Over the past three-plus years, Samantha Kasten hasn’t been shy about her sobriety. From Instagram posts cataloging alcoholic alternatives to her recent attempts to burgeon the booze-free scene in the DMV, Kasten has discovered a burning desire to explore the world of low and no-ABV cocktails and other forms of pseudo-booze.
“When I finally got sober, it took me some time to open up about it,” she says. “Eventually, people began reaching out to me about their own struggles. Through that I found a community which has led to me meeting so many people through Instagram.”
Kasten says the booze-free community on social media is so robust that it inspired her to develop her own business built around the idea of providing quality alcohol-free drinks for everyone, whether they’re sober or not. Just this past December, before the holidays, Kasten introduced people in Alexandria to her passion project: Umbrella Dry Drinks.
“I came up with this idea where people can find a place to come and congregate with others,” she says. “It’s more common now to find people who have a story like me. You don’t have to suffer through rock bottoms and it’s really cool that the [sober] community has grown so much where people can learn more about themselves and about nonalcoholic options.”
Though in its infancy, Kasten has lofty goals for her project — all of which stem from her primary goal to enlighten, educate and entertain via masterful concoctions.
A Large Umbrella
Kasten describes sobriety as a large umbrella and says, “No matter where you are under that umbrella, you belong.” She started her own journey into the world of sobriety after several years of heavy drinking, which began when she moved from Northern Virginia to Charleston for college. There, she fell deep into the party scene. She initially decided to cut alcohol out of her life following a DUI in 2016, but it took her several years to climb firmly onto the wagon. On January 2, she celebrated her three-year anniversary of sobriety.
“I’ve been very open about it,” Kasten said.
This year, in the midst of the seemingly ongoing and never-ending pandemic, Kasten took her desire to learn more about alcoholic alternatives to the next level by enrolling in a 10-week course led by Sans Bar Founder Chris Marshall, a nationally-recognized leader in the sober-curious movement. The academy classes were Kasten’s first foray into mixology — unless you count the extremely short stint when she was a bartender in her early 20s (author’s note: she doesn’t).
“I wasn’t very good [then],” Kasten laughed. “To be honest, I don’t know that much about bartending. I have always been a very creative person, so I’m able to come up with interesting combinations. When I drank I didn’t even really drink cocktails; I drank bourbon neat. I think that’s why I’m more interested in it now. It’s more about the process and enjoying a drink you put time and effort into.”
What she lacks in traditional experience, she makes up for with infectious enthusiasm. Kasten cares deeply about the plight of folks who are sober but want the feeling of camaraderie that drinking can provide. It’s a social aspect that can be difficult for people in search of an alternative.
“Sometimes there’s still a stigma with people who don’t order drinks out,” she says. “I’ve sometimes left it to chance and let a bartender prepare a mocktail, but it’s nine times out of 10 just a jumble of sodas and syrups.”
Despite only one pop-up under her belt, which was held at Mint Collective in Alexandria and featured her take on a hot spiced cider and a Dry 75 (her version of a French 75), Kasten is already looking toward her next steps. She says she’ll be hosting another pop-up in January, though the location is still TBD, and hopes to eventually house Umbrella Dry Drinks in its own brick-and-mortar.
“It’s been about a month,” she says candidly. “I’m not far into it, but I’ve already connected with so many people. Everyone deserves a good drink, whether or not you’re drinking alcohol. This is the concept I landed on when figuring out how I could do more with my sobriety and my story.”
Kasten’s first experience with the types of events she eventually plans to curate herself occurred at King’s Ransom, led by local DMV mixologist Jon Schott. Since this “explosive realization,” she has encouraged people in her own life to explore the possibilities of alcoholic alternatives.
“If you hand someone a drink and say it’s nonalcoholic, people are going to have a preconceived notion of it being bad,” she says about the stigma.
To curb this, she suggests approaching nonalcoholic cocktails you try with an open mind. Even if the drink is intended to replicate the flavor of a traditional Old Fashioned or Manhattan, it is key to approach the beverages with a curious mindset.
“Start with something that resembles a basic drink,” Kasten says. “I’d suggest a mule because ginger beer has such a strong flavor itself. Go toward mocktails you’re familiar with, but again, go in with an open mind and know it won’t be the same because it’s not supposed to be the same. Think about how you’ll feel after the fact.”
Social media has played a huge role in connecting with others over the course of her sobriety journey, and she suggests Instagram as a great place to identify recipes worth trying. Even if you experience a less than stellar taste with your first one, there will always be another to try.
“Go in without expectations but know there are many good options out there and the first one might not be your favorite,” she says. “Look for good resources and try again.”
For some, Dry January marks the only time this year they will opt for alcohol-free versions of their favorite drinks. Others will continue to rely on the passion of people like Kasten, who have sacrificed large portions of their lives to continue building the lexicon of robust low- or no-ABV drink alternatives year-round.
“I thought of the concept in the middle of the night and knew what I wanted to call it and what I wanted to do,” she says. “The whole time I was taking the [Sans Bar] class, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now that I do, I’m diving right in.”
For more information about future pop-ups and other news, follow Umbrella Dry Drinks on Instagram @umbrelladrydrinks.
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