These Sober Bartenders Have No Problem Working With Booze

By Kelly Burch 10/10/17

One bartender says she's noticed an increase in patrons who are also focusing on sobriety.

Expert barman is making cocktail at night club.

For people who are in recovery—especially early recovery—bars can symbolize what they’re leaving behind, from the drinks themselves to a culture where intoxication and socialization often go hand-in-hand. It’s no surprise that many sober people avoid bars altogether—but for sober bartenders who make their living mixing up drinks, that isn’t an option. 

Jim Kearns, the beverage director at Slowly Shirley cocktail bar in New York City, does his job just fine without imbibing, according to his recent conversation with VinePair. In fact, he insists that sobriety has made him an even better bartender. 

“I think it’s had a positive impact on my job,” he said. 

People who work in the food service industry are at a high risk for substance use disorder—which is no surprise, what with the long nights and ever-present alcohol that come with the job. VinePair reports that 12% of people in the food service industry are heavy drinkers, compared with 8.8% of the general population. A New York Post report cited research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showing that bartenders are 2.3 times more likely to die from alcoholism than members of the general public. 

Every sober bartender defines for him or herself how to balance sobriety and their career. Some, like Adrienne Oakes, a New York City bartender who spoke with the Post, abstain completely, and says it does not affect their craft at all. 

“I’ve been doing this eight years,” she said. “I measure out the portions, so I know whether or not the drink is right.”

Others, including Kearns, will sample a small sip of drink without worrying about derailing their sobriety. 

“One of the most widely held beliefs of a lot of dogmatic ex-drinkers, recovering addicts, and care providers in the world of addiction therapy and recovery is that any amount of alcohol will end sobriety,” Kearns said. “I have found, at least for myself (and I am the only person for whom I speak in these matters), that I can taste alcohol without going off on a wild bender.”

Oakes says that bartenders aren’t the only people putting a greater focus on sobriety. She increasingly sees patrons requesting alcohol-free drinks, so much so that she's put together a menu of "mocktails" for sober guests. 

“Mocktails are on the rise,” she said. “More and more restaurants are offering them; more and more people are ordering them … people take better care of themselves [now] and sobriety is more of a discussion than it had once been.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.