From Dry January to Fake Cocktails, Inside the New Temperance Movement

Mark Willingham Uncategorized

From Dry January to Fake Cocktails, Inside the New Temperance Movement

Many Americans are reconsidering their relationship to alcohol. But if we drink less, is that automatically a good thing?

Source: read://https_www.washingtonpost.com

By Jason Wilson

July 25, 2022

As I write this, I’m sipping two drinks. One is a classic gin and tonic. The other is a tonic mixed with a “spirit” called Pentire Seaward. I write “spirit” in quotes because while Pentire Seaward’s ingredients list includes numerous items – sea rosemary, woodruff, sea buckthorn, pink grapefruit, seaweed, orange juice concentrate, tartaric acid – that list does not include alcohol. The label doesn’t actually use the word gin (it’s a “botanical non-alcoholic spirit”), but I will, in quotes: This is an alcohol-free “gin.” At first I was certain I could taste the difference between the gin and tonic and the “gin” and tonic, but then I got deep into writing and the glasses got mixed up on my desk, and now I’m not totally sure which is which.

This sort of confusion mirrors how I’ve felt the past few months as I’ve delved into the complex dynamics at play with Americans and their drinking. For a few years now, we’ve been hearing a lot about the fact that millennials and Gen Z drink much less than older generations, about the growing “sober-curious” movement, about large numbers of people reconsidering their relationship to alcohol, about Dry January, about the explosion of adult nonalcoholic beverages, about the legalization of cannabis and people choosing to go “Cali sober,” about the dubious wellness claims surrounding “clean,” “additive-free” or “hangover-free” wine, about mounting scientific evidence on the health risks of drinking, about how “alcohol is the new smoking.” Many in the drinks industry have figured this all might be a fleeting reaction brought on by the pandemic, but it’s starting to look more and more like a lasting cultural shift.

Meanwhile, I am still processing how one afternoon I ended up in a store called Boisson, a “dry drinks & mixology shop,” a self-proclaimed “welcoming, judgment-free zone” that seeks to satisfy the “widespread, underserved need for quality alternatives to alcohol.” Boisson has five locations in New York City and has just completed a round of investment that will fund nationwide expansion.

Boisson looks like a really cool, high-end wine and spirits shop – except none of the products contain alcohol. There are rums that aren’t rums, whiskeys that aren’t whiskeys, tequilas that aren’t tequilas. There are shelves of hemp-based drinks, CBD-infused drinks, German riesling that’s been de-alcoholized, orange Aperol-like spritzers, alcohol-free beers from big brands like Heineken and Stella Artois and craft breweries like Athletic Brewing. There’s Katy Perry’s De Soi nonalcoholic aperitifs and Blake Lively’s Betty Buzz nonalcoholic sparkling mixers. The salesperson pointed out the so-called adaptogenics. “If you’re looking for something functional that actually gives you a feeling,” she said, “some of them contain caffeine to give you an upper. Some contain melatonin and mushrooms to actually give you that mellow feeling.” The adaptogenics shelf includes pastel-canned Kin Euphorics (co-founded by model Bella Hadid), supposedly full of nootropics that “support neurotransmitters in charge of mood, pleasure, and reward for a boost of social stamina” and adaptogens “tuning you back into homeostasis.”

“So, what are you into?” the salesperson asked me. My mind went blank. I was out of my element. “Uhhh, I still drink booze,” I said. “I’m kind of just exploring.”

“I, too, am not sober,” she replied. “But I’ve found some really cool alternatives. Would you like to try a gin alternative?” She poured a sample of the Pentire Seaward along with a cucumber-flavored tonic into a plastic cup. I was surprised by how tasty it was. “Now, there are so many different options other than water or O’Doul’s,” she said. “I feel like a part of a movement. It’s so fun because we’re creating the rules here.”

When I spoke with Boisson’s CEO, Nick Bodkins, a few weeks later, he told me that 90 percent of their customers still drink booze. “They’re rethinking their relationship with alcohol. They’re starting families, they’re taking nights off, they’re training for marathons,” Bodkins said. “We’re focused on the experience. Drinking is a social construct. There’s a drinking moment. We want to help people meet that moment. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg of what’s going to come out of this space.”

