A sober tour of New York City, 90 years after the end of Prohibition


Travel In an ironic twist, 90 years after the restrictions of prohibition lifted in New York, temperance has never been cooler in The Big Apple. Here’s how to zero-proof your stay. 

Published November 4, 2023

5 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Behind every great American dive bar, there’s a rock-steady formula. It goes something like this: walk through the door and a bartender stands poised to lend an ear, sliding drinks across the gnarly bar with easy intimacy. Overhead, a grunge playlist crackles through the speakers. And towards the back of the room, scratched tables and worn velvet seats provide shadowy nooks for getting up to no good.

Hekate Cafe & Elixir Lounge appears to tick all of these boxes, but there’s something decidedly off-beat about this buzzy East Village hangout. Perhaps it’s the cosmic tarot card reading happening in the window, or the greeting as I step in. “Have you been here before?” the long-haired mixologist enquires, handing me a menu. “We’re a 100% alcohol-free establishment,” he adds, in a tone that suggests the throw down of a challenge. 

Hekate is part of a growing sobriety scene in New York. No longer the exclusive realm of committed tea-totallers, a surge of interest from the sober-curious and drinkers keen to dip their toes into the hangover-free waters of moderation has pushed abstention into the mainstream here, and a multiverse of sober socialising exists to serve them. It’s possible to greet the sunrise at a Daybreaker sober morning rave, attend a dry drag brunch courtesy of Third Place Bar, pick up a Phony Negroni at booze-free bottle shop Boisson, and join the zero-proof party at a pop-up event organised by Absence of Proof.  

Social media has helped connect a new generation of temperance crusaders, I learn the next morning when I meet Rachel Hechtman in Central Park. Having called time on her own drinking, Rachel organises mocktail events across New York State, using her online platform to glamorise sobriety “in the way I once glamorised my drinking”, she tells me. “Once upon a time, every photo of me had a martini glass in it.” 

She launched her new career in Central Park, organising sober walks during lockdowns, she says, as we walk past a carousel of dog walkers and joggers. Pausing on an ornate iron bridge, we gaze back at the city’s skinny skyscrapers through a curtain of foliage. Forget Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw sipping a cosmopolitan, once as synonymous with New York as the Statue of Liberty. Nowadays, it’s all about being sober in the city, Rachel explains. “Trends start here and ripple outwards,” she says. 

I leave the park and make my way over to Brooklyn. When I finally locate Brooklyn Brewery, a warehouse reimagined as a microbrewery and tap room, I feel like I’ve arrived at hipster central. A disco ball swirls and pop art murals line the walls of the bar, with young clientele squeezing thigh-to-thigh on communal benches to take thirsty gulps of craft beer. Since 2019, the brewery has introduced three sans-alcohol beers, wrapped in punchy graphic labels. They’ve gone down a storm, making up 10% of the company’s US sales. I take a sip of their hoppy lager, an aromatic brew with subtle hints of grapefruit and pine. It tastes… well, just like a regular beer. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given it’s created in the same way as other brews, with the addition of a fermentation method in which the alcohol is extracted. 

For my final stop I hop on a train to New York State’s Long Island, past wooden fish shacks and Great Gatsby-style mansions. Set in the heart of the Hamptons, family-run Wölffer Estate Vineyard has been elevating the world of de-alcoholised wines since 1996, when they launched the first of three lines of sophisticated grape juice. I join co-owner Joey Wölffer on the shaded deck. We clink a flute of sparkling blush as she tells me that inclusivity was the driving force behind the decision to introduce on-the-wagon wine. “Come and visit on a Friday night and it’s like a mini festival here,” she says. “Everyone is having a good time with a delicious drink in their hand, regardless of if they drink alcohol or not.”

Perhaps it’s the views of rolling vineyards that stretch towards the Atlantic horizon, or the placebo effect of quaffing something bubbly, but my booze-free wine-tasting has a giddying effect. I catch the train back to the city, ready to toast New York with an artisan mocktail in some dimly lit speakeasy. For no-and-low drinkers, New York sure makes for an intoxicating playground.   

Published in the November 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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