Time for alcohol-free to leave the kids' table

Lauren Booker | October 2018 | 6 minutes

I recently attended a swanky two-day corporate event. The champagne reception on the first evening, held in the courtyard of the historic venue, promised to be a highlight. Unless you don’t happen to drink, of course. I rocked up, excited to meet my fellow delegates and chat about the day, before being called inside to a sumptuous dinner.

The champagne table looked inviting. Uniformed staff waited attentively to serve guests from the array of top notch drinks available. Glittering ice buckets of champagne, and a bucket, no – a tub, filled with a selection of craft beers adorned the trestle table. Flutes of bubbly were offered with a smile to the milling throng. Lovely.

A little to the side and not nearly so grand stood a smaller table guarded by single waitress, who looked a bit lonely. Her table held two large soft drinks dispensers, one of orange juice and one of apple juice and row upon row of hi-ball glasses with – I kid you not – green and white striped straws! This, then, was the offer for the non-drinkers.

I requested an apple juice and asked her to remove the straw. “It’s OK, “she replied, “It’s paper not plastic.” Completely missing the point that, at 53, I consider myself to be a fully-fledged grown up and perfectly able to drink directly from a glass with little likelihood of a spillage. I don’t imagine this set-up was designed to put off anyone who might choose a soft drink over booze but it certainly made it hard to blend in with those enjoying a ‘drink’ drink.

I’m confident in my decision not to drink but, even so, it wasn’t pleasant to feel like an afterthought, and not a great thought at that. Had I been less secure in my choices, this could have ruined my evening, or worse, my sobriety. Instead, I just felt awkward being the obvious non-drinker at the event. I mentioned my predicament to a couple of other delegates and they rushed to get a juice in solidarity. Thank you, ladies. One of them even commented that if she’d seen the other table first, she probably would have chosen juice in the first place.

What a shame. It would be so easy, for example, to offer sparkling grape juice alongside champagne or prosecco, stick a few alcohol-free beers in the tub or, at the very least, not relegate non-drinkers to the kiddie table with the drinking straws.

I find this a lot at events. Great care has been given to ensure that the cocktails sparkle and the wine flows but little thought given for those who may choose not to drink. I enjoy good food and I will often rate a restaurant by the quality of the waiter’s answer to the question, “I’m having the taster menu but I don’t drink alcohol – what would you recommend instead?” The very best answers have included, “I’ll ask chef to suggest an appropriate selection,” and, “I’ll get the bar staff to put together something special for you.” One restaurant invented a lavender based mocktail and named it after me. That’s how you get repeat business - I take all my friends there. The worst, the very worst response was: “Water? Sparkling water?”

As we approach the festive season, I hope venues take note of the fact that there are growing numbers of adults in the UK who choose not to drink, or not every time they go out, at least, and start to offer interesting, grown-up alternatives. There’s quite a lot out there if you look around – juices, sodas, mocktails, alcohol free beers and even spirits. It’s just about making alcohol-free a real choice, not a poor second place.

If you’re organising your company’s festive party, please ask what they have on offer for non-drinkers. At one such occasion, where a ‘free’ half bottle of wine was offered for every diner, I was told that if I didn’t want wine, I was free to purchase my own soft drinks. With more and more organisations offering wellbeing initiatives to employees, it makes sense to extend that offer on nights out too. It makes even more sense if staff are expected back in work the following day. Nice.

This isn’t about limiting the choices of those who want to drink – it’s about a bit of equality for those who don’t. As another Dry January rolls around more and more people will be voting with their feet and holding out for something with less booze but more pazzaz.

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