A number of big brands such as Budweiser, Gordon’s and Tanqueray have already moved into that space. There’s even a trade group – the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association – that launched in 2021 and currently includes 65 companies. The association’s statistics echo Boisson’s: Nationwide, 80 percent of those who buy adult nonalcoholic beverages still drink alcohol. I left Boisson having joined this demographic, with $119 worth of nonalcoholic wines, aperitifs, spritzers, beers and the Pentire Seaward in my shopping bag.

Even though I have covered wine and spirits for 15 years, have written three books on booze and publish a newsletter called Everyday Drinking – in short, I have as much invested in America’s drinking culture as anyone – I support the idea of rethinking our relationship to alcohol. I’ve seen too many colleagues struggle with alcohol, some even dying prematurely. I have a family member who’s been in recovery for over 30 years. I have a brother who hasn’t consumed alcohol in two decades for religious reasons (and is a connoisseur of nonalcoholic beer). I’m genuinely happy when people find alternative ways to deal with the everyday stress in their lives, whether it’s therapy, exercise, cannabis, meditation, adaptogenics, fake gin or something else.

But I’ll admit to being somewhat bewildered by aspects of this cultural shift. Americans have always had a fraught relationship with alcohol. Throughout history, we’ve loved our cocktails, an American invention. Yet, in the past century, we also lived through the banning of alcohol during Prohibition. When it comes to drinking, we tend to think about things in black and white.

In this moment, I see something fundamentally different. Even colleagues who for years had been cheerleaders for high-proof alcoholic beverages are now extolling the virtues of being sober-curious and consuming nonalcoholic drinks. I wanted to delve deeper into what exactly was happening and why. I wanted to know, more than a century after America’s original temperance movement, whether this new era of moderation is the gray area on drinking we’ve long sought.

I came of legal drinking age in 1991, only a few months before “60 Minutes” told America that drinking red wine was healthy. In that legendary segment on the “French paradox,” Morley Safer asks: “Why is it that the French, who eat as much – or more – fat than we do, suffer fewer heart attacks?” Safer raises a full glass of red wine and says to the audience: “The answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass.” He interviews a French researcher who tells him wine consumption may cut the risk of heart attack by as much as 50 percent. “There is no other drug,” says the researcher, “that’s been so efficient as the moderate intake of alcohol.” In the United States, for more than three decades, daily moderate wine intake has been considered two glasses for a man and one for a woman.

The “60 Minutes” segment had a profound effect on mainstream attitudes toward drinking in the United States. Baby boomers who’d previously never considered consuming wine now bought cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel by the case. By 1994, wine consumption in the United States had soared. Per capita consumption would continue to increase annually for the next 22 years. More studies followed that showed it wasn’t just red wine, but any alcoholic beverage that was good for the heart. Those decades would also coincide with the rise of craft beer and a renaissance in craft cocktails. The early 21st century, it seemed, was a golden age of drinking: No other generation of Americans had access to such a vast selection of high-quality wine, spirits or beer. Sure, there were plenty of research studies that began to question how healthy it was to drink even “moderate” amounts of alcoholic beverages. But little slowed the momentum. For most of my adult life, moderate social drinking has been viewed as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Then, in the late 2010s, as the youngest millennials came of drinking age, things suddenly shifted. In January 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deleted the dietary guidelines that said moderate drinking could lower the risk of heart disease. A few months later, the National Institutes of Health halted a major study meant to prove, once and for all, that moderate alcohol consumption had health benefits – after the New York Times reported that much of the $100 million budget came from five of the world’s largest alcoholic beverage manufacturers.

In September 2018, a bombshell study and commentary published in the Lancet asserted that “no level of alcohol consumption improves health” and cited alcohol as a leading risk factor in worldwide deaths. “These results,” said the study’s authors, “suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption.” Another study in the Lancet in 2021 said that 4 percent of global cancer cases in 2020 could be attributed to alcohol. Meanwhile, the position of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has become clear: Alcohol is unhealthy, and the more you drink, the higher your risk for myriad health conditions.

