The limits of alcohol and the improvement of NA options.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
We are well past Dry January but I am on track to have a (fairly) Dry 2023. I’ve had maybe a handful of drinks so far this year: one beer at a social gathering, and maybe two or three occasions where I had a glass of wine or a sip of sake with dinner.
Don’t think that I’m moralizing or boasting about my teetotaling; my motivation is mostly physical. As I’ve inched closer and closer to 40, I experience less of the alcohol-induced giddiness that made drinking fun when I was younger. Instead, I just get sleepy. It also takes a lot less alcohol to induce a hangover or generally feel rough for a few days. So: less fun, more pain. Doesn’t seem worth it.
And I’m not alone. Market research has found Dry January participation has grown over the years, mostly among my fellow Millennials, though my cohort and I are not necessarily fully abstaining so much as doing a Damp January. The trend may be partly driven by updated research that suggests even moderate alcohol consumption can be bad for your health.
It helps that throughout Wisconsin, including Madison, nonalcoholic offerings have expanded and have sometimes matched the sophistication of their boozy counterparts. In a cold drink landscape mostly made up mostly of coffee and varying levels of sweetness with hints of flavor, cocktails offer variety and depth. That’s why, if you want ginger ale with ginger’s sharpness and heat, your chances are better in the mixers aisle.
I went to Blind Shot Social Club on Fair Oaks Avenue for my birthday in February to celebrate with the help of a good mocktail menu. A drink as simple as the Pink Cloud—non-alcoholic gin, watermelon, lemon—includes orgeat (which I had to Google), a syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water or orange flower water, which gives an almond flavor to the mix. Did I pick up an almond tasting note? No, I don’t pretend to be that sophisticated. But I did not feel like I was paying cocktail prices for juice; it had the elevated complexity I love in a good cocktail.
(I also highly recommend Blind Shot’s Riff Raff & Magenta—non-alcoholic aperitif, elderflower, lime, and pineapple—and Jobu Tupaki—non-alcoholic spiced cane and white cane spirits, pineapple, lime, coconut, vanilla, and matcha. And if you’re noticing a theme, yes I gravitate towards drinks with some sour or sharp notes, usually from citrus.)
But my alcohol abstinence is not all physical. My relationship with alcohol had a rocky start, probably because I didn’t realize Marion’s drinking scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark was NOT aspirational. As I tested (and learned!) my limits, alcohol amplified the general state of my life. When times were good, I was giddy and life was full of adventure. I got a little nostalgic watching the Ted Lasso episode “Beard After Hours” where Coach Beard wanders the city. He acquires new friends, new clothes (including some sparkly pants), has an epic dance scene, and arrives at the office the next morning, kicking up his feet and lowering his cap to take a chair nap. It captured the essence of my favorite nights out as a college student in Chicago and a twenty-something in Beijing.
But when life was not going so great… I probably should have stayed sober. I think a lot of us realized during the pandemic that as a coping mechanism, alcohol has its limits and can quickly turn into an unhealthy, slippery slope.
Even during the good times, it became clear as I got older that the party couldn’t last forever. One night at an after-after-party, I stared at my cup and said out loud, “It’s four in the morning. Why am I drinking gin?” We all laughed but it planted the seed in my mind that I should be more thoughtful about what I’m drinking, how much, and why. As I cut back, my tolerance waned, so I cut back some more and now over a decade later I have become a one-drink woman.
I don’t regret my drinking days but I’m not going back. It was a good time, but you know what else is? Getting a good night’s sleep and enjoying my weekend instead of laying in bed feeling like my head’s split open. Cheers to that.