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    It was the 2014 Kentucky Derby, and Jesse Hawkins stood among thousands outfitted in fascinators, hats and seersucker. He’d been wandering the Churchill Downs infield with a friend, and now he joined a congregation around the paddock, which the horses had just left. During the opening notes of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the rest of the crowd lifted their mint juleps and began to sing along. Hawkins, only a few weeks sober at the time, instead raised a bottle of water. “I was like, ‘Hmm, is the rest of my life going to be attending events but not being able to participate in them?’” he says. “That really kind of planted the seed.”

    In just five-and-a-half years, that seed has sprouted into the Mocktail Project, an organization bent on creating a more inclusive drinking culture, where “zero-proof” cocktails coexist with their more spirited cousins. Mocktober, inspired by the Sober October social media movement (and Dry January and Dry July), is the organization’s annual mocktail festival (this year from Oct. 14 to 20), a week of events and special alcohol-free menus at participating Louisville bars.

    More than 20,000 mocktails have been mixed, muddled, shaken and poured in the festival’s first two years, including a smoked pineapple mocktail with Matcha, coconut and citrus, mixed by Butchertown Grocery’s then-beverage manager Nic Christiansen (who now works at Barrell Craft Spirits). That mocktail won both the 2019 Mocktail Project “A Drink For You” competition in March and the “best mocktail ever” designation in Hawkins’ memory. The bartenders who mix the best mocktails in Louisville will tell you it’s not about making up for a lack of booze; instead, zero-proof cocktails are an epicurean challenge, treating beverages the same way chefs approach food. “I like to use tea, coffee, kombucha and sparking water,” Christiansen says. “There are so many great flavors you can find in tea that can help you create complexity in a mocktail.”

    Xander Stewart, assistant general manager at Against the Grain Brewery, another 2019 Mocktober participant, relies on spices, house-infused syrups and fresh ingredients (lychee, starfruit, lots of citrus), focusing on accentuating and illuminating the flavors already present in these ingredients. Stewart breaks down something like bourbon to its constituent flavors — smoky, sweet, leathery — then reverse-engineers them through the spices, herbs and syrups. “It’s knowing what pairs with what,” he says.

     

    A self-designated “Kentucky boy” who grew up in Georgetown and came of age on the Bourbon Trail, Hawkins radiates Southern charm with an unwavering grin, a Kentucky-hug drawl and the kind of earnest introspection that self-indicts but never effaces. He’s open about his past alcohol dependence, three DUIs and 30-day jail stint, but he doesn’t demean that former version of himself. In fact, his whole philosophy is that he’s still the same person — he i to be the same person.

    His Instagram feed (@sobervoyager) is filled with travel selfies and carpe diem-style aphorisms as captions — “Don’t go chasing waterfalls,” at Multnomah Falls in Oregon; “Even if your gas tank may seem to be empty, don’t ever stop driving towards your goals,” with a photo of his van beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. His signature pose is standing with arms extended, like he’s hugging the world he neglected to appreciate from inside the bottle. Stewart describes Hawkins as “laid-back, passionate — but not, like, a zealot.”

    Hawkins began drinking at a young age to cope with childhood sexual abuse from an extended family member, a trauma he didn’t fully understand until his teenage years and didn’t share with family until he was 21. By then, he’d already begun self-medicating. His first drink was at age eight. “By 13 I understood that, if I have enough of this to drink, then I just don’t have to deal with this today,” he says.

    Alcohol soon became both salve and hindrance, buttressing his after-hours networking routine when he worked in the financial sector making loans for small businesses, but digging him deeper and deeper into a rut of tedium and ennui. “Every single day was like Groundhog Day: wake up and go to a job that I really didn’t believe in. That flame of life, that energy of life burnt out very quickly,” he says.

