospitable. I have found that, frequently, people can see sobriety as a referendum on their own drinking. I’ll tell someone that I’m sober, and their response will be, ‘Well, I don’t have a drinking problem.’ Hospitality is about making people comfortable, and because of that, I’m not inclined to do things that run counter to that. If someone tries to buy me a drink, I’ll decline politely and tell them, ‘I’m not drinking tonight, but thank you.’ That’s almost always sufficient.”

Industry reactions seem to be a bit more understanding. “When it comes to bartenders, it’s met sometimes with befuddlement, other times with support or even enthusiasm. Often, it’s met with indifference, which is probably my favorite. People realize my sobriety has nothing to do with them, so they don’t react.”

While Dauermann’s journey hasn’t been easy, it has proven to be for the better overall. “When I quit drinking, I was afraid,” he said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t have a social life. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do my job as well. I was afraid that no one would take me seriously in my profession. I was afraid I’d lose opportunities. And all that fear was for nothing. Everyone one of those things has proven to be untrue. That’s not to say my work life as a sober bar professional is always ‘easy’ — it most certainly isn’t — but it’s certainly not bad. It’s actually demonstrably better than it was before.”

“I know myself and the slippery slope that can easily develop”

It was a series of impactful events that led bartender Chris Cardone to accept the challenge of sobriety. Cardone, who tends bar at New York City Italian restaurant I Sodi, has never looked back since.

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“I quit drinking for good on Memorial Day of 2015,” Cardone said. “For many years prior, I would always do ‘sober December,’ because deep down I knew I drank too much and far too often. It was my way of justifying and deluding myself into thinking I had my drinking problem under control. The night before Memorial Day, I had a massive hallucination accompanied by a four-hour blackout, and I decided to take a break. I called a close friend and said I would take a month off. He responded, ‘What’s the point? As soon you as start drinking again nothing is going to change.’ Without thinking, I countered, ‘Fine, I’ll do a year.’ He laughed and said, ‘There’s no way you could go a year.’ And what bothered me was I was worried that he was right. The rest is history.”

For work, when “testing cocktails or tasting for the purpose of education, I do taste and spit,” Cardone said. “I hold the belief that I’ve never got into any negative situation from tasting and spitting. But I have a very stern wall built there — I take that rule extremely seriously because I know myself and the slippery slope that can easily develop.”

After finding his health again in the past three years, Cardone’s takeaways are overwhelmingly positive. “I am a better person, a better father, a better bartender, a better friend and a better competitor since I quit drinking. I am healthy again, physically, mentally and spiritually. I do not have any regrets about my decision to quit drinking and I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on a thing. It was the single best decision I’ve ever made for myself.”

“There’s a misconception that bartenders somehow need to drink in order to enjoy their job”

Health was the biggest determining factor in bartender Adrienne Oakes’ decision to become sober while working in the industry. Oakes, also of The Up & Up, dismisses the notion that drinking is imperative to becoming a successful bartender.

“I’ve been sober since January 2017,” Oakes said. “Unfortunately, for a few months before becoming sober, I was suffering from alcohol-related health issues. My doctor suggested that I put an end to my drinking in order to save my health. I knew that it was time for me to stop drinking.”

“‘Is bartending any fun sober?’ I get this question a lot,” she continued. “Which really bothers me, because there’s a misconception that bartenders somehow need to drink in order to enjoy their job, which is so wrong! When I first became sober, I wouldn’t taste anything alcohol-related. I needed to come to grips with my sobriety, since the choice was sprung on me without warning. After about six months of being sober, I started straw tasting my cocktails again.”

Oakes is anything but pushy about her lifestyle, but finds that the peers who are aware of her choice to remain sober tend to be supportive. “I don’t go around declaring my sobriety to everyone. It’s something that I work hard on every single day. Every day it’s easier, and the challenges dissipate. It’s not always easy being in an environment in which I am surrounded by alcohol; the temptation is there. It helps that I have co-workers that are completely respectful of my sobriety. That makes it easy to come to work and be my sober self.”