When Chris Marshall decided to stop drinking for good at 23, he realized there was something missing for people like him. Where could sober people gather on a weekend night, in a social setting that didn't rely on alcohol?
In Austin, that's hard to come by. Or, at least, it was, until Marshall opened Sans Bar in East Austin. Sans touts itself as the city's first alcohol-free bar.
"I think that it's so appropriate that Sans Bar started in Austin, which has kind of a reputation for being the city where every other city comes to party," Marshall said. "We're not prohibitionists. We're just offering an alternative and saying, 'Maybe you can have the same experience of fun and connection and dating and all of that, but without alcohol.'"
Now in his mid-30s, Marshall has made a living out of sober bartending, both at Sans and beyond the walls of the 2,000-square-foot bar at 1818 E. 12th St. He has figured out how to adapt classic cocktails into drinks that taste just as good sans the booze — such as the rosemary and ginger mule — with ginger beer, lime and rosemary simple syrup — but "mocktails" like that aren't the sole focus of Sans.
Instead, Marshall hopes he's created a place where real connection is the priority. On Friday nights, the softly lit bar brings in live music, comedy and drag shows. There is plenty of seating, including couches and tables, for people to sit and talk. A large outdoor space has room for food trucks.
Marshall wants to make one thing clear: Sans Bar isn't just for people who abstain from alcohol, whether because they're in recovery or for another reason. He said it can be for anyone who is exploring their relationship with alcohol. In other words, someone who is "sober curious" — a term coined by journalist Ruby Warrington, who wrote a 2018 book of the same name — is also welcome.
"She examines what it means to be curious about the idea of drinking, taking away the idea that it's a black or white decision, an either/or, either you drink or you don't," Marshall said.
People who are sober curious might still be drinking alcohol. Maybe they take off a month for dry July or sober October, Marshall said, or just have a cocktail when they're out with friends on weekends. The role that booze plays in our lives is different for everyone. That's where Sans Bar comes in, as a spot where "we give people the place to examine those definitions and challenge themselves to stay sober for the night."
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Marshall aims to make that challenge as easy as possible, but he does recognize the allure of alcohol in social situations. Before he went to rehab in 2007, he would turn to it as a way to make friends. Without booze, Sans Bar relies on other ways for people to have fun.
"I feel like part of what alcohol does is remove any responsibility to create an experience," he said. "You drink enough alcohol, you can have an experience. But without drinking, other things have to create the experience. We do drag shows, karaoke. ... We offer more than just sitting at the bar."
If you want to sit at the bar, drink in hand, you could technically still do that, of course — the glass just won't have any hooch in it.
Even before Sans, Marshall enjoyed coming up with full-flavored, zero-proof cocktails. Currently, he's developing a distilled nonalcoholic spirit made with smoke, mesquite and pecan to replicate an old fashioned. Marshall has already tested it, with promising results, at the East Austin spot. It adds a bourbonlike flair to drinks that typically don't have such flavors. Call the cocktail it'll be served in the Sans Fashioned, he said.
So far, Sans is only open on Friday nights and some Saturdays — when it's hardest to find alternative activities to drinking. Ideally, Marshall said he would have the bar open more regularly, but it has taken years to draw enough attention to the concept as it is. Sans Bar started as a series of pop-ups, including at South by Southwest last year. He's also taken the Sans Bar concept on the road for pop-up events across the country.
"We thought it would be wise to start small," he said.
The Sans Bar team might have to expand hours soon, though. As interest in alcohol-free beverages and spaces grows, articles from outlets like NPR and the New York Times have explored what being sober curious is all about. Just don't say that it's some kind of trend.
"It's disheartening to see it being called a trend, because even though everyone's writing about it now, talking about it, I've been doing this for 12 years," he said. "It's not just me. You look around the country and you see attitudes about drinking are changing. This is more than just a trend. It's a movement."