DC’s Nonalcoholic Drinking Festival Returns to Union Market

Mindful Drinking Fest will serve more than 120 different drinks starting Friday, January 26.

The Mindful Drinking Fest includes a booze-free rave. Photograph by Jennifer Chase.

Maybe a nonalcoholic gin had a flavor you disliked, or a near-beer left you cold. Maybe you think zero-proof drinks tend to be too sweet. For one reason or another, some people don’t go for alcohol alternatives, even if they’re drinking less for Dry January.

The goal of DC’s Mindful Drinking Fest, led by cocktail maven Derek Brown, is to disabuse you of that aversion. The festival, now in its second year and running January 26 through 28 at Union Market, showcases the blossoming variety of alcohol-free cocktails, wine, beer, and spirits, which is fast approaching the diversity of booze itself.

Disliking one beer wouldn’t turn you off of alcohol for good, Brown says— why should you judge nonalcoholic drinks the same way? “This is a way to show people that there’s something for everyone,” Brown says. “You’re not going to like every product, but you’ll find one you like. It’s really about discovery.”

As creative spirit-free drinks have become even more ubiquitous around DC, the festival has grown too. This year, it includes more than 40 beverage companies and producers, pouring over 120 alcohol-free drinks, from IPAs to cordials to rosé vermouths to whiskeys.

The Mindful Drinking Fest is a passion project for Brown, the pioneering barman behind the Columbia Room, who radically changed his drinking habits around 2018 after years in the fast-paced, hard-drinking bartending world took a heavy toll on his mental health. While he didn’t quit alcohol altogether, Brown now practices what he calls “mindful drinking,” substituting many of his old boozy drinks with no- or low-ABV alternatives. He’s also written a recipe book on the subject called Mindful Mixology. 

Brown is now a wellness coach, having written the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s course on mindful drinking, but he doesn’t push a teetotaling lifestyle for everyone. The point of his work with the festival, Brown says, is to encourage drinkers to integrate nonalcoholic alternatives into their habits. 

All-inclusive tickets to Mindful Drinking Fest go for $149. That includes panel speakers like Tawny Lara—the author of Dry Humping: A Guide to Dating, Relating, and Hooking Up Without the Booze—and tastings at Union Market from companies like Boisson, Seedlip, Sierra Nevada, Guinness, Fever Tree, Ritual Zero Proof Spirits, and Whiteclaw. (What exactly is nonalcoholic “hard seltzer”? “People are scratching their heads about it,” Brown says.) 

On Friday night, the festival takes the show on the road with a crawl to three of the city’s best cocktail bars—Allegory, Service Bar, and Death & Co.—all of which have robust nonalcoholic menus. On Saturday night, the festival takes over La Cosecha food hall, pairing food from the space’s Latin American eateries with nonalcoholic wines and cocktails from Töst, Giesen, Oceano Zero, and Mocktail Club. A few hours later, the festivities move to Culture in Ivy City, which will throw an alcohol-free rave hosted by Disco Mary (Brown’s partner and the festival’s creative director Maria Bastasch) from 10 PM to midnight. 

Brown thinks DC is the perfect town for Mindful Drinking Fest to continue to grow. “DC is consistently listed as one of the healthiest cities in the US,” he says. “Part of that is drinking in a way that suits our goals.”

Ike Allen
Assistant Editor