A welcome casualty of 2020 was my alcohol intake. Since February I’ve been mostly dry.
My reason was part health – physical and mental – and also a very simple thought: that I’ve been drinking pretty solidly since I was about 16. I’m now 42. Over years I’d questioned such a move, while being drawn ever closer, telling myself drinking is a part of my social life and my career and that it’s a big part of who I am. This last point was powerful. It told me I needed to reset my relationship with alcohol – and if there was ever a year for such a reset, it’s this one.
I’m not teetotal, although I’ve gone months without drinking, and I don’t have any desire to be. Drinking and the discovery of makers and tenders of many shades is part of the job as a food and drink writer, a joyful part. But sitting on the fence is a challenge: there’s no hard line.
Christmas was always going to be tricky. Drinking has been a part of my Christmas experience for decades; some hangovers stand as family lore. There’s also the mix of social occasions, and that ever present interrogation.
Reactions to what is an essentially personal decision sometimes leave me baffled. There’s an understandable curiosity from those who know my fondness for the broad church of good booze; who’ve attended many a midnight mass with me. But there are those who interrogate further and pointedly, thinking there must be something beyond my explanation.
I’ve been asked whether I’m an alcoholic. The answer is no, but I feel that asking questions of ourselves, about why and how we drink, is important. There are those who seem awkward when I’m not drinking, and they are. Do these interactions say more about them than me? No one likes a wowser. I wonder if on some level they feel that I’m challenging their relationship with booze, as well as my own.
Over the holidays, I deployed a few strategic plays and sans-alcohol tipples to see me through. Standing at an annual Bush Fire Brigade BBQ with a can of soft drink wasn’t really going to cut it, as talk turned to shire politics, pumps and crayfish prices. I gave a slab of Heineken Zero – a first appearance in the fire-shed fridge – a good run. No one read the bottle and I had a stubbie holder on hand, should I need some subterfuge.
At a party in Perth of mainly millennials, no one cared what I was drinking. As a demographic, younger millennials and the generation coming up seem to care less for alcohol. That said, I didn’t want to stand by an esky of Dutch mass market beers. A case of different drinks for different occasions. I still have a degree of that desire to drink “the right thing”, an elitist thought that persists in corners of the drinks world. Perhaps it’s another attitude to reset. But for now, a detour to Mane Liquor revealed new craft-beer offerings. Dainton Brewery’s New Age IPA, out of Victoria, puts me in mind of the early days of craft beer, when discovery drove my drinking tastes.
For work, I’m sent new vintages and releases from winemakers and brewers. Christmas is a time I’ve always been able to crack on and make a dent in that stock. This year, I’ve had a small ball of anxiety, even guilt, in accepting booze. But to my relief, family dinners during the holidays allowed me time to open, share and taste; a single small pour for me, enough to savour and enjoy the experience, while telling the stories of the producers to the assembled table.
On the occasions where I have brought harder options into my pattern of drinking, there are some golden rules that have allowed me to moderate. Maintaining alcohol-free days is the simplest; it ensures the line isn’t too blurred.
Setting a limit is another non-negotiable. For me it might be three small pours of wine, or two beers. Starting on zero and low, and then transitioning to harder options, is another. Interchanging between them throughout a session is an advanced play, with perhaps three non-alcoholic beers to every one with alcohol. Switching really does depend on having a strong lineup of zero options or the experience is flawed – laboured, even. The goal is not thinking about whether a drink is a good “zero” option, but a good drink full stop. And this is the crux, because who wants to socialise drinking poor substitutes?
I’ve turned sharply to the idea that good hospitality venues should be attuned to what some call the “sober-curious” movement. I’m as enamoured with the likes of NON, the aforementioned New Age IPA, Mornington Free from Mornington Peninsula Brewery, Heaps Normal Quiet XPA and a growing list of alt spirits like Lyre’s, as I am with their full-strength siblings.
I’ve survived Christmas. New Year will be, I feel, a doddle, and I’m looking forward to a summer of further discovery. What started as a reset looks set to be a way of life.