By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Samantha Kasten woke up one morning in July 2018 after drinking too much the night before, with a headache and an ultimatum presented by her mother: Stop drinking now or figure it out elsewhere.
Kasten was living with her parents at the time, struggling on and off with her relationship to alcohol for most of her 20s, so such a blunt command served as the catalyst she needed to finally make some changes in her life.
“She was like, ‘Alright, you have to make the decision today. You have to make a choice. You’re faced with it. You either stop drinking or you go out and live your life however you want. But if you’re going to stop drinking, today’s going to be the day,’” Kasten said.
Since that day, Kasten has not tasted one sip of alcohol. Instead, she’s embraced the sober life head on, got engaged to her fiancé and, most recently, launched Umbrella Dry Drinks, a nonalcoholic bar and bottle shop.
Though her current trajectory is skyrocketing toward success, Kasten’s journey has been tumultuous at times. She said the concept behind the business is to carve out a space for those who are on a similar path, while providing comfort and community.
“The drink itself can be whatever. [The business is] all about holding a drink and feeling included and finding that connection with people,” Kasten said.
Simmer to boil
Kasten didn’t drink in high school, but entering college thrust her into an environment where attending parties and regularly consuming alcohol was considered the norm. Because everyone else was doing it, Kasten didn’t see an issue with the amount she was drinking.
But the social activity began to affect her life in various ways, such as precluding Kasten from completing her degree and getting a DUI that landed her in jail for five days in 2016. Kasten wouldn’t finally quit drinking for two more years, but the magnitude of the issue slowly came into focus.
“It was becoming more clear to me that things were not going well for me and I wasn’t going to be successful if I was going to keep drinking,” Kasten said.
After the 2018 incident with her mother and subsequent sobriety, Kasten and her fiancé, Trevor – who stopped drinking with her – found themselves staying in more than going out, because socializing often involved close proximity to alcohol.
However, one summer the couple had tickets to an event at Barmini by José Andrés in D.C. for their sobriety anniversary. The menu included all spirit-free mocktails, which, for Kasten, kicked open the door to a whole new idea of what going out could look like.
“It was mind blowing. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? I can go out and have a fancy drink that doesn’t have alcohol and feel like I’m part of the party, and feel included? That’s amazing,’” Kasten recalled.
A seed was planted, and it began to germinate when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and continued to progress throughout 2020.
Kasten said her Instagram feed began to feature more nonalcoholic content – whether by algorithm or by a general increased interest in sobriety – and connect her with a community of nondrinkers.
During this time, she stumbled on an account for San’s Bar, a fully nonalcoholic bar based in Austin, Texas. The owner, Chris Marshall, had just begun offering a 10-week course aimed at teaching people how to open up their own nonalcoholic business.
“What’s interesting about the alcohol-free bottle shop and bar movement is that a lot of people are very interested and eager to jump in, but they have very little money and they have very little bartending or management experience,” Marshall said. “That so mirrors where I was when I started San’s Bar in 2017. I didn’t quite know where to go. So I rolled my experiences into that of other people who have experience in bar and restaurant management and created [the] academy.”
Marshall speculated that the piqued interest in sobriety that produced San’s Bar Academy in December 2020 stems in part from the pandemic, a point during which people started to engage in more self-reflection.
“I think the pandemic was the first time people really took an opportunity to look inside themselves. And I think one thing that people really looked at was their relationship with alcohol and how it impacts their life,” Marshall said.
In fact, according to a May 2020 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published by the National Institute of Health, 60% of 832 participants reported that their drinking had increased during the pandemic.
Of that number, 45.7% reported that their drinking had increased because of stress, 34.4% reported that their drinking had increased because of the increased availability of alcohol and 30.1% reported that their drinking had increased because of boredom.
Encouraged by the recent surge she was seeing in sober curiosity in her own community, Kasten signed up for the San’s Bar Academy program.
“I saw this explosion with these nonalcoholic beverages. … It’s becoming more normal for people to become sober. I started noticing a big change,” Kasten said. “I was like, ‘There needs to be a shop.’”
Under the umbrella
Umbrella Dry Drinks officially launched as a pop-up in February 2022, offering everything from spiritless sidecars to grapefruit mimosas composed of ingredients that Kasten handpicked and vetted herself.
Umbrella Dry Drinks currently offers bar service at Fontaine Caffe, located at 119 S. Royal St., from 5 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and has products available at Boxwood, located at 128 S. Royal St.
Since opening, the business has taken off, which Kasten characterized as “honestly overwhelming.”
“I feel like we’re in this new era where people are just approaching alcohol differently. People are approaching the people that don’t drink alcohol differently. It’s not really questioned as much anymore, which is awesome,” Kasten said. “I’m hoping that in five to 10 years, when you go into a bar or restaurant there are equal options on both sides of alcohol versus no alcohol.”
Kasten is in the process of searching for a permanent location for Umbrella Dry Drinks in Old Town, though she doesn’t have a timeline yet for how long that will take. She also does not plan on adding alcoholic options to the menu. “I don’t ever want anyone to be in a position [where] they feel uncomfortable or question their sobriety or have anyone else question their sobriety, or just their choice to not drink,” Kasten said.
Marshall’s own journey with alcohol started with his first drink at age 16. He stopped drinking at 23 and said that much of the progress he made in his early recovery could be attributed to a sense of community.
“[Being with] people who were my friends and who loved me enough [to help] me love myself made a very early impression on me, and I realized that so much of getting better is community,” Marshall said.
Marshall eventually went on to become a licensed substance abuse counselor for eight years. Now, creating a safe space for sober people to meet other sober people is what Marshall teaches in his course and what Kasten hopes to achieve through her business.
Kasten has found that the decision to avoid alcohol appeals not only to those who are sober and in recovery, but also to people who are on medication, pregnant or simply want to cut back.
“There are literally so many reasons as to why someone would not drink alcohol, so my concept is, ‘If you want to stay dry, come hang out under this big umbrella with us,” Kasten said.
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