Last March, Jack McGarry woke up in a hospital bed with no recollection of where he had been or how he had gotten there. His doctor told him that he’d drunk so much they’d needed to pump his stomach. It was a harsh wake-up call for the 28-year-old, who started drinking at age 15.
“I had hit rock bottom,” he says.
McGarry knew he had to quit, but there was just one problem: His life was all about alcohol.
He’s one of the city’s top bartenders; in 2013, he won the International Bartender of the Year award at Tales of the Cocktail, and he’s a partner at popular downtown cocktail dens the Dead Rabbit and BlackTail. But he had no choice.
“Drinking,” he says, “had become detrimental.”
Modal TriggerBartender Jim Kearns has pursued a better life for himself — one that excludes hangovers.Stephen Yang
For those working behind the bar, alcoholism is an on-the-job hazard. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, they are 2.3 times likelier to die from alcoholism than the rest of the general population is. Many of New York City’s top bartenders have given up drinking the very libations they serve.
“I create great experiences for other people and bars are still a huge part of my life, but partaking does not work for me,” says McGarry, who likens being a sober bartender to being a male who owns a fantastic lingerie company.
Jim Kearns, 40, who runs the tropically themed Happiest Hour and the subterranean Slowly Shirley, both in the West Village, found himself in similar straits.
“I basically reached a point where I couldn’t leave my house because I was always hung over or drinking,” he says. “I decided that I like my wife and bars and being alive. Drinking became a conflict with all of that.”
In September 2015, he stopped drinking. He misses the social aspect of having a pint with friends, but the feelings of being drunk and hung over are two things he happily does without.
In sobriety, many pour themselves into fitness. McGarry now runs 50 miles a week and has dropped 30 pounds since his boozy days.
“I drank for instant gratification,” he says. “Now I get that same gratification from running.”
I create great experiences for other people and bars are still a huge part of my life, but partaking does not work for me.
Adrienne Oakes, 34, a bartender at the Gramercy brasserie Upland and new haute dumpling parlor Pinch Chinese in Soho, gave up booze three months ago because her drinking problem was affecting her health. She’s since completed her first half marathon.
“I have a lot more energy and feel better,” she says of her new life. “Plus it’s put me into a mental state where I am more present behind the bar.”
Sam Anderson, 35, who creates cocktails for the highly regarded Mission Chinese in Chinatown, took up marathon running when he curtailed his drinking 2¹/₂ years ago. He still drinks, but only very rarely.
“I’m completely sober while training for races,” he explains. “Then, after the races, I give myself a reward [usually around two or three glasses of wine] once or twice a week. But I almost dread it.”
And, surprisingly, many find that bartending actually aids their sobriety.
“Being around a bar full of drunk people is a good reminder of why I shouldn’t be drinking,” says Kearns, who will still taste the occasional cocktail when needed on the job. “People devolve into a rather silly state.”
Oakes says she found she’s able to mix drinks without sampling them.
“I’ve been doing this eight years,” she says. “I measure out the portions, so I know whether or not the drink is right”
And, there’s a growing number of customers who want sophisticated drinks without booze.
“Mocktails are on the rise,” says Oakes, who shakes up a whole menu-section’s worth of non-alcoholic libations at Pinch. “More and more restaurants are offering them; more and more people are ordering them … people take better care of themselves [now] and sobriety is more of a discussion than it had once been.”
Modal TriggerEast Village bartender Greg Mendez finds he can still hang with friends even though he’s sober.Stephen Yang
Being a dry bartender has also made the transition to sober socializing easier.
Oakes says she initially took a month off from going out with friends but now regularly socializes with her crew. She’s just changed her drink order. She used to get a beer and a shot, now she orders a Peychaud’s bitters and club soda.
“I like the way it tastes and it doesn’t advertise whether or not I am drinking,” she says. “Frankly, it’s all about socializing. I don’t plan on being a hermit!”
Greg Mendez, 28, who tends bar at the East Village’s Webster Hall, has been dry for two years but says he still enjoys being around drunk buddies.
“I go along for the ride even though I am not drinking. People like alcohol because it allows them to loosen up and act ridiculous,” he says. “I can do that sober.”
Mocktail created by Joseph Shoup
Modal TriggerStephen Yang
2 ozs. pineapple juice
½ oz. honey syrup*
1 oz. jasmine green tea
4 tarragon leaves
10 Sichuan peppercorns
1 egg white
Chinese five-spice powder
Muddle tarragon leaves and peppercorns with tea and honey syrup. (Make sure peppercorns get cracked.) Add pineapple juice and then egg white. Shake to mix and strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish: dust elegantly with Chinese five-spice powder.
*Make honey syrup by combining equal amounts of honey and water in a saucepan and boiling until honey dissolves. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally; refrigerate for two hours.