    Besides the loss of joie de vivre, Hawkins would also lose his driver’s license for two years after his third DUI. He often squandered the morning hours at work nursing a hangover (“I was a terrible employee,” he says), and his friends were beginning to worry. He’d be the one, after a dinner out with friends, to text the group two hours later to see if anyone wanted to keep the party going. “I always just had a drink in my hand,” he says. “I was 25, and I’d drunk enough for a lifetime. It was seven days a week from 18 to 25 that I had a drink in my hand.”

    Hawkins wasn’t particularly cocktail-inclined before sobriety, favoring beer, liquor and other get-drunk-quick solutions. “Honestly, it was just whatever was readily available. I drank with a purpose. In my mind, you could hide beer better,” he says. He’d buy a 12-pack on his way home and work his way through it, with no brand preference or loyalty. “I never afforded or allowed myself an opportunity to try a really great crafted cocktail. Beer was always just more accessible.”

    In 2014, Hawkins woke up in a jail cell and decided to make a change. A close friend introduced him to his uncle, a recovering alcoholic himself, who brought Hawkins to Alcoholics Anonymous and remains his sponsor in recovery to this day. While many recovering alcoholics quit the bar scene cold turkey, Hawkins’s approach to sobriety prioritized maintaining his usual social life, minus the alcohol. “It was truly just daunting to think that I’d have 75 years of life to live without doing the things I love,” he says, explaining that it often seemed easier, in those early days, to live with the repercussions of alcoholism than to miss out on baseball games, live music and the Derby.

    Raising a bottle of water among juleps felt anti-celebratory enough, but Hawkins describes other moments of marginalization, often from well-meaning waitstaff and even friends: lemonade served in childish plastic tumblers, bartenders refusing payment for soft drinks. Even tickets to charity events often came with bourbon tastings he couldn’t partake in. “The most awkward time is when you do the blind gift exchanges,” he says. “I got a bottle of wine at one of those white elephant gift exchanges. I’m like, ‘Cool. That’s great.’ We just automatically assume that everybody drinks.”

     

    Between getting sober and serving his time, Hawkins started a new job consulting for small businesses, including many restaurants and bars. Without a driver’s license, he’d bike, bus and Uber between the office, networking events, client meetings and an intensive outpatient program, oftentimes sweltering in a suit under the Louisville sun. He began to learn the ins and outs of the hospitality industry.

    On his three-year sobriety date, Hawkins quit his job and hit the road in a van emblazoned with “Sober Voyager,” to prove to himself that he could still experience the world without drinking. His goal was to visit a different state every week, checking off bucket-list items — watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, hiking through Zion National Park. He met new people and learned from other cities’ approaches to creating a more inclusive drinking culture, capturing it all on his blog and Instagram. He eventually made stops in all 48 contiguous states, sipping mocktails in each one. “I can say I’ve probably tried more mocktails in more cities than anybody in America,” he says.

    Hawkins has pivoted away from Sober Voyager and to the Mocktail Project, preferring to talk more about the future than the past. He seems to choose his words carefully when discussing his erstwhile wanderlust, perhaps because he wants to keep the Mocktail Project’s mission palatable to those outside the recovery community, or perhaps because the bar scene is not exactly a favorite haunt for the AA crowd. Hawkins cautions against viewing mocktail consumers as a monolith — some eschew bitters, for instance, for their small alcohol content, and some just have to get up early for work tomorrow.

    He still lives in the Sober Voyager van, which converts to a full pop-up mocktail bar for events. Hawkins, who mixes the drinks himself, likes to use local brands, like Ale-8-One and Bourbon Barrel Foods. (The focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients fits into the wellness-oriented, slow-food, artisanal-everything zeitgeist.) At PeteFest in September, Hawkins riffed on a Blackberry Smash, with Ale-8 and muddled mint, lemon and blackberries. In October, he’s planning another Ale-8 concoction, this one featuring cinnamon, maple syrup, lemon, a smoked brown sugar rim and an apple garnish. Mocktails are so appealing to him now because they emphasize quality over quantity, sipping over chugging.

