Category: blogging
drinking, Rule 4, science

Thoughts on “The Wagon”

[caption id="attachment_11186" align="aligncenter" width="2000"]Not this wagon, more's the pity. Not this wagon, more's the pity.[/caption] So March was an interesting month for me. I always have a big motivation hangover after Tiki Month in February, so this year I decided to lean into the curve and just go fully dry for the whole month... up until a family wedding at the very end. I'm not crazy. Why do people take a temporary ride on The Wagon? Lots of reasons, I suppose. There is a custom called Dry January, which seems to have originated in the United Kingdom and has in recent years become a fund-raising event as well. A number of my Twitter friends and followers seem to give it a go each year as well. My reasons for trying it (albeit in March) were two-fold. First, and most importantly, I wanted to make sure I could. My family has had its share of members who have suffered from problems controlling their drinking, from simple difficulty with portion control to full-blown alcoholism. I do not wish to go down any of those roads. In fact, one reason I like cocktails so much is that I firmly believe that one way to control the slippery slope of Just One More is to choose to drink things that are just enough of a pain in the ass to make that you think twice before each and every one. Thus, March was an on-going experiment in measuring how much difficulty I would have in not drinking, and how I felt during the effort. What I expected to happen was much like what this British writer describes: cravings, dreams, cheating, and an altered social life in aid of succeeding. I was ready for all that, but I found that I had relatively little difficulty at all. First and foremost, I never felt like I just needed a drink. I never found myself reaching for something unconsciously. The number one most important thing I learned is that not only am I not overly dependent on alcohol, I really don't feel dependent on it at all. I'm not saying I didn't miss cocktails. I missed them often, but what I was fantasizing about was flavor. I've claimed for years that what I value in drinking is the culinary value, not the buzz. I was a little bit surprised, honestly, to discover that I haven't been bullshitting. And keeping sober was easier than I expected in other ways too. Lots of wagoneers change their social habits in self-defense, just like smokers who avoid the things they used to smoke during while going cold turkey. While I didn't go out as much during March, I still did go, still sat at the bars, even ate there (or didn't). I wasn't miserable, or even particularly tempted. I also deliberately did not encourage the PeguWife to get on the wagon with me. I sat beside her evenings while she had her glass of wine, and I did not feel jealous. I even made her cocktails. Testing a drink before serving has become a habit for me, and remembering not to do that may have been the hardest thing during the month. I genuinely did not know how I'd handle the test, and I'm almost smug about how well I did. But I will never stop being careful on this front. Second, my liver is not getting any younger, and I'd like to remain friends. The liver is designed to handle toxins like alcohol, that's what it is there for. But there is no doubt that a relentless workout takes its toll over time. Years of alcohol consumption will inevitably leave scars on any liver. But there is some pretty solid science that demonstrates the liver's amazing ability to regenerate itself, given a break. A month of teetotaling gives the body's waste processing plant a chance for a lot of maintenance. Liver health will improve, in many cases rather dramatically. Major changes include reductions in organ hardness and liver fat deposits, both precursors of serious liver problems. Other health benefits claimed on behalf of a month of sobriety are weight loss, lowered blood sugar, and a host of other lifestyle effects like better sleep, etc. I didn't do any clinical tests on myself, but I did take a careful inventory of how I felt and how my body treated me before, during, and after March. I have sleeping problems whether I am on the wagon or not, but they are different. Going to bed with a few drinks in me, I usually wake between two to four in the morning for a brisk half hour or so of wrestling with whatever haunts me currently. When I wasn't drinking, I woke much less in the middle of the night, but I had a lot harder time actually getting to sleep in the first place. That was pretty much a wash. The big difference was how I felt in the mornings. Until I went dry, I didn't realize how bleary I was feeling many mornings. I felt a lot better before lunch all of a sudden. The best part is, now that I'm back to regular drinking levels, I still feel better in the morning than before. Not as good as I felt when sober, but still markedly better. I will be interested to see if this keeps up over the next year, and if I can tell. I also have lost a good bit of weight, but I doubt the sobriety had anything to do with that. I've been keeping to a low-carb diet since I put away all the Tiki Month syrups, etc. I've enjoyed nice, steady, noticeable weight loss the entire time, and going off the wagon has not changed that. But that's another post. I will say here, that most Dry January weight loss seems more due to reductions in carbs and calories from beer or wine. If you are a cocktail drinker with tastes like mine, I seriously doubt you will get much weight loss from stopping booze. What makes a month so special? Probably nothing, other than humans' need for nice round numbers. The science says some benefits appear well before a month. What the sweet spot is maximizing benefit for amount of effort is not known. It could be two weeks, it could be seven. What is known is that a month seems to give pretty good results. And for someone who is less lucky than me in terms of the mental effort needed to stay sober, a nice, defined period of "suffering" would likely make chances of success a lot higher. My March on The Wagon was well worth it. I will do it again. I may not do it again the same month, and depending on the results of my annual physicals, I may not do it every year. But I feel it was certainly worthwhile. I'm going to press the PeguWife to try it soon. And I suggest, if you haven't given it a shot, and you are no longer so young as to imagine yourself to be indestructible, you ought to try it
General Cocktails, Rule 2

