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The Big Business of Not Drinking
A report on my feature in the Washington Post, the sober-curious movement, America’s fraught relationship with booze, and notes on “moderate drinking”
Today, I have a long feature piece—a “think piece” as they say—published in the Washington Post Magazine. It’s about a lot of things: Americans’ historically fraught relationship with booze, the rise of non-alcoholic drinks, the “sober curious” or “neo-moderation” movement, the backlash from the industry against said movement, a no-alcohol cocktail called the Nogroni. I talk with a number of colleagues who are sincerely invested in no- and low-alcohol cocktails and delve into What Does It All Mean? If you’re willing to spend the time reading my 5,000+ words I will be grateful!
In today’s newsletter, I want to expand briefly on three points in my essay that I think are important. One is the idea of what I’m calling “drinking literacy” and how we Americans aren’t very good at it. The other is that the idea of “moderate drinking” has become increasingly difficult to navigate, and no health organization or government agency has really stepped up to help people define moderate drinking.
Finally, I believe people in the wine, spirits, and beer industry need to start talking more about serving size and alcohol by volume. This is something I’m thankfully seeing more of, including an excellent conversation last week in Julia Bainbridge’s Good Drinks newsletter with famed bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
One of the key concepts of the neo-moderation movement is that there is no one-size-fits-all way to deal with one’s relationship to alcohol. “We don’t actively promote abstinence,” says Ruby Warrington, the author of Sober Curious. “I’m very much like: You figure out what works for you, and let’s support you in doing that.” Some, such as Holly Whitaker, author of Quit Like a Woman, suggest that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous don’t work for everyone, especially women.
Derek Brown, bar impresario and author of Mindful Mixology, discussed this topic, and his own journey, when Everyday Drinking first launched last spring.
While I am supportive of anyone’s approach to thinking about their relationship to drinking, I also worry about people’s ability to self-manage. From my essay:
As I delved deeper into the neo-moderation movement, something kept nagging at me: I’m all for personal choice, but are people really equipped with enough knowledge, information and support to do this by themselves? For instance, even if AA’s values are based on a “patriarchal society,” as Whitaker argues, at least it’s a free and available group support. I want to believe that people can manage their own drinking, but as a society we are seriously lacking in what I would call drinking literacy.
Just consider the well-established metric of “moderate drinking” we’ve had for more than three decades: two standard drinks for a man and one standard drink for a woman, per day. Those standard drinks have been clearly defined as 5 ounces for a glass of wine at 12 percent alcohol by volume, 12 ounces of beer at 5 percent abv, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. But who truly consumes that? Many bars will pour you twice that much wine and call it a “glass.” A pint (16 ounces) of beer has become the standard pour at bars. Craft beers are generally much higher than 5 percent abv, many California red wines are over 15 percent abv, and many of the bourbons people love clock in at 100 proof or higher. How do people who actually want to manage their drinking — and manage their personal risk — compute all those numbers while sitting at a bar or wandering a liquor store?
Every day, in our capitalist society, we are bombarded with advertising and media messaging that does not have our best interests at heart. Beyond that, people are notoriously unreliable at calculating and reporting their own drinking.
Moderate drinking is, of course, something we’ve been told about for years. In the U.S., moderate drinking is 2 drinks or less for a man and 1 drink or less for a woman. The CDC and other health organizations also define what a standard drink is: 5 ounces of 12% abv wine; 12 ounces of 5% abv beer; 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
If you’re a regular drinker of wine, craft beer, or premium spirits, you probably can see a red flag right away. Existing standard drink guidelines do not even begin to account for the complexity of alcohol by volume. How many craft beers do you drink that are under 5% abv? (Most IPAs are hovering around 7% these days.) How many wines—especially from California, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere—fall below 12% abv? (When’s the last time you had a Napa cab below 14.5%?) How many bourbons and other cask-strength spirits fall below 80 proof? (I know connoisseurs who won’t even sniff at a bourbon below 100 proof).
When you go to a bar and order wine by the glass, how often is the pour 5 ounces? When you order a beer, when is it not in a pint (16 ounce) glass? Does that tiki drink contain 1.5 ounces of 40% abv booze?
