Can a Sober Bar Succeed in Columbus? Strongwater, Dry Mill Think So

Nonalcoholic drink options have exploded, and people are applauding plans for Central Ohio’s first sober bar.

Jill Moorhead
Lauren Conrath

In 2015, a friend of Lauren Conrath, general manager of Strongwater Food & Spirits, was pregnant, and Conrath took notice of how many social activities revolve around alcohol. She examined the restaurant’s drink menu and realized that nonalcoholic options were unsophisticated and limited to soft drinks or mocktails made from fruit juices. It became a passion project for Conrath: to make Strongwater—which now has six nonalcoholic options on the cocktail menu—a more inclusive place with refined zero-proof options. Recently, her efforts have started to gain traction. 

According to Tennessee-based American Addiction Centers, 11.8 percent of the Columbus adult population does not drink alcohol. This group, which includes those in recovery as well as those who abstain from alcohol for religious, health or lifestyle reasons, is turning heads for Columbus retailers and bars, alike. At The Hills Market Downtown, wine and cheese director Amanda Anderson thinks this customer base is ready for businesses to acknowledge them. 

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In 2020, Anderson launched a monthly Zero Proof Happy Hour, where she encountered a group of women who don’t drink for religious reasons. “They said, ‘We have loads of money,’” Anderson recalls, “‘And we want to be fancy, and no one is offering this for us.’” Anderson listened. Today, the store can barely keep up with restocking its end cap filled with nearly 40 different nonalcoholic wines, beers and spirits. 

And soon, thanks to the vision of David Payne and Colin Thomas, this growing market base won’t have to rely solely on monthly events at The Hills Market Downtown. The longtime friends, both eight years sober, plan to open a sober bar called The Dry Mill. Their goal is to create a place for sober and sober-curious people to hang out and to call their own. 

David Payne, left, and Colin Thomas of The Dry Mill

“It’s for people who don’t want to be around people under the influence [of alcohol]. They want to see live music, but they don’t want to be bumped into or to have drinks spilled on them,” says Payne, who quit drinking after serving in the U.S. Army. “When we both got sober, there wasn’t a place where we could hang out. We’re trying to solve that. We want to create a safe space for people [who choose not to drink] to meet others, make friends and grow relationships.” 

And Columbus is interested. The Dry Mill’s Facebook page debuted in June and now has more than 5,800 followers. The pair have launched a Kickstarter and are looking for a location central to Downtown. They plan for The Dry Mill to offer food, live music, comedy and poetry nights, along with a completely nonalcoholic menu. 

Why now? 

For some, the pandemic was a big factor in shifting towards a zero-proof lifestyle. Lisa Steward embraced sobriety in March 2020 after taking part in an intentional health journey and has become somewhat of a nonalcoholic evangelist on social media. “It wasn’t about alcohol. But as I examined what I put into my body, when it came to 200 calories, I’d rather eat a sandwich than drink a beer,” Steward says. Prior to the pandemic, Steward drank mostly during in-person social activities. Creating nonalcoholic cocktails at home gave Steward at way to celebrate virtually with friends without feeling like an outsider. 

Generation Z has started to normalize a culture of not drinking, adds writer Shelley Mann, a former Columbus Alive and Columbus Crave editor who produces a podcast about sobriety with collaborator, former Columbus Alive writer and former drinking buddy Jackie Mantey, called the Zero Proof Book Club. “When I was younger, you either were ‘normal’ or you were an alcoholic. The understanding of drinking has evolved. There’s more nuance,” Mann says. “You can choose not to drink because you like how you feel when you’re not drinking, or you like how much extra money you have, or that maybe you lose weight. You like that you never feel hungover or [waste] weekends staying in bed hungover.” 

Mann recalls visiting an alcohol-free bar in Portland, Maine, in 2015. She was struck by how spicy elements and ingredients like vinegar mimicked the heat found in liquor. Plus, the atmosphere felt like a real bar. “It was a place where I could hang out all night,” she remembers. “Not like a coffee shop that closes early or a restaurant where you stay for an hour. It was a place to linger and have conversations. I didn’t have to worry about how many ginger ales I’d have to buy to hold my space.” 

Mann believes that options have evolved in Columbus. “For the longest time,” she says, “the only nonalcoholic beer was O’Doul’s. Why drink something that tastes terrible?” Now, she can enjoy a nonalcoholic IPA that tastes exactly like the real thing. (She recommends Untitled Art’s Non-Alcoholic Juicy IPA, found at Bexley Natural Market. Others swear by BrewDog’s seven nonalcoholic selections.) 

The city is ready for a sober bar like The Dry Mill, Mann says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to The Dry Mill on social media,” she says. “The attitude toward drinking is changing in Columbus. If you asked me five years ago if it would work, I would say no. But I’m pleasantly surprised to see the enthusiasm for a sober bar.” 

Steward shares Mann’s high hopes. “The sober community in Columbus comes from a lot of different backgrounds and personalities,” Steward says. “A sober bar is a great idea, and I’d like to see it thrive by being an open and safe space [for] all different walks of life and all different backgrounds.” 

Payne believes that will happen. “Whatever background or upbringing, whatever we look like, we have one thing in common, even for just that one night,” he says.  

Strawberry Smash at Strongwater

Recipe: Zero-Proof at Home 

One of the most popular nonalcoholic cocktails at Strongwater Food & Spirits debuted at a fundraiser for Franklinton Farms, which avoids alcohol at its events to honor those in recovery. 

Strawberry Smash 

  • 1 strawberry 
  • 2–3 mint leaves 
  • 1 ounce white balsamic reduction (see below) 
  • 6 ounces club soda 
  • ice 
  1. To make the reduction: In a small saucepan, mix together 2 parts white balsamic vinegar and 1 part sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer and let reduce by 20 percent. Allow to cool and set aside. 
  2. In a glass, muddle together the strawberry and mint leaves. Add 1 ounce of the white balsamic reduction and club soda. 
  3. Add ice and stir to combine. Garnish with mint leaves. 

This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.