Outstanding Video on Cocktail First Principals

I just want to highlight an outstanding new video from The Mixology Guys on the Small Screen Network's YouTube cocktail channel. Embedded below it is a brisk 90 seconds of slow-mo drink pr0n and four bedrock principals in making any drink the best it can be. For those who can't watch it for whatever reason, here are the four elements that go into a truly good drink:
  1. Mix Ingredients. You might say, "duh", but until you understand why this is important, you don't really understand the Dao of cocktails. The purpose of making drinks is to produce a potable that is better in some fashion than any and all of its component ingredients. A few years back, I went to a session at Tales of the Cocktail where some of my favorite big names in the liquor industry discussed how seldom they actually drank cocktails any more. The gist of the argument from much of the panel was, "the distiller's art has reached previously unheard of heights. There are so many beautifully crafted spirits out there, it makes sense to enjoy them on their own to fully appreciate them." Fair enough. There are indeed many truly fine, expensive bottles of whiskey, brandy, rum, and even gin out there that are so crafted as to make them immune to the "improvement" of the mixed drink. But if you can spend your life drinking nothing but ultra-premium liquor with naught but the occasional splash of water or ice, you are either a wealthy alcoholic... or a brand ambassador. (Some might argue that the difference is that brand ambassadors are seldom wealthy.)
  2. Dilution. Enough said. Until you understand the effects of dilution, you can't really understand how to make a really great drink. Anyone who sneers at dilution on general principals doesn't know the first damn thing about cocktails.
  3. Temperature. Make sure your cold drinks are cold. (And your hot ones actually hot.) Ever get into a really good argument with someone and turn back to your Sidecar, only to discover it has gotten warm? Ew.
  4. Aeration of Ingredients. This is both perhaps the best element of this video, and the only part I have a quibble with. For the vast majority of mixed drinks, air is critical to making it the best it can be, for the reasons they outline beautifully. But not for all drinks. I strictly adhere to the "clear ingredients—no shake" credo. I like my Martinis stirred. I will call Child Services and report you if you shake your Manhattans. I don't muddle fruit in my Old Fashioneds, so I also don't add any soda. Air is amazing in what it can do to for drinks that can benefit from it. 90% of the drinks I make can, and I take great care to ensure that I apply aeration liberally there. But please, please remember that this rule is NOT universal!
Bartenders, General Cocktails, Marketing, Rule 4

The Next Word We Need To Banish: Curated

Can we talk? It is time to recognize that another word has gotten out of control. It is rampaging through the cocktail (and general culinary) industry, making those who employ it look insufferably twee. And worse, making the entire industry which is perilously close to embracing it look twee as well. I mean more twee than craft cocktails already kind of are. To be sure, this word is also being abused in many other arenas as well, but I write about cocktails, so that's where it pisses me off the most. It's just pretentious as hell. I'm talking about our sudden need to claim that we "curate" everything. Stop it. First off, most people don't know what it means, even if they just read the bare bones definition a few minutes ago. Most folks hear curate or curator and think of it as someone who collects and presents rare and precious things in museums. The positive image that probably lurks in their subconscious when they think of curators, especially if they are considering identifying themselves as such, is this guy: indiana-jones-curator No. That guy is in "Purchasing". A curator is more this guy. X1QAr1GR_400x400 Not quite the same, huh? But either way, the subtext cocktail types who employ the word curate want to portray is collecting, organizing, presenting, and protecting things that represent the great works of a civilization. You know, as in, "This belongs in a museum!" And that is the subtext most people who see the word employed have as well. And that's the problem. A cocktail menu, I don't care it is Dead Rabbit's or Smuggler's Cove's, is not a collection of the great works of a civilization. Sure, the Manhattan may well be the single greatest culinary achievement of American civilization. I happen to think it is. But let's face it, your list of house-created seasonal recipes is not the Louvre. It's not even Ripley's. And even if a cocktail menu is made up of nothing but time-honored masterworks, prepared to perfection... it's a list of drinks. And putting them on a menu does nothing to protect them for posterity. It is a colossally pretentious word for a list of products available for sale in, for practical purposes, unlimited quantities. Even if you have a "carefully curated selection of rare whiskeys", it is still a bunch of bottles on a shelf or three. If a particular bottle is still made, it is something for sale, again, in relatively unlimited quantities. If it has been discontinued, the purpose of offering it for sale is ultimately to destroy it permanently. None of all this is curation. The most charitable interpretation of this phenomenon is just another cutesy element in an industry that already dances so close with being "precious", a chaperone needs to swing by with a ruler to separate them for the craft's own good. JAEb383 At it's worst, this "curation" fetish is self-important, "Tulip Bubble" kind of thinking that encourages a dangerous disconnect between the value of a product as perceived by customers and by producers. Whether you are Le Lion de Paris or Bob's Bar (The Cultural Hub of the Midwest!), You. Are. A. Business. You are not a revered academic institution. Seriously guys, this term is creeping into use by people I both like and highly respect. Stop it. You are only damaging your industry and your own enterprise. And looking just a bit like an ass doing
drinking, Political Controversies, Rule 4, science

