Julia Bainbridge Wants to Make Non-Alcoholic Drinks Less Awkward

“There’s never been a better time to be a non-drinker.”

Julia Bainbridge
Portrait: Theodore Samuels; Drinks: Alex Lau; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist
Portrait: Theodore Samuels; Drinks: Alex Lau; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist

When Julia Bainbridge was seven years old, she noticed a classmate of hers crying in the corner of a birthday party. She went over and asked what was wrong and, when she found out he was left out of playing video games, she invited him over to use her brothers’ Nintendo.

“What I saw was that he wasn’t allowed to and I wanted him to be,” she says. “I’m certainly no saint by any means, but in some ways my career has been about sticking up for people. I talk about topics that usually have shame around them and try to understand and normalize them. My hope is for people to feel seen.”

In addition to her popular podcast, The Lonely Hour, in which she interviews guests about solitude, Bainbridge just released a book of zero-proof cocktail recipes called Good Drinks. In it, she is candid about her own complicated relationship with alcohol, shares her research on the topic, and includes recipes of some of the most delicious non-alcoholic drinks from bartenders around the country.

“When I removed alcohol from my life serendipitously was when bartenders were removing alcohol from their recipes,” she says. “I feel so privileged to pursue something in my work life that I’m dealing with personally. It’s not the first non-alcoholic book to ever exist, but I wanted to capitalize on the innovation and energy I was seeing.”

The book is structured by level of difficulty and time of day. Like any good cocktail book, there are tips on tools and techniques -- with special sections dedicated to ice, glassware, and syrups. The bartender-recommended drinks came from her own travels, as well as friends and colleagues she jokingly referred to as “unpaid stringers,” who would fill up her Instagram DMs with zero-proof concoctions from around the country.

Good Drinks
Alex Lau © 2020

We asked Bainbridge to pair cocktails from Good Drinks with quarantine scenarios: 

Social-distance picnic in the park: The Pimm’s Crown has such great bitterness and on a summer afternoon with salty chips is such a lovely thing. Bring the Pimm’s and mix it in person.

Post at-home yoga workout: The Honeydew Agua Fresca is so creamy from the avocado, feels healthy to drink, and is almost smoothie-like. It’s lightened because of the Topo Chico.

Zoom happy hour: The King Palm because it’s a show-off recipe. It’s something I sip slowly and it will last during a Zoom hang. It’s so wild that, if you clarify it properly, it glows.

A sipper while you cook for the billionth night in a row: Verjus Spritz is three equal-parts that you just open and pour -- and Verjus really stimulates my appetite. Put it in a beautiful stemmed glass with ice cubes and a twist.

Something to calm you before bed: The Digesteaf, which I had at Smith’s in Portland. They offered to recreate the recipe with all the dried herbs in their apothecary. I know the ashwagandha root is good for you, and that pink rose must have a good calming effect. I would have a tiny bit in a cordial glass, chilled beforehand.
Good Drinks
Alex Lau © 2020

As a former editor at Bon Appétit, Bainbridge is no stranger to the importance of recipe testing, and she felt a special kind of obligation to ensure that these were the most well-balanced drinks they could be -- to prove that non-alcoholic creations were, in fact, good drinks.

“We tested the shit out of them,” she says. “If it was too complicated, it’s out. If it wasn’t delicious, it’s out. I worked with an assistant and we tested 10 drinks a day for two months, then had it cross-tested by a professional recipe developer. I was very conscious of the fact that I am not a bartender and wanted to make sure we were doing these drinks justice.”

Even more important in her mind was to provide an elegant resource for those choosing to abstain from alcohol, especially at a time when dependencies might be heightened due to COVID-19 stress. But curiosity about the sober life was already percolating, with Google Trends reporting that internet searches for Dry January increased five-fold over the last two years.

“The popularity of that is telling us something, and now we have Sober October, too,” Bainbridge says. “Eventually, people can feel ok ordering non-alcoholic drinks no matter the time of year. Calling these drinks cocktails and not placing them on the back of a menu in the corner because that has a psychological impact -- that’s a good start.”

There is a reason that the subtitle to the book is “Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You're Not Drinking for Whatever Reason” and that’s because Bainbridge realizes there are countless reasons people don’t drink and an equal amount of false assumptions -- whether it’s that a woman must be pregnant, or someone is labeled as straight edge or in the program.

“It’s not as black and white as you’re an alcoholic or you’re not,” she says. “But I believe there’s never been a better time to be a non-drinker. The more these products come onto the market and are legitimately delicious, this whole thing becomes easier to discuss.”

She points to non-alcoholic brands like Athletic Brewing Company and Seedlip, books like Zero Proof by Elva Ramirez, and NA cocktails at spots like The Aviary in Chicago as promising signs. Because sometimes it’s just one drink that can change people’s minds. Bainbridge still remembers the “aha” moment she had at Tribeca restaurant Atera five years ago when she tried the Cham-Pine with white pine needle tea that was brewed, sweetened, and carbonated.

“It was the first non-alcoholic thing I had that tasted adult and wasn’t syrup and soda with a stripey straw sticking out of the glass,” she says. “People deserve to have something that is a level up from juice or fizzy water. This has been kind of a revolutionary undertaking -- gathering these recipes and just simply calling them drinks.”

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor for Thrillist, who admits that Athletic Brewing’s Run Wild IPA got her through a Dry January of her own. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.