Separate from science and policy, a slew of sober influencers and self-help books emerged during the late 2010s. First came “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace in 2015. “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” by Catherine Gray followed in 2017. Then, in late 2018, Ruby Warrington published “Sober Curious,” coining a term for the movement and giving people a new way to talk about what they were experiencing, a different path from declaring their problem drinking to be “alcoholism.” (I use “alcoholism” in quotes here because alcohol use disorder is the clinically preferred term now.) The following year, Holly Whitaker published a more pointedly anti-alcohol book, “Quit Like a Woman,” in which drinking is portrayed as useless, toxic and anti-feminist. Whitaker went on to publish an opinion piece in the New York Times with a headline that dismissed Alcoholics Anonymous as “The Patriarchy” and then raised millions to create Tempest, an online alcohol-counseling service geared toward women that costs $59 per month.

All of this messaging seems to be having an effect. In 2017, wine consumption shrank for the first time in more than two decades, and in 2021, according to a Gallup survey, just 60 percent of Americans reported drinking any alcoholic beverages, down from 65 percent in 2019 and tied for the lowest level in two decades. Not only are fewer adults drinking, but those who do are consuming less. In the same Gallup survey, Americans who drink said they consumed 3.6 drinks per week, the lowest level in 20 years. Google searches for the term “nonalcoholic” rose in both 2021 and 2022. Each year millions of Americans participate in Dry January.

In February, Silicon Valley Bank released its State of the Wine Industry Report, as it has for the past 21 years. Usually, this is a rather businesslike document – though recent editions have included a pronounced note of worry that millennials are not drinking as much wine as baby boomers do. This year, however, the report struck a tone of great alarm. The era of “neo-prohibition,” it warned, is upon us: “The anti-alcohol lobby continues to push an agenda … that starts by concluding that all alcohol consumption is bad and then backs into the research. The cumulative negative health message is eroding public faith in the science that proved moderate wine consumption was healthy.” The report added: “When will the wine industry show up to help promote well-researched, positive science on moderate consumption?”

A newsletter I subscribe to, the Wine Curmudgeon, written by Jeff Siegel, recently posted an article lamenting that the “neo-Prohibitionists have taken control of the discussion, and until the wine business – and its colleagues in beer and spirits – take it back, we’re going to see more of this. And yes, it could come to the point where . drinking will be as much anathema as cigarette smoking.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some see the trend away from alcohol as a threat. “In 2017, things started to change. And if you’re an analyst, you have to ask yourself why,” Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division and the author of its annual wine report, recently told me. “We took our eye off the ball. If you asked people several years ago, most would say drinking a glass or two of wine a day was good for you.” All of a sudden, McMillan said, “there was the idea that there is no safe amount. That’s become sacrosanct to the anti-alcohol people.” He added: “The prohibition side of this argument will never give up.”

Raising the specter of a new prohibition felt a little extreme. While anti-alcohol Americans have always existed, the people I’d met who espoused neo-moderation and sober-curious and nonalcoholic beverages were not necessarily against booze.

Who are these neo-prohibitionists, I asked McMillan. Could he name them? “The World Health Organization is the leader,” he said. “The Bill Gates Foundation is also putting a lot of money towards this.” It sounded so vague and conspiratorial. Wasn’t that foundation also villainized by anti-vaxxers and covid deniers? And yet, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is clearly credited as funding the 2018 study in the Lancet. “People want to use science as a weapon,” McMillan said. “It’s a blunt instrument. It doesn’t matter what side of the argument you’re on. You can find science that’ll support you.”

Likewise, McMillan is just as angered by the new wave of nebulous health claims made by certain winemakers who toss around meaningless terms such as “clean” or “natural.” (Scout & Cellar says “every bottle of Clean-Crafted™ wine is independently lab-tested”; Dry Farm Wines says its wine is “Independently lab tested for purity.”) A controversial essay in the New York Times in 2019 suggested that “natural” wines were part of self-care and resulted in less-intense hangovers. While cheap, mass market wines do contain a multitude of additives, plenty of quality wines – the ones recommended by wine writers like me – are made without them. Calling a wine “clean” is a little like Don Draper in “Mad Men” convincing his Lucky Strike clients to call their cigarettes “toasted”: “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.”