The CDC and the New Prohibitionists

[caption id="attachment_11123" align="aligncenter" width="960"]Brought to you by The Centers for Disease Control Brought to you by The Centers for Disease Control[/caption] This little gem about America's modern prohibitionists came out last month, but I didn't want to harsh your rum buzz with yet another example of how joylessly unrealistic, controlling, and contemptuous American bureaucracy is. Of course, The Centers for Disease Control (the subject of this little screed) would likely argue that I'm some kind of baby-killer for not rushing their message out as swiftly as possible. You see, they want you to know that no woman of child-bearing years should drink any alcohol at all, unless she is on full-time, passive birth control. From The Atlantic—Protect Your Womb from the Devil Drink:
Julie: Olga, did you know that 3.3 million women in the U.S. are “at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol?” Well, their hypothetical babies at least. This number represents the women aged 15 to 44 who are “drinking, having sex, and not using birth control,” according to a report The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Tuesday. In an effort to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome, the agency says doctors should “recommend birth control to women who are having sex (if appropriate), not planning to get pregnant, and drinking alcohol.”
Here's the report from the CDC, so you can read this piece of Chinese lead- and talc-filled pablum for yourself. If you can't stomach longish articles that look like Carrie Nation took over the USAToday, I'll digest it for you.
  • There is NO SAFE AMOUNT OF ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION during pregnancy, from making the Beast with Two Backs, all the way until the sweating, screaming, and well-coached breathing. (And really not until you finish breast-feeding, but that's another publication for another day) ((You are breast-feeding your baby, right? Right? Right?!?!))
  • There is a whole raft of scary, permanent problems that a baby might have. A large number of these can be caused by (among other causes, known and unknown) any alcohol consumption during any point of pregnancy.
  • A post-pubescent, pre-menopausal woman can become pregnant if she, get this, has sex.
  • Ipso facto, all fertile women must choose between drinking, or The Pill or an IUD. (Or condoms. But let's be honest with ourselves, if you are a boozer, how careful are you always going to be about condoms?)
I'll admit, I may have made explicit some subtext in all that.... On the face of it, this is yet another of those apparently reasonable, "what could it hurt not to be safe?" kind of things that public advocates put out all the time. Because it is "apparently" reasonable. It is also brutish. And bad science that is provably so even by someone like me who is outside the field. And hugely paternalistic, like most such pronouncements from the government health field. Oh yeah, and it is more hopelessly naive about human nature than TV commercial dads are about diapers. Brutish? Yep. From the Atlantic article again:
On an individual level, pregnancy is an exercise in abstinence. Women are told to give up not just alcohol, but caffeine, too. And seafood and lunch meat and soft cheeses. And sometimes, things that are much harder to go without. Jane Marie wrote a heartbreaking essay in Cosmopolitan about going off her depression and anxiety medication while pregnant.
It is a bit brutish to demand that a woman who wishes to go about her life to give up sensible recreational lifestyle choices (e.g. sex... or Pegus), or to endure a range of side-effects, agonizing negotiations, or other dangers. But asking people to make draconian personal choices against their own wishes to prevent low-order-probability events is just one of the brutish services modern government provides! And get this: I am fully aware that brutish (by this definition) advice is often necessary, and indeed a good thing. Fathers like me, with daughter's like mine, often issue "brutish" advice about subjects quite close to this. One difference is that if an individual issues such "guidance" to a young woman or women publicly, a Twitter mob of persons allergic to contrary viewpoints will form and declare the Earth a Safe Space, where said individual is not welcome. Other differences are the time-testedness of the advice, the recognition of human nature in the thought process, and the order of magnitude of the probabilities.... The science here really is dubious. It's what happens when you combine patrician public policy with scientific endeavor. Science loses... or is co-opted, which is worse for Science. First off, yes: All evidence is quite clear that some level of alcohol consumption, at some points in a child's development, can have deleterious, even devastating consequences. What is, however, far from remotely certain is how low that level of consumption is, and a which points in the timeline, and how great the risk actually is. (One in a hundred? One in a million?) As but one example, there is evidence showing an improvement is natal outcomes with mothers who drink low amounts of alcohol during parts of pregnancy over those who teetotal. (Danger! Correlation is not causation!) My point here is that there is conflicting good science on the subject. It is dishonest and to no small degree self-deluding to act as if there evidence sufficient to support such an absolutist conclusion as the CDC puts forth here. While the CDC release does not use the term, it is clearly informed by the all-too common term, "There is no safe level of X." With the