    The Mocktail Project makes its money from charitable donations, event partnerships and individual drink sales. During Mocktober, $1 for every drink posted with #shareamocktail was donated by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to the Mocktail Project, money that subsequently funds Hawkins’ Sober Voyager Foundation and its support of local recovery efforts at the Morton Center, the Healing Place and the Isaiah House.

    According to Nielsen data, about half of U.S. adults are consciously trying to drink less. And the market for ready-to-drink, low- or no-alcohol beverages is predicted to grow by about 39 percent in the next three years, according to beverage-trend analyst IWSR. “(Mocktails) are definitely more popular,” Christiansen says. “I think, generally, people want to consume products that have quality and flavor, and the mocktail isn’t a Shirley Temple anymore.”

    Stewart, who plans to roll out a permanent zero-proof cocktail menu at Against the Grain in the next few months, agrees: “We have seen a significant drop in the younger generation. People that are 21, 22, 23 aren’t drinking. Maybe they’ve learned lessons from previous generations. Then again, they’re not drinking, but they’re doing all kinds of crazy vape pens and shit.”

    “Bourbon will always be here, and it should always be here,” Hawkins says. “That’s Kentucky. And we do it better than anybody in the world. Spirit brands don’t want you to have 10 cocktails, black out, get in a car and hurt somebody. They spend 15 years putting that little brown spirit into a barrel and putting it up on a rack for you to enjoy it.”

    Hawkins emphasizes that the Mocktail Project’s mission is not centered around sober living or addiction recovery. It’s not anti-alcohol at all. Instead, it’s about normalizing the inclusion of non-alcoholic options, the de-stigmatization of opting out of drinking for a night. It’s a mission that takes a page from the book of vegetarian dining or the gluten-free movement. Think of the “sober curious” as the flexitarians of beverages — it should be as unremarkable, this ideology suggests, as a meat-eater ordering the occasional veggie burger. (Though Stewart is quick to disavow “the Impossible Burger approach,” preferring to create mocktails that aren’t pretending to be something they’re not.) “It’s nobody’s business why you choose not to (drink),” Hawkins says. “We should focus more on celebrating, not drinking. How neat would it be if, when you sit down at a table, they hand you a menu and they’re like, ‘Here’s our top five cocktails, here’s a couple of our best wines, here’s two or three of our craft beers and here’s five of our great, elevated non-alcoholic options’? And it becomes a non-issue because it’s presented in that way.”

    Though Hawkins believes Louisville already has great programs in place for those seeking addiction treatment, he finds the city particularly inhospitable to the sober curious. “It’s one of the only cities that I’ve found (where) every single event is based around having a spirit,” he says.

    Still, Louisville has made slow and steady progress in recent years, thanks in part to Hawkins’ advocacy. The staff at Against the Grain began serving mocktails only after Hawkins showed up and chatted with Stewart about his mission. And you can find a zero-proof cocktail on the menu at several distilleries in town, including Copper & Kings (and its bar, ALEX&NDER), Rabbit Hole and George’s Bar at the Old Forester Distillery, and at a handful of other local bars and restaurants: The Hub, Decca, Ostra and Louvino to name a few.

    Besides advocating for permanent mocktail programs at local watering holes, the Mocktail Project also travels to local and national events. This year, the Sober Voyager van set up shop at Forecastle for the first time and even served the first mocktail at the Kentucky Derby, a play on a mint julep featuring steeped tea, oleo-saccharum (a citrus-based syrup) and Ale-8 — a major level up from bottled water.

    “To have people just like myself walk up and order a drink and sit there and talk for 10 or 15 minutes at the Derby, it was special,” Hawkins says. “There they are sharing their stories about their journey of sobriety or why it means so much to them. There wasn’t a single person that walked up that didn’t share their gratitude for what we’re trying to accomplish.”

     

    This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Zero Proof, All Flavor.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

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