What’s It Like to Be a Bartender Who Doesn’t Drink?

“There’s a lot to be said about an experience that can be remembered.”

9:30 Club bartender Kayla Johnson. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Dry January Guide

About Dry January Guide

This article is part of our guide to Dry January around DC. Today’s bartenders are catering to the sober—and the sober-curious—with more sophisticated options than ever. Dry January doesn’t have to mean bland January. Here’s how to (not) drink your way through Washington in style.

We asked the 9:30 Club’s Kayla Johnson.

How long have you been sober?

Since February 27, 2011. When I drink, bad things happen to me and likely to the people around me, so I can’t do it safely.

Do you drink at all? If you’re making a drink, do you taste it?

I don’t even taste-test my drinks, which is actually why I prefer high-volume bartending in spaces like the 9:30 Club. I purposely don’t work in cocktail bars because I don’t want to be in a position where I have to taste my drinks.

How has being sober changed the way you tend bar?

I realize that putting more alcohol in front of somebody is not necessarily the best way to build business. There’s a lot to be said about an experience that can be remembered.

Is it still a temptation being surrounded by alcohol all the time?

There is not a night that goes by that I leave work and don’t have a reminder of why I don’t drink. If I had gone back to a day job at a desk, I don’t know that I would have stayed sober this long. You don’t have as much of a reminder in an office. It’s a lot easier to hide it.

Do you notice an uptick in people asking for nonalcoholic drinks?

Absolutely. We have a coffee bar, and it has a plethora of nonalcoholic options. As one of the sober bartenders on staff—I’m not the only one—when I notice someone is not purchasing alcohol, I try to recommend to them that there’s a place for you to also enjoy yourself. I’m noticing that I’m pointing that out to people a lot more lately.

This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.