Making health claims on alcohol labels is illegal, something that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) takes seriously. Over the past few months, in the TTB’s own newsletter, there have been numerous articles published on the topic of health claims on alcoholic beverages. “Our regulations don’t define the word ‘clean.’ If someone is going to use the word ‘clean,’ we’re going to look at the label in its entirety,” Tom Hogue, director of congressional and public affairs for the TTB, told me.

McMillan thinks the rise of pseudo-health claims – or some wine companies’ attempts to tap into the $4 trillion wellness market – is the result of the wine industry’s reluctance to engage in the level of label transparency demanded by millennials. “I think the industry has shot itself in the foot by ignoring the transparency that the consumers want,” he said.

Even with the heated talk of neo-prohibitionists, longtime observers of this issue know what happens next: Just when you think one side has the last word, a new study emerges. And it did. A 2021 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology claimed that the analysis and findings in the 2018 Lancet study are flawed. “One cannot now say any amount of alcohol is harmful in the same way as one can say any amount of smoking is harmful,” said study co-author Sir Nicholas Wald, a University College London professor. Along with co-author Chris Frost, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he argued that there is no scientific model that can dictate exactly how much alcohol it will take to affect one’s health. “One need not feel,” Wald said, “that the only safe alcohol intake is zero.”

On an unseasonably hot spring afternoon in San Francisco’s Mission District, I sat in the bar Chezchez drinking something called a Nogroni – an alcohol-free alternative to my favorite cocktail, the Negroni. The Nogroni is made with a de-alcoholized “vermouth” and a de-alcoholized, red-hued aperitif that’s meant to taste vaguely Campari-like, both made by the international alcoholic beverage company Martini & Rossi. The Nogroni tasted of adult flavors – mostly chamomile and bitter – and cost $14. It was fine, but it wasn’t going to replace my regular Negroni. By this point, I’d consumed a lot of premium-priced nonalcoholic beverages in various settings, and while some I found appealing or interesting, a question kept lingering: Who and what, exactly, are these drinks for?

I was drinking this Nogroni with my friend Camper English, who lives nearby. Like me, English has written about spirits professionally for many years, and he also does some industry consulting. These days, when English organizes private events, as he often does for the tech industry, he insists on a nonalcoholic option. Those drinks, he said, “should look identical to the ones with liquor in it. Nobody can tell who’s drinking because it’s nobody’s business. I want the nondrinkers to feel safe and happy and comfortable.” I found this curious. I want people to feel safe, happy and comfortable, too. But is the pressure to drink in America so great that sober adults need to appear as though they’re having a “real” cocktail in a social situation? If so, that’s an issue that runs much deeper than the sober-curious movement. And if that’s not the case, is this the kind of “problem” often created by a marketing team so they can sell a “solution”?

At Chezchez, English opted for a cocktail with actual booze, a martini variation with aquavit and manzanilla sherry. “I enjoy nonalcoholic cocktails, but I don’t enjoy them as an alternative to alcohol,” he said.

English’s point resonated with me. If I’m not drinking alcohol on any given day, there’s an entire universe of soft drinks, an industry worth well over $200 billion, with choices ranging from sparkling water to flavored kombucha to specialty sodas to fresh-pressed juices to fancy coffees. If I’m at a social function and I choose to drink chocolate milk or a juice box, what do I care what someone else thinks? I finished my Nogroni and ordered a Negroni.

English and I had been on an afternoon bar crawl through the Mission, and were discussing his new book, “Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails,” published in July. The book is a rollicking, quirky story of alcohol and medicine’s “inextricably intertwined history,” from ancient Greek health treatises on wine to elixirs concocted by medieval monks to blood donors in Ireland receiving a pint of Guinness to American snake-oil salesmen making wildly false health claims about alcoholic tinctures, liniments and tonics to early-20th-century soda fountains where you could buy laudanum and soda spiked with cocaine. “Early on,” he writes, “alcohol and medicine were interchangeable: distilled spirits were called eau-de-vie meaning ‘water of life,’ speaking to their healing (or at least invigorating) powers.”