For years, I’ve ranted about both serving sizes and alcohol levels. In Boozehound, I wrote, “We are facing an epidemic of cocktails served in inappropriately large glasses.” Years ago, a typical cocktail glass held about four or five ounces. Now, look at any drinkware retailer and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a glass under eight ounces, and most will be 10 or more. Crate and Barrel once told me that martini glasses in the 11-to-13-ounce range were their bestsellers. Wine glasses typically run 12 to 14 ounces, but some retailers’ bestsellers run more than 20 ounces—you could fit most of a bottle of your 15.5% abv California zinfandel into one glass.
The U.S. government’s formulation of the standard drink is mostly unhelpful to someone who is truly trying to keep track of their drinking in the real world.
As part of the peripatetic reporting for my Post feature, I had a fascinating lunch in Napa with a guy named Lewis Perdue, who in the 1990s had written a book on the French Paradox (based on the original pitch for healthy moderate drinking, introduced to America on 60 Minutes in 1991).
Perdue is a quirky polymath, an entrepreneur, technologist, outdoorsman, author of more than two dozen books, former professor of both business and journalism, who started Wine Business Monthly magazine, which he eventually sold. Now he publishes Wine Industry Insight. He’s perhaps most famous for accusing Dan Brown of plagiarizing his novel Daughter of God to write his blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code—and then getting sued by Dan Brown, all of which was chronicled in Vanity Fair in 2006.
Over the past few years, Perdue created the Center for Research on Environmental Chemicals in Humans, which is loosely affiliated with the University of California San Francisco Medical School. Perdue himself does not hold an advanced degree in science, but he’s overseen dietary intervention studies.
When I met Perdue at restaurant in downtown Napa, he told me he’d renounced the French Paradox as scientifically invalid. “It can no longer be considered causal,” he said. However, he also said every other study on alcohol consumption for the past three decades has also been invalid and inconclusive. He railed against the most recent study that showed a link between drinking and heart disease risk, published in JAMA Network Open, which he claims is also not causal. “They're trying to use Mendelian randomization to try and make it causal and they have represented it as causal and it’s not. Association is not causation.”
In simpler terms, Perdue insists that alcohol studies mostly rely on data that is self-reported by individuals. “Memory recall is the worst form of data,” Perdue said, noting hurdles he’s encountered in his own dietary studies. This is especially true with booze. “There’s the reliability of memory, and there's also the issue of people being reluctant to be honest because of social pressure or embarrassment. They don't want people to think they’re a drunk.”
A man, for instance, could be considered a moderate drinker if he drinks three ounces of Jack Daniels per day. Which means he could consume 21 ounces, or 84% of a bottle of whiskey every week and still be considered a moderate drinker. But who would candidly admit to friends, family, or their doctor that he consumes 84% of a bottle of whiskey every week?
To demonstrate the unreliability of human beings and their alcohol consumption, Perdue took out two beakers to show me the difference between a standard drink size in the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.K. alcohol is measured in units—moderate drinking is 14 units, which is a sliding scale based on an equation of alcohol by volume and milliliters. “Now this is a standard pour in the U.K.…oops, I overpoured.” He poured a little back in his water glass, “See, this happens. You have wine in your glass, and somebody says, ‘Let me top you up or whatever, it's really easy to lose track.”
Our server, who was waiting to take our drink order, watched Perdue patiently. “Oh, I’m just doing a demonstration,” Perdue told him. “Don’t be offended, we’re not testing your pouring.”
The waiter shrugged. “It’s all good, I’m pretty confident in my pour,” he said. We ordered two glass of a Napa Valley syrah.
What Perdue was driving at in his demonstration was the fallibility of the so-called “standard drink” that serve as the guidelines across government agencies in the United States. Because we don’t use the metric system or the U.K. system of units, and since alcohol by volume is measure in liters, it’s not an easy calculation to make at a bar.
When our server poured our second glass of the syrah, we both noted that the wine seemed lighter than a typical Napa Valley red. The server told us that the wine from this producer “didn’t tend to be high alcohol” and that its alcohol level was “closer to 13, 13.5.” I grabbed the bottle to take a photo and saw, very clearly, that the alcohol by volume was, in fact, labeled as 14%. Perdue and I had a laugh at that. It almost too perfectly illustrated the point.
Eventually, the server returned, and Perdue asked if I wanted another glass, our third glass. We were both well aware this would push us both over the level of moderate drinking. I didn’t have anywhere to be that afternoon. “Why not?” I said.