Healthy mocktails made for an Empath sober bar event. Photo courtesy of Empath.

With new craft beer taprooms and pop-up cocktail bars opening all over Pittsburgh, it is easy to plan a night out that involves a few drinks.

It’s harder to find a sober nightlife alternative. Uncomfortable in bars and unsatisfied with choices of soft drinks or sugary mocktails, people who prefer to not drink can find going out tiresome.

Carolyn Hilliard of Stanton Heights has been sober for four years and during that time she’s noticed the city’s lack of nightlife without alcohol. A year and a half ago, she and partner Donny Donovan founded a team called Empath that hosts sober pop-up events, where abstainers and the sober-curious can toast over inventive nonalcoholic cocktails.

As the DJ mixes a beat, Hilliard and her team serve drinks behind a bar, and people unwind and connect in an inclusive atmosphere. These pop-up events create a safe place for developing authentic relationships where, without the effects of alcohol, people can meet and enjoy a night out.

“In Pittsburgh, a sober bar gives people options for nightlife, for those who don’t want to go into a bar, and helps people in recovery find a community,” Hilliard tells NEXTpittsburgh. She says it’s also a great alternative for people who do drink, but don’t always want to.

Empath’s curated menu of nonalcoholic drinks is all about wellness. Hilliard says a tea-based drink like Empath’s Heart-Opening AmbROSEial Nectar (a sweet infusion of strawberry and hibiscus with cacao and nonalcoholic rhubarb bitters) energizes a person and awakens their senses. When mixing a drink, she considers how the person drinking it would want to feel and what ingredients would encourage positivity and wellbeing.

“Our culture feels it is socially acceptable to have alcohol at events,” says Hilliard, “and lacks something for people transitioning from drinking alcohol to not drinking alcohol.”

Her goal for Empath is to inspire nondrinkers and let them know they’re not alone. She chose the sober bar’s name after reading Judith Orloff’s book, “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.” The book discusses what it means to be an empath, to express one’s needs and feel others’ emotions. Empaths, she says, want to make the world a better place.

Since its first gathering in April 2018, Empath has hosted dance nights, happy hours and yoga and sound bath events. Past functions have included partnerships with 5Ryhthms Sweat, Illume Pittsburgh, Bantha Tea Bar, Mookshi Wellness Center, and Adda Coffee & Tea House.

Hilliard plans to eventually open a brick-and-mortar sober bar. As musicians in the Pittsburgh indie synth-pop band Dinosoul, Hilliard and Donovan recognize a need for a dry venue where people can enjoy music and art, and artists can feel safe — which Hilliard says is often not the case in bars.

She has seen Empath’s pop-up events build connections within the community, and she hopes they’re helping revolutionize Pittsburgh’s social scene. Invigorated by music and dancing or a wellness event followed by healthy mixed drinks, people at Empath events bond, laugh and develop new relationships, she says.

“When you create a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere, people open up,” Hilliard says. “You don’t need the alcohol.”

Check here for upcoming Empath events.

Sarah Dunlap

Sarah Dunlap is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Pittsburgh. In her free time, she enjoys dancing and the arts. She trained in ballet for 16 years.