“The single most important thing I realized when I stopped drinking alcohol was that I was gaining something exciting,” recalls Billy Wynne. One of those gains was the opportunity to open the country’s only full-service sober bar/coffeehouse with his wife Christy–and the chance to create a loving, diverse community of welcome at Awake Denver. Here’s how they did it, and what they learned along the way.
Awake Denver is a joyful space. In the mornings and afternoons, customers come in for their coffee drinks and bakery treats, fresh from walking their dogs in the park across the street. In the evenings, people settle in to hear live music, comedy or speakers, and socialize over cocktails, beers or wine, and sophisticated nibbles. They can even pick up a bottle to take home. The only thing missing from the picture is alcohol, but no one’s noticing.
That “radically inclusive” vibe is exactly what Billy and Christy were aiming for when they opened Awake in the spring of 2019. “We offer ourselves as a bar without alcohol,” says Billy, “but our mission is much broader. We’re a place to be a part of a community and feel welcomed, wherever you come from.” They also give back to that community, by donating 10% of their profits to a different local charity each month–honoring organizations that support the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities and efforts around mental health and life after addiction.
“We’re a place to be a part of a community and feel welcomed, wherever you come from.”
Ironically, the Colorado couple’s vision for Awake began in the wine country of southern France, where they were living for a school-year-long stint in 2018. While the wine certainly flowed, they were also taken with what Billy calls “the normalization of alcohol-free culture” throughout Europe. “There were lots of great alcohol-free products on shelves, and groups like Club Soda [an international mindful drinking community, based in the UK]. It felt like a movement—something new, cool, and exciting, and we liked being a part of it.”
Christy, whose background is in integrative medicine, began reevaluating her relationship with alcohol, and the effects it was having on her health in midlife. She stopped drinking that December, and Billy started his own journey to “rebalance” his appetite for alcohol, and become more mindful of what he was putting into his body. “I set rules for myself–I wouldn’t drink by myself, and I wouldn’t drink when I was with Christy.” With this gradual phasing-out, he was able to stop completely the following January.
“It just kind of happened. I know it’s not like that for everybody, and many people need much more support to make that change,” he admits, but for him, the break from drinking felt great. “I noticed that I was feeling much clearer mentally, and more motivated in my work and personal life.” It was also freeing not having to think about drinking anymore. “I was spending a lot of my mental energy planning what I was going to drink and when. But once I didn’t have that, my mental attention opened up and I could bring so much more into my life.”
“I was feeling much clearer mentally, and more motivated in my work and personal life…my mental attention opened up and I could bring so much more into my life.”
When the Wynnes moved back to the States, they wanted to recreate the welcoming alcohol-free culture they’d experienced in France–and, when a neighborhood bar closed during Covid, they seized the opportunity to turn it into an alcohol-free space that kept the spirit of communal fun and welcome. It quickly became just that.
Today, Awake’s diverse community includes people who identify as in recovery, or committed to staying alcohol-free for life, “and there’s a broad range of people out there who are just trying to cut down, not quit,” notes Billy. And, with the growing popularity of “Dry January” and other sober-curious movements, their ranks are growing. “Some people might want to just take a night off, or a month off, from drinking culture and see what it feels like. We’re here for them all.”
For those who are using Dry January as a chance to try out an alcohol-free lifestyle, Billy’s advice is to keep open to the positives. “Many of us still hold onto those fears that not drinking means giving up social opportunities, or missing out on pleasures. But the benefits of feeling great, of hanging out with new people, of being fully yourself, far outweigh all that.”