A year ago, when my daughter got married, we all had to navigate through more than the usual pitfalls in wedding planning.
Our family’s goal was to protect my daughter, Chrisoula Markoulakis, 32, who was newly sober and to honor my future son-in-law, Josh Shargel, also 32, who had put in seven years of work into his sobriety. So, naturally, questions about serving alcohol or having a zero-proof bar came up. Would our guests enjoy nonalcoholic mocktails, or “functional beverages” fortified with natural ingredients aimed at heightening one’s emotional or physical state. And would having them around cause triggers for my daughter and husband that could lead to cravings?
Since recovery is an ongoing process, their views on nonalcoholic drinks were rooted in their original approach to recovery: His was Alcoholics Anonymous and hers was the Luckiest Club, an online support community. A.A. follows a set of spiritual principles, the Twelve Steps. Online recovery support groups like the Luckiest Club, which became popular during the pandemic shutdown, don’t ask members to follow a dogma or even to declare their disease.
My son-in-law was against anything resembling alcohol and usually sticks to sparkling water, while my daughter wanted a mocktail station. As the two debated the ramifications of alcoholic substitutes, our family grew increasingly stressed because we knew nothing about the recovery process. We were learning about alcohol use disorder in real time.
We wondered about unspoken biases related to our daughter’s disease and whether our friends and family would not only miss the Champagne but also judge her and her new husband. In the end, the couple had their own intimate negotiation over what felt wise before they presented us with safe options. No alcohol would be present, and the “couple’s signature drink” was a punch-like concoction served in glass bottles.
By their wedding day, my daughter and son-in-law’s sober journeys were woven together: He acknowledged that there’s more than one path to sobriety. She agreed that mocktails were overrated, and she abstains from them now. Their union was toasted all night with delicious sparkling elderflower juice.
Once you determine where you and your partner are on the sobriety spectrum, you can then make beverage choices that allow you to celebrate safely and still create an experience that is true to you as a couple and enjoyable for guests.
“Uncovering and understanding your relationship with alcohol is a lifelong process, and it’s deeply personal,” said Chris Marshall, the owner of Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, an alcohol-free bar and academy for people wanting to start alcohol-free businesses as a party host, bar owner, or social influencer. “Viewing sobriety as a spectrum is so helpful.”
Ryan Hampton, 42, and Sean O’Donnell, 30, both from Las Vegas, quickly developed an intense connection, bonding over their sobriety soon after meeting in 2018 at a national drug abuse summit in Atlanta. This was something neither had experienced before in recovery. Both Mr. Hampton, an author of books on the opioid addiction crisis and an addiction recovery activist, and Mr. O’Donnell, the executive director of Foundation for Recovery, wanted their March 18, 2023 wedding in Mount Charleston, Nev., to be dry.
“Given our status, being sober and what we do professionally, there wasn’t any expectation for anything other than a sober wedding,” Mr. Hampton said.
For others, the decision may not be as clear. “Out of the six weddings I hosted in 2022, three of the couples debated about whether or not to serve alcohol, and the decision came down to what guests would say if there was no alcohol option,” Mr. Marshall said. Although those couples had made the decision to abstain, he said, they couldn’t rule alcohol out, because they felt guests would be disappointed.
“I admit that I did question having a dry wedding for a short time because I remember attending one when I was in college — I was a party animal,” said Mr. Hampton, who has been sober since 2015. “But a few months into the planning process, I felt OK about being a little selfish. I was overly concerned about what everyone else thought and if they would have a good time.”
Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist and the author of “Dopamine Nation,” wants to challenge the alcohol expectation. “I think it’s selfish of people who get invited to a wedding to expect alcohol when the people who are getting married are in recovery,” said Dr. Lembke, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Stanford. “These are life and death situations for many people. This isn’t a trivial affair.”
Yet sometimes, those closest to couples are the least flexible when it comes to respecting their sobriety, especially if the brides or grooms belong to a family with a heavy drinking culture or if the two haven’t shed their drinking friend group.
“People that use drinking as their primary social lubricant or hobby have a different perspective of the world that almost hinders them,” Dr. Lembke said, adding that “they only know a world in which people are using alcohol as a way to facilitate human connection.”
Mr. Hampton, though, believes that the stigma is lifting, in part because of the “sober-curious” movement.
Stephanie Rice, the founder of Better Bar, a private event service in San Francisco, saw a gap in the market for an elevated mobile bar experience that didn’t include alcohol. In 2021, she began hosting pop-up bars for corporate clients in Silicon Valley and private events like engagements and weddings. “We cater to the low- and no-alcohol crowd,” she said. She has noticed a cultural shift in weddings where there’s a larger focus on health and wellness over drinking.
“I think we’re going to get to a place soon where there is no judgment,” Ms. Rice said. “If you are holding a drink at an event, it shouldn’t matter what’s in it.”
Both Better Bar and Sans Bar don’t skimp on the bar experience. “Our guests see all the bottles and interact directly with the bartender,” Ms. Rice said. “There’s a dialogue and an education about these beverages that is really important.”
Mr. Marshall also stressed that sober couples hosting a nonalcoholic bar shouldn’t expect to spend less. “A well-crafted, elevated drink that doesn’t contain alcohol takes just as much effort as one that does, and you should budget for that,” he said.
Better Bar’s beverage list includes functional beverages with ingredients like CBD, adaptogens like herbs and mushrooms and nootropics like caffeine and creatine, which may be good replacements for the occasional abstainer. But Dr. Lembke advises people in addiction recovery to avoid anything that claims to mimic the effects of alcohol while being nonaddictive. “Whenever somebody in a lab comes up with a chemical that’s supposed to do what that addictive chemical did, but without being addictive,” she said, nobody ever gets it right.
Tara Ybarra, a founder of the event planning business Ybarra Events in Northern California, has organized several dry weddings, and when doing so, she focuses more on experiences and less on beverages. Her company works with couples looking for the outdoor wine country experience.
Ms. Ybarra recommends splurging on luxury sparkling water in fancy bottles and tasting nonalcoholic wines before the wedding, since there is great variation in the quality. This is especially important if pairing wine is part of the meal service, she said.
Often, Ms. Ybarra will replace the open bar with interactive entertainment. “We’ve had couples do a live art painting, an alpaca petting experience and a cigar bar where they are rolled right there and you get to uncover different flavor notes in the tobacco,” she said.
Mr. Hampton and Mr. O’Donnell chose to spend the bar budget on music and dancing. “We doubled down on a D.J. and great lighting, and really enhanced the space,” Mr. Hampton said. “And, because I am a terrible dancer, we splurged for dance lessons for me and Sean.”
At their wedding, he said, “people were partying; they just weren’t drinking.”