Throughout human history, alcoholic beverages were designed for “easing everyday discomforts,” he says. “You hear it every other week. There’s always a story about someone who lived to be 103 years old, and they credit their daily glass of whiskey. That’s about easing everyday discomforts. But it’s about one. It’s not an entire six-pack or multiple whiskeys.”

“Doctors and Distillers” grew out of English’s observations surrounding alcohol and health claims. On his blog Alcademics, he used to publish an ongoing feature called “Good Booze, Bad Booze,” in which he noted: “One day science says drinking will make you live forever. The next day science says it will kill you tomorrow.”

As English and I sipped our cocktails, Chezchez’s managing partner, Drew Record, stopped by our table. Record says that when the bar opened last year, he and his team committed to offering high-end alcohol-free drinks. “Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have put out a menu like this,” Record said. “I do think it’s a new frontier. But everything’s a pendulum. We’ll see where things come back to.”

On the final day of the Columbia Room – Washington’s venerable cocktail temple until earlier this year – Derek Brown mixed me some cocktails with a product called Kentucky 74, a nonalcoholic bourbon that tastes a little like bourbon tea. The new owners would take over the space the next day, but amid the packing and cleaning, Brown wanted to show me his new career, as director of education for Spiritless, the producer of Kentucky 74 and other nonalcoholic drinks.

Brown prepared a nonalcoholic julep with Kentucky 74, a ginger syrup, pineapple juice and mint. “It adds a bit of texture,” he said. “With these spirits, you can build really excellent drinks around them, but you do have to kind of make up for some things if you want it to taste like alcohol.”

The change of career might seem strange for Brown, who for more than a decade has reigned as the cocktail impresario of Washington, running popular bars like the Columbia Room, the Passenger, Southern Efficiency, Eat the Rich and a string of successful seasonal pop-ups – as well as writing cocktail books and columns, running a National Archives series on the history of the cocktail, and even mixing drinks at the White House. In 2012, he wrote a cheeky piece for the Atlantic, “Confessions of a Binge Drinker,” in which he took the CDC to task for its definition of a binge drinker as someone who – in “a short period of time” – consumes more than five drinks. He wrote, “I did it about four times in the last month. … I seem to be doing just fine.”

In reality, he wasn’t doing fine. “For me, there was this moment when I realized that, if drinking has a gauge, and good is one side and bad is on another, it had passed the good stage and was now going into the bad,” Brown told me. “I would often say, ‘This is my hobby, this is my life’ – everything revolved around alcohol. There were positives around that, and that remains, but there were some big negatives around it. I got divorced, I was treating people I worked with badly, I was being unreasonable in the way I behaved. I was not being a good version of myself.” In 2020, as part of this reflection, Brown published a confessional essay in Vox about how becoming a “mindful drinker” changed his life.

“We’re all coming to the same conclusion – that weed makes us feel good, and alcohol doesn’t.”

Earlier this year, Brown released his second book, “Mindful Mixology,” which charts his personal journey through no- and low-alcohol cocktails. Mindful drinking, for Brown, is not about shame or guilt, and it’s not even about totally cutting alcohol out of your life. “You have options,” he writes. “And you can explore those options on your own terms. … I’m not asking you to sacrifice because you’ve curbed your drinking.”

At first, Brown said his life changes felt like a big contradiction: “Like, wait a minute, I’ve been telling people all along to drink alcohol. I’ve made most of my living off people drinking. Now I’m saying don’t drink alcohol.” But he added: “A person makes the decision for themselves.”

Others working in the nonalcoholic space echo Brown’s talk about personal choice. “We don’t actively promote abstinence,” said 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.”

Focus on personal choice makes the sober-curious movement quite different from temperance movements of the past. As Elva Ramirez writes in her 2021 book “Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking,” “Whereas temperance-era churches and social organizations sought to mandate how entire communities should or should not drink, the impetus behind the neo-moderation movement is coming from individuals themselves.”

