London's Cultural Guide

Mindful Drinking: Q&A with Club Soda’s Laura Willoughby MBE

Meet the woman helping to change the way Londoners drink. And find out what she orders in a bar

Were you at the Truman Brewery for their last Mindful Drinking Festival? This event, produced as usual by Club Soda (Laura Willoughby and Jussi Tolvi), saw a whopping ten thousand attendees fill its rooms over one weekend.

It was, we concluded, a powerfully good-natured crowd of punters, stall-holders and motivational speaker types. So, after much tasting and experimenting (read the broader results here) we grabbed Laura for a chat to find out what motivates her.

Laura Willoughby MBE and Jussi Tolvi. Photo: CS

How and why did you start Club Soda?
I gave up drinking over six years ago and realised there was a lack of something to help people, like me, do a self-guided journey. A bit like Weightwatchers but for those of us who are an idiot with booze.  After nearly 15 years in local government politics, I was aware my career had been fuelled by too much cheap white wine and I decided enough was enough. I was boring myself and wanted more out of my weekends.

Some of our members are moderating. Some are alcohol-free [or AF]. Some flip-flop between the two, and others are simply taking six months or a year off.  Attitudes are changing and we’re becoming more accepting that people may make different choices around their diet, for health or ethical reasons.


Our aim is to create a world where nobody has to feel out of place not drinking. So this means we can help you change your drinking habits, find new drinks, get through festivals and pub crawls, and also work to improve our social spaces so they are welcoming to everyone, whatever your dietary preference regarding alcohol.

How did the Mindful Drinking Festival come about? After being inundated with requests about what to sip on instead of beer or wine, we decided to set it up to introduce others to some of our favourite booze-free drinks brands. The first one in 2017 had 25 stands, and the last one in January this year had 60 brands. A lot has changed in under two years, with lots of new drinks to try.

The Infinite Session team at the Mindful Drinking Festival. Photo: PR

So it feels like the ‘tipping point’ has finally happened?
When I quit drinking six years ago there was very little choice – instead, I cultivated an interest in loose leaf single estate tea.  Now I think there’s a perfect storm of exciting things brewing. Drinking amongst all age groups is on the decline, alcohol sales have stagnated in the last few years, and a new wave of great tasting alcohol-free drinks from radical inventors are hitting the market. Suddenly there’s something new to fit that ‘reward’-shaped hole. Tesco has doubled the size of its alcohol-free section, and pubs have started stocking more (after all, they are open all day, every day, and at lunch you may not want wine, but they still want you to come through the door!). It suddenly feels easier to try and buy new products, and it no feels longer embarrassing to ask for low or alcohol-free drink or beer. It’s been like an explosion of experimentation in the last three years. There is still a way to go but I take my hat off to the new wave of drink pioneers.

Do you have a fave AF beer or spirit?
I’m a big fan of an alcohol-free beer such as Big Drop (despite never being a beer drinker when I was drinking alcohol). Next to water it is the healthiest thing you can drink in the pub. I always check the website or call venues in advance to check what they have on offer and if it looks like a poor choice I will fill a small shampoo bottle with my favourite cordial or Ceder’s so that I can pimp my own water or tonic. As a West Country girl a kombucha is the most like a scrumpy cider and some pubs now even have it on tap. I like to let venues know if they don’t have enough choice and that that they have lost my custom to make it better for the customers that come after me.

Laura’s tips for the sober curious

Laura’s top AF spirit: Ceder’s. Photo: PR

Keep AF alternatives
The new wave means that if you want something special there are options. Keep the fridge stocked and know that when that urge strikes you have something to look forward to (don’t worry you are not replacing one bad habit with another, a drink that is 0.5% or below is a natural trace level of alcohol with less calories and sugar than a fizzy drink).

Do pub practice
If you stay in you are not exercising that all important ‘socialising sober’ muscle. So hit the pub and practice asking for an AF drink whilst everyone around you is boozing. Even call up your chosen night spot before you go so you can check out their alcohol-free option and know that you will be getting something you want. Get this key skill under your belt and you will feel you have a superpower for life.

Plan ahead
We are taught that the answer to every problem is alcohol. So we often find that we reach for a drink when we are stressed, tired, angry and even happy. Other people can be a trigger to drink or even a place or an event. If you plan in advance you won’t need to rely just on willpower. I use a handy tool called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). We often know that we don’t want to drink (Wish) but knowing why (Outcome) really helps strengthen our resolve. Then think about the obstacles and plan what to do – you may want to drive to an event, leave early or just avoid somethings. I take my own drinks everywhere just in case.

Reflect on learnings
If you do Dry January, you may have found new ways to reward yourself after a hard day, and decide that there are some friends or places you will save drinking days for, but knock some of the more ‘thoughtless’ drinks on the head. How were your weekends? Did you do new things? No one is asking you to go teetotal for life, but knowing you can pick and choose when you drink so you can fit more into your packed schedule means your month had a positive impact on your life choices.

Read more on our experiments with AF drinks – and our brief guide to the best drinks options here.

Club Soda is launching its new book, How To Be A Mindful Drinker, at Phlox Books in Leyton E10 on Thurs 8th Jan 2020, 8pm (info).

For more general info: Mindful Drinking Festival. Club Soda hosts the monthly night Queers Without Beers at Cafe Babka (44 Great Russell St WC1). For AF-friendly venues see Club Soda’s venue guide here

Article updated: 6th Jan 2020

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