Like the best New Yorkers, Julia Bainbridge is comfortable living with contradictions and batting down fixed ideas with visionary determination. The highly social writer and editor launched a podcast called The Lonely Hour to explore the joys of solitude — well before alone time became the ultimate luxury. And this month she is publishing a cocktail book that contains not an ounce of booze. Granted, when the James Beard Award–nominated author pitched Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, Sober October wasn’t yet a thing, and let’s just say the biggest-selling non-alc book out there was called Preggatinis.
Thanks to her stylish and thoughtful look at the fast-growing world of creative, alcohol-free beverages, non-drinkers will, says Bainbridge, no longer “feel like second-class citizens who are given — even at a Michelin-starred restaurant with a white tablecloth — a Collins glass with a stripey straw in it.” It’s such honesty and insight that make Bainbridge, like the drinks in her book, so refreshing.
What was the journey to this book?
I certainly have a complicated relationship with alcohol, and navigating that is ongoing. There have been a few times that I removed alcohol from my life completely, and I was going out to bars and restaurants, looking for things to drink that weren’t water or soda. I was in these spaces and very much wanting to hold a stem glass and feel like an adult! And as somebody who follows food and drink trends, I was really noticing that there was more effort being put into this category—and that, oh my gosh, some of these drinks are quite complicated, and they’re being given names. Some of them are taking up real estate on the menu in ways they weren’t before. It was like, wow, what a good time to be a non-drinker!
What was going on in the spirits world that led you to this proposal?
Not only that I was seeing these drinks being offered in bars and restaurants, but also noticing the language around this whole thing changing — noticing some people creating non-alcoholic bars or other kind of social spaces, noticing some of the shift away from alcohol, especially with younger people.
What social factors have led to the shift?
I think we’re overall more attuned to wellness. Also, I think our standards are higher than ever. Like, juice won’t cut it any more! That’s part of the whole foodie movement. I also think we’re waking up to some of the dangers of alcohol. I very much don’t want to demonize alcohol — I’m not anti-booze — but I do think the argument could be made that the popularity of Dry January shows just how difficult it is to consume alcohol, which is a highly addictive substance, in a healthy way or with ease. Now we have Sober October in addition, and eventually my hope is that there won’t need to be a dedicated month. Like many in my circle are already doing, people will evaluate their relationships to alcohol in an ongoing fashion.
Have restaurants played a part in the rise of nonalcoholic drinks?
I feel like you could argue, at least in the case of fine dining restaurants, that this is the last piece of the puzzle: Every other portion of the menu, down to bread programs, has been obsessed over, so it’s sort of time that alcohol-free beverages got their due.
You started a podcast about loneliness. Was it scary outing yourself as a lonely person—or, shall we say, a person who prefers alone time?
No, because the show isn’t really about me. It’s about me as a journalist, being curious about this thing. Also, I am very unashamed about being human! And that means all the flaws and complexities that come along with it. I started that show in 2016, which is before former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy used the word “epidemic” to talk about it. I was one of the few people who attached myself to that term. I’m not a cognitive neuroscientist; I am a student of this feeling, which is part of the mixed bag of feelings we all feel, and the idea is to destigmatize that and to make people feel less alone.
And what about that specific feeling—there must be a German word for it—that sense of loneliness when you’re traveling? Is there an actual phenomenon of not experiencing feelings of solitude until you’re away from home?
I’m going to say the trite thing of “Wherever you go, there you are.” And I do think that traveling can be helpful or hurtful in the sense that it accelerates whatever was already going on for you. The first episode that I launched The Lonely Hour with was on solo travel. The three guests all choose to travel solo because they reap a benefit from it that they don’t get when they’re sharing that experience with someone else. And two out of three of those people had life partners. There’s just an understanding between them that this is something that they need. I get that. I don’t like to go to museums with other people, because you feel an obligation to discuss the work as you’re taking it in. I really need to interact with it one-on-one. I think of this even when I’m walking around New York City: When I’m zipping around on my own, I’m so much more engaged with everybody and everything in front of me.
I will say that each of those three who got away on their own in order to get perspective on their lives came out of that experience having discovered something that led them to a new way of living, whether it was a divorce, or a move from New York to Los Angeles, or, you know, removing a substance from their life, or simply figuring out ways to disengage with technology a little more.
You love clothes. Something tells me you don’t pack light. What kind of packer are you?
I boast about packing light – I could win that award, I have no doubt. The thing that makes me feel elegant, and that adds interest to an otherwise normcore wardrobe when I travel, is a coat. I have them for all seasons, in all weights. It’s always patterned and structured and voluminous. It flows with me, takes up space. It makes me feel regal.
Where will your next vacation be?
I’m taking my boyfriend to Hudson, New York, for his birthday weekend in late November. He’s new to the city, which means he’s new to the weekend escapes outside of it, so I’m looking forward to experiencing Hudson again through his eyes. He’s also spent his life, up until now, in Texas; in other words, he hasn’t lived through a proper fall, so I’m excited to see him enjoy that, too. Leaf peeping, here we come! And we’re staying at the Maker, so it should be a cozy time. (I hope he’s not reading this, because it’s a surprise. Eep.)
The thing you can’t travel without?
Water and the knowledge that, at some point, there will be dancing.
When were you happiest while traveling?
Flirting with strangers in strange places.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
Villa Barranco in Lima, Peru. It’s an eight-bedroom colonial home turned boutique hotel that’s just off of Lima’s seafront promenade, the Malecón. (Most rooms have ocean views.) The owner must be a vintage collector; there are antique furnishings and objets throughout the space, but mixed with the things you want in a proper hotel room: crisp white linens, air conditioning, working WiFi. My favorites are the communal spaces: a charming, 10-person rooftop bar, and the living room downstairs where guests take their breakfast, which is a beautiful array of local fruits, cheeses, jams, and pastries. That room opens into some delightful gardens. It’s just lovely. I couldn’t live in, say, the Ritz in Paris for a year; I want something homier (and, frankly, cooler!).
The place/trip that challenged you most?
Falling off of a motorbike in southern Laos and spending the rest of the trip with a pretty gnarly wound on my knee. God bless my friend Elena, who knew to equip our crew with a First Aid kit.
What is your room service indulgence?
A pot of coffee in the morning. It’s a ridiculous expense, but I do enjoy taking my coffee in a beautiful china set, with everything laid out on a tray—and doing so while still in my plush robe.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
It’s not the strangest place, but this was the strangest way to wake up: I was 14 and on a six-day whitewater rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, sleeping on the little beaches, if you will, that lamppost the Colorado River. One morning, as I shook out my sleeping bag before rolling it up and packing it away, out came a scorpion. Somehow, I remained unscathed!
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
If we’re considering my hometown Baltimore, then there are two: (1) Evergreen House, where my ancestors lived and which the family gave to Johns Hopkins University so that it could be operated as a museum. The home is an example of Gilded Age architecture and, in my opinion, quite ugly! But it’s such a treat to have this kind of access to my roots—it is kept as the Garrett family lived in it; my grandmother Bainbridge was born a Garrett—and John Work Garrett’s collection of rare books and manuscripts is impressive, to say the least. Other things to note about the house: its holdings of Asian arts—porcelains, lacquer wares, and netsuke (miniature carved ivories); European paintings, including works by Edgar Degas, Amedeo Modigliani, and Ignacio Zuloaga; a private theater designed by Léon Bakst; murals by Miguel Covarrubias; and the Tiffany glass. Oh, the Tiffany glass! (2) The field behind my father’s house in the Maryland countryside. It’s hard to explain, but you feel it when you see it… It’s just the most beautiful field. Top five fields in the world, in my book, for sure!
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
This has less to do with travel, and it certainly wouldn’t be a charming experience, but I’m curious to see what New York City was like in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a tumultuous time, and, of course, that means a lot of important art was being made. I don’t want to romanticize it—New York was a dangerous place-—but what did that look and feel like, exactly?
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
A weekend: I’m dying to go to Fogo Island, specifically the Fogo Island Inn.
A week: A chic, restorative ryokan with an onsen in Japan, preferably near Hokkaido.
A month: Tuscany in the summer.
A year: Mexico City.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
I’ve been nowhere on the African content. That must be remedied!
Christine Muhlke is a food consultant and writer currently based in Woodstock, NY. A former editor at The New York Times and Bon Appétit and the founder of the Xtine newsletter, she has written books with chefs Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, David Kinch of Manresa and Eric Werner of Hartwood Tulum. Her most recent books include Wine Simple with Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm and Signature Dishes That Matter.