Sometimes those individual choices involve other substances that have faced federal prohibition, namely cannabis. As the legalization of cannabis spreads, more and more people are giving up alcohol in favor of it, going by what many call Cali sober.

My friend Jackie Bryant, who covers the cannabis industry and publishes the newsletter Cannabitch from her base in Southern California, is one of these people. “It’s a stupid name, Cali sober. But in a way, I’m living it,” she said. “I smoke weed all day, every day. I have it with coffee in the morning. And I’m able to work just fine. I’m a prolific journalist.” Though Bryant wrote about wine and spirits for years (her day job is managing editor of San Diego Magazine), she scaled back to almost zero drinking during the pandemic. “Alcohol was a big part of my life, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I started to see that when I was around 35,” she said.

“There’s a reason it’s catching on. People feel better,” Bryant added as she rolled and smoked a joint with a strain called Guava Cake. “We’re all coming to the same conclusion – that weed makes us feel good, and alcohol doesn’t.” (While cannabis is establishing its place within wellness culture, it’s fair to wonder what will happen when it eventually encounters the level of scientific scrutiny and health studies that alcohol has faced over the decades.)

Others see a drinking culture in America that’s slow to change. “I want not-drinking to be as normalized as drinking is, and we’re really not there yet,” Julia Bainbridge told me. Her book, “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason,” was published in 2020. She recalled one of her editors asking her, “What’s your 30-second pitch about why a whiskey fan or cocktail lover should embrace this movement?” Her response: “I don’t have one! If you’re not into it, you’re not into it, and I’m happy for you to drink what you like. But whether you believe in it or not, it’s very much happening.”

Bainbridge stopped drinking several years ago and sought treatment for alcohol use disorder. “I can’t say what’s generally a good or bad idea for others, especially since alcohol use disorder can be mild, moderate or severe, and people who don’t even meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder can also experience problem drinking,” she wrote in an email to me. “I support anyone who is interested in moderation as well as those whose aim is to remove alcohol from their lives completely, even if just for a little while.”

Stopping for a little while is supposed to be the point for Dry January, which was created by Alcohol Change UK for people to take a full month off drinking – to “examine their alcohol use,” as Bainbridge wrote in the New York Times. The first year, 2013, 4,000 people in Britain took part. This year, millions worldwide did. Market research firm Morning Consult released a survey that reported that 19 percent of Americans said they were participating in Dry January (up from 13 percent in 2021). That share rose to 27 percent for millennials.

But that survey went even further. It asked respondents at what level they would be participating in Dry January. Only 52 percent said they would not drink at all during the month. Twenty-four percent said, “I will drink more than a few days [in January] but less than I normally would in a month.” That sounds more damp than dry, and should signal concern to those advocating for people to self-manage their problem drinking.

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. How many of us, when our doctor asks if we drink and how much, reflexively say, “Oh, I just have a couple of drinks socially” – whether that’s true or not?

With so much swirling data and messaging, so many claims and theories, I can certainly understand why some people just avoid alcohol altogether. Why enter the gray area? Why take a chance? I can see how the safest route feels like not engaging with alcohol at all.

For better or worse, that has never been my route. Brown told me something that really resonated: “There’s beautiful traditional spirits throughout the world. I would be horrified if they didn’t exist anymore. Alcohol can be a cultural expression. I don’t want that to go away. I think what needs to go away is problem drinking, not drinks.” That hardly sounds like the words of a prohibitionist, and I agree with him. Humans like to drink, and they always will. At the end of the day, with all the talk of adult nonalcoholic beverages and sober-curious and clean wines and adaptogenics and Cali sober – 31 years after “60 Minutes” told us it was okay to drink wine – we’re all still trying to decide what moderate drinking really looks like. Or more precisely: How do we bring the good things about wine and spirits into our life while keeping out the bad?

On that last day of the Columbia Room, Brown served me his julep made with alcohol-free bourbon. The concoction had a spicy ginger kick balanced by the sweetness of the pineapple. Brown the mixologist was in fine form as always, and it was tasty. But it still felt like something was missing.