One drop at a time
Local bottled water company has mission to help people, environment

One drop at a time

Local (aluminum) bottled water start-up Sober Water has earned a spot on local store shelves right next to Topo Chico and Liquid Death. The company has pledged to give a large portion of its profits to help the homeless and recovering addicts./ Courtesy photo

Missy Votel - 05/16/2024

Move over Liquid Death, Dasani, Life Water and Smart Water. There’s a new entrant on the ever-crowded bottled water shelf. But before you pass this off as more water under the disposable bottle bridge, wait. Not only is it a local, Durango-based company, but this water comes with a twist. And we’re not just talking about the nifty screw top on the aluminum bottle.

As you can probably guess by its name, Sober Water – the brainchild of Durangoan Ryan Whittaker, who partnered with friend and retired oncologist Dr. Mark James – is about way more than quenching folks’ thirst. Not only does it help tackle the plastic problem by using infinitely recyclable aluminum, a portion of sales go to housing the newly sober and unhoused.

“I decided to start a company that would give back, help people and help the environment,” said Whittaker, who has previous experience as the CEO of an archery company and also works as a general contractor. “Our motto is, ‘People First, Water Second.’”

Whittaker, 42, a recovering drug addict who will be 27 years sober in August, said he chose the name “Sober Water” because, well, sober is the new black. “Sober’s hot right now. It’s cool to be sober. It’s socially acceptable,” he said, referencing the growing sober curious movement and associated non-alcoholic cocktail craze. But the sober movement goes beyond abstaining from alcohol to harder stuff, he said, like street drugs and the growing epidemic of deadly fentanyl. “It’s literally money from those water sales that goes to make sober homes and helps get people off the streets and off drugs.”

To that end, Whittaker has 40 acres of land in the San Luis Valley he plans to use for his first three sober homes. The homes, which he will build, will house about 15 people in need of short- or long-term housing. And if the area sounds remote – that’s on purpose. “It’s a 20-mile walk to the nearest liquor store or dispensary, so if they really want a chemical-free chance away from the city, they can do that at the sober ranch.” 

(If all this sounds similar to what Tico Time owner Robert Holmes is trying to do, it’s not coincidence. Whittaker and Holmes are good friends, and Sober Water sponsors the Tico Time water slide, which we have yet to experience in person.)

But Whittaker is already looking beyond the sober ranch to scaling his efforts on a national level. He envisions some day buying up and renovating abandoned homes to help get unhoused people off the streets.

“I need capital to do that. Water gives you capital quicker than anything,” he said. But, he noted, he wants to make sure it’s done responsibly. He said he wants Sober Water to do what the big water brands say they’re doing – giving back to society – but often don’t. “We can’t just care for the environment. We have to care for people, too,” he said.

Already, Whittaker has gotten several companies on board with his vision. In addition to Tico Time, Sober Water – currently only in noncarbonated form although carbonated is coming soon – is available at several local businesses including Sage Fresh Eats, Durango Coffee Co., Cream Bean Berry, Durango Sustainable Goods, Smiley Café, Gravity Lab and Durango Natural Foods. He also said he is partnering with Zuberfizz to produce plain carbonated water in bottles this summer and is in talks with Ska Fab about making Sober Water its own manufacturing line in Durango.

As an added bonus to local production, Whittaker said Sober Water will employ up to a few dozen workers as early as this year and could eventually employ more than 100 – all at a living wage.

And yes, all locally made Sober Water will come from good, old Durango drinking water. In the meantime, Whittaker has a deal with a California company to bottle spring water from Mount Palomar, roughly halfway between Palm Springs and San Diego. He also worked with Denver-based Ball Corp. – which invented the screw top “bottle-can” – to produce his first batch of 576 bottles of spring water in late April.

“We immediately sold out,” he said of his first wholesale efforts. “We got rave reviews, people were saying, ‘I love that it’s a twist-top bottle. I love that it is not a plastic bottle.’ They say they would rather buy this than Liquid Death all day. People are super curious. They love the idea of it.”

While Sober Water can still be found on local shelves, Whittaker said he is expecting another order this week from Ball to replenish supplies. In addition, he is working with Ball to put carbonated water in 12-ounce cans later this summer.

From there, he hopes the thirst for water that gives back continues to grow – with Sober Water’s mission helping it rise to the surface of the bottled water market. 

“We plan to have a huge and lasting giveback, which is what sets us apart from every other water company,” he said. “People care about not using plastic; they care about companies that do more than just stack money and that give back to society in some way.”


To learn more about Sober Water or check out their swag, go to 

One drop at a time

Sober Water founder Ryan Whittaker