While the origin of the term “dry January” is debatable, the first large-scale movement for an alcohol-free January was started a decade ago by Alcohol Change UK. The organization hoped that by taking a month off of drinking, participants would begin asking questions about their alcohol intake. The movement spread, gaining popularity among those wishing to take a break after a few months of holiday parties and indulgences.
The curiosity that Alcohol Change UK hoped to spark has slowly grown, with a more casual interest in sobriety (dubbed “sober curiosity”) and increased demand for lower- and non-alcohol products. Chris Leavitt, bar director and assistant general manager at Anima by EDO in Las Vegas, has seen this trend among his clientele.
“Dry January continues to be a pursuit to reset your body from booze, maybe focusing on activities that avoid it entirely, leading to potentially improved mental health as well as physical,” Leavitt says. “From a bar perspective, I’ve seen more and more places offer menus dedicated to this audience. Cocktails in particular are getting more sophisticated in the spirit-free category, allowing those guests to feel more included and welcomed. It’s been amazing to see this and feel challenged to make those experiences fun as well.”
The rising popularity of damp January
People are still taking on the challenge of dry January. However, a new emerging trend focuses less on complete restriction and more on mindful drinking, called damp January. As the name implies, damp January is not completely dry or fully wet.
“Damp January, as I’ve experienced, is a compromise from strictly doing dry January, allowing yourself a cocktail, a glass of wine or beer a handful of times throughout the month,” Leavitt says. “While it’s not as hardcore as dry January, it still encourages the same mindset: giving your body a break from overconsumption of booze.”
Eliza McClure, vice president of marketing and innovation at New England-based WhistlePig Whiskey, also confirms the demand for damp January.
“The January movement is no longer black and white,” she says. “Sales of our new Dry and Wet Orange Fashioned cocktails show that WhistlePig fans are choosing damp January. As an independent brand always seeking to challenge expectations and carve our own path, we love seeing drinkers do the same by hijacking dry January with something that works for them personally.”
With less pressure than the traditional dry January, damp January offers something different than an all-or-nothing resolution. It also provides a path of redemption for those who already failed at staying sober for the month. According to Sunnyside, a drink-tracking app for conscious consumption, 35% of those participating in dry January fail within the first week.
A more mindful relationship with alcohol
Hana Elson is a TikTok creator who has carried the idea of damp January into an entire “damp lifestyle.”
“For me, this was a habit-building practice that could actually last me the entire year beyond this January, knowing that all these small little changes add up to make a lifestyle,” she explains. “It’s a lot more attainable for me personally, but I know that’s not the case for everyone.”
Elson isn’t the only one looking to take on more minor, moderate changes to her drinking lifestyle. Another damp January participant, Kate Kinsella, is a lifestyle and events director.
“I wanted to actively and mindfully cut back on my alcohol intake without committing to something that wouldn’t work with my occupation,” says Kinsella, who has work parties and network events where social drinking is encouraged. Kinsella found that damp January worked with the social dynamics of her work life. She said it also felt less like an inevitable failure waiting to happen.
Physical and mental benefits of damp January
Damp January certainly doesn’t work for everyone, and cutting alcohol out completely offers the broadest range of benefits. But for those who want to take this more moderate approach, there are physical and mental health benefits. George F. Koob holds a Ph.D. in behavioral physiology and is the current director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). He says both cutting back and taking a break from alcohol are beneficial when done safely.
“The more alcohol one drinks, the harder it is on all of the organ systems in the body. So, cutting back could potentially reduce the damage,” he says.
For many, the hope of participating in dry January is likely to create some form of long-term change. This is one reason damp January may have become so popular recently: it feels more compelling. It’s not as much of a pass-fail experience as dry January. After the month is over, participants may be inspired to continue it on through February, March and beyond.
If this idea of intentional and moderate consumption of alcohol is less intimidating than a complete reduction, it’s not surprising. Koob explains that one study from the U.K. examined changes in alcohol consumption six months after participation in dry January. Only about one-third of participants did not fully complete dry January. However, even among those participants, there were still “significant increases in social and emotional [drink refusal self-efficacy] at one-month follow-up, and significant reductions in drinking days per week, drinks per typical drinking day and frequency of drunkenness at 6-month follow-up.”
Safely reducing alcohol consumption
Koob also cautions heavy drinkers from completely reducing their alcohol intake as aggressively as one does during dry January.
“It is important to remember that, for people who normally drink heavily and might be physiologically dependent on alcohol, quitting abruptly could lead to severe withdrawal and even death,” he says. “There are at least 850 deaths and 250,000 emergency department visits related to alcohol withdrawal in the United States each year. If someone has been drinking heavily for a while, cutting back or quitting is best done under medical supervision.”
Participating in damp January
So how does one go about the damp January lifestyle? Koob recommends getting curious. Pay attention to the where, when and why of your drinking habits. He says people drink for many reasons. For some, it relieves social anxiety; for others, it helps reduce stress or pain. Besides the health benefits, participants may gain a better understanding of the why behind their relationship with alcohol.
“Being mindful of how they feel without alcohol and cultivating new strategies for sleeping, having fun, relaxing, coping, etc. can be extremely beneficial,” he explains.
Adopting a long-term damp lifestyle
This is something that Elson also affirms. Her experience has been one of finding balance and relearning self-confidence through the damp lifestyle. She was just as fun sober and didn’t need to drink alcohol to access that part of who she was.
“It’s about taking away the concept of using alcohol as a personality crutch and learning how to be the best versions of ourselves and not have alcohol kind of determine our weekend,” she says.
Similarly, Kinsella’s damp January experience was inspired because she realized she’d often turn to alcohol when stressed or to relieve tension in social situations. That awareness grew as she went through damp January. Looking back, Kinsella says she’s achieved her goal of mindful consumption. She’s much more aware of how much she drinks throughout the week.
“If I know I have a work dinner or a networking hour, I’ll plan to have a drink there rather than have a glass of wine at home,” she says. Making creative mocktails at home has also become a fun pastime with her partner.
And for Elson, the long-term effects of moderate and intentional drinking were life-changing.
“A lot of the damp lifestyle is healing your relationship with alcohol through moderation,” she explains. “And with any healing journey, just remember the path isn’t linear.”
She’s been living the “damp lifestyle” for more than a year and encourages others to consider extending their experience. Of course, slipping up every once in a while may be inevitable. But there’s judgment-free room to pick things back up again in the “damp” lifestyle.
Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock