Sober curious phenomenon

Artefact of the month – August 2023

In the spring of 2023, the National Museum of Finland and the Department of Ethnology at the University of Helsinki organised a collaborative course called ‘Living Materiality.’ During the course, students familiarised themselves with the contemporary documentation at the National Museum of Finland and worked on group projects related to the theme. One of the topics the students chose for documentation was the changes in Finnish drinking culture from the perspective of the sober curious phenomenon.

What would you document about this moment for the Museum's collections?

During the course, the students, together with the National Museum of Finland, contemplated what aspects of this era would be meaningful to record in the museum’s collections. The students designed and implemented documentation projects related to contemporary phenomena based on their ideas. The topics chosen for documentation were based on the students' own reflections on phenomena worthy of preservation in museum collections and their objectification.

One of the proposed subjects for documentation was the sober curious phenomenon, which refers to the trend of reducing or abstaining from alcohol consumption and adopting a curious and relaxed attitude toward sobriety. The phenomenon can also be understood more broadly as a questioning approach to one's own alcohol consumption and the role of alcohol in society.

The students' proposal was motivated by the idea of documenting the recent changes in Finnish drinking culture: Choices related to alcohol abstinence have been evident in the decrease in alcohol consumption among young people and the availability of alcohol-free options in retail sales and on shelves. The sales and supply of alcohol-free products have increased, with Finnish breweries, for example, investing in the production of alcohol-free beverages in recent years.

Documenting target: casual sobriety

As a part of the discussions on the objectification of the phenomenon, it was decided that the sober curious trend would be recorded in the form of a non-alcoholic spirit product package. For background research on the phenomenon, the students conducted email interviews with Katri Ylinen, a co-founder of the ‘Darravapaa’ (hangover free) community that discusses the trend on social media. The trend has been a topic of conversation on various social media channels and podcasts in recent years.

The bottle recorded by the students was produced by The Helsinki Distilling Company. The product brand ‘Helsinki Nolla’ is an alcohol-free and water-based flavoured distillate, made with the distillery's secret recipe. The drink has been marketed as an alcohol-free alternative to gin in cocktails. The thick bottle, made of clear glass, resembles the packaging of the company's alcoholic beverages.

The prevalence and acceptance of alcohol consumption are evident in the need to often justify sobriety. Katri Ylinen, as interviewed by the students, pointed out that "At its best, the trend helps to reduce the stigma around alcohol-related problems, normalising the idea that you don't always have to drink." The sober curious trend has indeed brought into question the central role of alcohol in social interactions and events. In Finland, alcohol-free nightclub events have been organised, serving mocktails made from beverages like Helsinki Nolla.

The term sober curious originates from Ruby Warrington, a British author whose book about the phenomenon was published in 2018. This global trend has been particularly popular among young and health-conscious individuals. As the lifestyle often emphasises individuals' healthy habits and the benefits of abstinence, the trend is connected to other contemporary well-being trends.

Modern phenomenon?

Although sober curious may appear to be a new trend, sobriety, and social movements encouraging it, are not historically new phenomena. Finnish alcohol consumption has been regulated through laws, but various societal movements and subcultures have also advocated for abstinence. For instance, the straight-edge subculture has had an impact in Finland. It began as a counter-reaction to the reckless drinking associated with punk culture in America, initiated by individuals within the community. In addition to promoting a drug-free lifestyle, ‘straight edgers’ often prioritise advocating for animal rights.

The National Museum of Finland documents contemporary phenomena and societal turning points. Documentation is usually carried out promptly when information about the object or phenomenon is still extensively available. In contemporary documentation, identifying turning points and phenomena, and capturing them comprehensively, can be challenging. Therefore, documenting changes may be more significant than capturing specific turning points. By recording the sober curious phenomenon, the students have documented from their perspective the social, cultural, and economic changes that have occurred in Finnish drinking culture in recent years.

Anni Minkkinen

Sources and further reading

The Darravapaa community’s website

Dufva, Mikko & Rowley, Christopher, 2022. Weak Signals 2022 – Stories about Futures. Sitra studies 200.

Kataja, Kati, 20.5.2021. Päihteiden käytön merkityksellisyys ja merkityksettömyys. University of Eastern Finland's blog text

Kendall, Emily, 18.11.2022. ‘Straight edge’, Encyclopedia Britannica.

HS 4.8.2019. Krapula-ahdistukseen kyllästyneet nuoret julistavat sanomaansa sosiaalisessa mediassa: Perinteinen raittiusliike sai haastajan ”kokeilevasta alkoholittomuudesta”.

HS 20.9.2019. Raittiiden opiskelijoiden määrä kasvaa: Tilastot näyttävät, minkä alan opiskelijat juovat eniten ja minkä vähiten.

HS 1.3.2021. Alkon myynti kasvoi roimasti helmikuussa, ja perinteisen viinamonopolin kuumimpia trendejä on nyt alkoholittomuus – tästä sober curious -ilmiössä on kyse.

HS 1.9.2021. Suomalainen tislaamo alkaa myydä ”viinaa”, jossa ei ole lainkaan alkoholia.

HS 23.9.2022. Tällä klubilla kaikki on nurin kurin: tanssilattia täyttyy jo alkuillasta ja paikat kiiltävät puhtauttaan, koska tiskillä ei myydä viinaa.

Nylund, Emma, 2022. Alkoholikriittisen juomisen käytäntö nuorten kuluttajien keskuudessa. Master’s thesis, University of Helsinki.

Peltonen, Matti; Kilpiö, Kaarina; Kuusi, Hanna (eds), 2006 Alkoholin vuosisata – suomalaisten alkoholiolojen käänteitä 1900-luvulla. Helsinki, The Finnish Literature Society.

Pylvänäinen, Juho. 2022. “Se on treenikysymys opetella pitää hauskaa ilman viinaa!”: Sober curious terapeuttisena käytäntönä ja alkoholinormatiivisuuden haastajana. Master’s thesis, University of Turku.

Warrington, Ruby, 2019. Sober curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol. New York, HarperOne.

YLE News 7.9.2022. Alkoholittomuus näkyy nyt opiskelijabileissä – Tampereen Nami-appro kerää valtavasti osallistujia.

YLE News 12.1.2023. Alkoholittomat juomat käyvät niin hyvin kaupaksi, että suurpanimo alkaa poistaa alkoholia oluesta Suomessa.

Collaborative Education-Documentation Project, IT189, Email Interview with Katri Ylinen on 25.4.2023

The picture showing the front of the bottle

The bottle's brand is alcohol-free and water-based flavoured distillate. With the rise of the sober curious phenomenon, alcohol-free nightclub events have been organised, where mocktails resembling cocktails made from similar ingredients are served.

The back side of the bottle

Unlike alcoholic products, the label on the reverse of the distillate includes an ingredient list and nutritional information.