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Dry January can be full of cheers

Now that mixologists are showing their creativity in crafting house-made sodas and non-alcoholic cocktails, it is easy to have a good time without booze.

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A glass of wine can have 135 to 200 calories, while a pint of craft beer can be about 250 if it is 6 or 6.5% alcohol by volume. Go out to happy hour, have two drinks and that is a significant chunk of your suggested daily caloric intake.

THE first time I voluntarily gave up alcohol for a few weeks after New Year's was in 2009, years before "Dry January" began showing up on Google Trends and appearing in countless news stories.

Back then, taking a break from drinking while continuing my day job of writing about bars and night life for The Washington Post was a struggle. Many people did not understand that I was doing it by choice - they assumed that I must have been worried about alcoholism or was seriously ill - and wanted to discuss my choice.

The bigger problem, though, was that few bars were set up to deal with people who did not want to drink. Only a handful of Washington's most creative cocktail destinations had a non-alcoholic option on the menu, so anyone staying sober had to sheepishly ask a bartender to whip up something special. But that break from booze was so refreshing that I have made it an annual fixture.

A decade later, the idea of a temporary absence from alcohol is not such a shocking idea. The concept of "Dry January" is featured in media all over the world, complete with eye-roll-worthy portmanteaus like "Drynuary" or "the dryathlon".

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Moreover, outside this period, an increasing number of restaurants and bars have realised that their customers include pregnant women, people on medication who cannot have alcohol and people who simply do not want a drink, and have broadened their menus accordingly.

Of course, tell people that you are giving up alcohol, and you will get a lot of questions and what could politely be called "feedback". If you have ever thought about giving up alcohol for a period of time, whether in January or another month, here are things that I have learned.

You do not have to turn into a hermit

At first it may seem weird to go to a bar when you have no intention of drinking alcohol. But the truth is, it is easier to go out and have fun with friends than ever before, because bars are about much more than drinking. Video games, trivia nights, bingo and karaoke offer ways to socialise when one or more members of a group are not tippling.

Your drink choices are wider than ever

After years of offering non-drinkers a choice of iced tea, Coke or water, restaurants have started putting more non-alcoholic options on the table. More mixologists are showing their creativity and crafting house-made sodas, which offer interesting and unusual flavours without with the preservatives and chemicals found in big brands. Others are bringing back shrubs, the savory blends of vinegar and herbs, or fruit that can be mixed into cocktails or served straight with carbonated water.

There are benefits for your wallet as well as your health

Do the math: A glass of wine can have 135 to 200 calories, depending on the sugar and alcohol levels, while a pint of craft beer - not a low-cal, low-carb Michelob Ultra - can be about 250 if it is 6 or 6.5 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume). Go out to happy hour, have two drinks and that is a significant chunk of your suggested daily caloric intake. Just watch out that your non-alcoholic replacement is not as bad as the booze: A can of San Pellegrino sparkling fruit juice or an Ale-8-One Ginger Ale is a calorie-laden sugar bomb.

And a soda or non-alcoholic drink is far cheaper than booze. Who would not want to be richer and healthier?

You do not have to explain why you are not drinking

I will be honest: I have lied about participating in Dry January. If I was out and turned down a beer or a shot, I would say that I was the designated driver or on medication. Sometimes, it is easier not to mention Dry January because a week or so in, I am tired of explaining why I have given up alcohol. But there is no reason that your decision not to drink is anyone's business. (Please do not be that person who tries to press a drink into someone's hand after they have said "No, thank you.") But there is an easy way to ward off questions: Have something nearby - a pint glass of non-alcoholic beer, a rocks glass of soda water with a lime on the edge, a sparkling house soda - so when asked if you need a beverage, you can say, "I'm good, thanks."

It is OK if you slip up - or choose to cheat

Above everything else, remember that this is just a personal decision - the fate of the world does not rest in your decision to abstain from booze. It is okay to participate in the champagne toast at a friend's baby shower or have a bloody mary at a going-away brunch. Enjoy it, and start again the next day.

If you stay dry for only 19 or 27 days in Dry January, guess what - you still win. Research from the University of Sussex in England has shown that Dry January participants were drinking more wisely six months later, whether or not they completed the whole month. And if you want to go longer than Dry January? That is great, too. Like I said, it is easier than ever to have a good time without booze. WP