exception of supertoxins like Plutonium, this phrase generally has come to mean, "we don't actually know for sure what the minimum safe level is, only that there is some level that is not safe. So to be conservative, let's just say the level is zero. Better safe than sorry." To adopt this as rigorous scientific method, we would be forced to also put forth public policy based on there being no safe level of crossing the street. If you base life decisions on pronouncements like there being "no safe level of crossing the street", the little Jimmy will not be allowed to walk the two blocks to Billy's house on Saturday. Jimmy's mom will instead have to schedule a playdate for next weekend. The upshot of this is that Jimmy will be safe from the terrifying risk of walking down the street while eleven, but the cost of this safety is that there is now be a near certainty that he will be living in Mom's basement and working for the Martin O'Malley campaign when he is 24. It is simply not possible for human beings to avoid all risks in life, and any attempt at doing so usually ends badly. An honest accounting of risks, and an honest disclosure of the uncertainties about those risks, is going to be more helpful to people in determining what risks to take, and how often. The human mind works fairly consistently, especially en masse. Tell people that something is too dangerous to do at all, something they really like doing, and they are going to do it anyway. Having decided to do it anyway, they will justify this by not believing you. And once they don't believe you, many will take this as license to seriously ignore your advice.... And if this disbelief is easily justified by their own experiences and by facts in evidence, they will conclude not only that you are wrong, but that you are liars. And they will place an assumption upon you that any other advice and/or edicts you may issue are also likely untrue. And they won't be happy about it. Think I'm wrong? [caption id="attachment_11126" align="aligncenter" width="360"]The inevitable consequence of telling people that the sky is green for long enough.... The horrible, inevitable consequence of telling people that the sky is green for long enough....[/caption] So, why do public health advocates employ absolutist solutions so often? Are they truly so risk-adverse that they genuinely believe their own advice? I doubt it. In a recent speech, Christopher Snowdon of the British think tank Institute of Economic Affairs addresses this endemic dishonesty, using general alcohol consumption issues as his focus. I think it is an excellent piece, not least because much of his thinking mirrors my own as outlined above.... He suggests there are two reasons, neither of which are a true belief in the advice offered. The first thought process he describes in terms of teacher's setting homework expectations.
...the teachers told us that we would be expected to do three or four hours of homework a night. ... I doubt that any of us were so conscientious. Speaking personally, I recall half an hour being the average, perhaps up to an hour on occasion. Looking back, I think the teachers knew that we wouldn’t do three or four hours. I think they would have been very happy if we did one or two hours. They were doing something that behavioural economists call ‘anchoring’ — putting an unrealistically high number in our minds in the hope that we would settle for a lower number, but that the number would still be higher than the number we would have come up with if left to our own devices. If they had said we should do an hour, we might have settled for 20 minutes. If they had said half an hour, we might have settled for ten minutes.
The second motive he proposes is bureaucratic, rather than health motivated. Put in terms of this CDC missive, the number and intensity of women drinking while pregnant or actively trying to become pregnant has been declining over time. That this can be attributed to the efforts of the public health community is indisputable, and to the extent that we recognize it as a public good, should be celebrated as a success. But bureaucracies are generally loathe to brag about real successes (though they certainly tout illusory successes when they are failing at root jobs). Why? Because if they admit to having fixed a problem, the rest of the government will say, "Awesome! Now we can give your money to spend on some other problem that isn't fixed, or even (I'm laughing so hard I can barely type here) just not spend that money at all." Conversely, if you change your metrics, from "don't drink if you are trying to become pregnant" to "don't drink if you could possibly become pregnant", suddenly you have three and a half million women added to your population of people with dangerous drinking habits. Three and a half million is a crisis! Better give them more money.... I'll propose a third motive as well: the clever, incremental totalitarianism of the bureaucratic state, in this case, the Prohibitionist wing. When we ended Prohibition, we didn't end the prohibitionists. We just taught them better tactics. First, they came for the college students, and I did nothing. Because, screw those punks. Then, they came for the fertile women, and I did nothing. Because I am not a fertile woman. And so on. Finally, the CDC is being a bit naive about some of the rather elemental relationship between booze and pregnancy. Bill McMorris at the Federalist writes this:
Forgive me for taking this personally, but I wouldn’t be here if not for the invention of Irish whiskey. My two children wouldn’t be here if not for Pinot Noir. We’re a good Catholic family. The only form of birth control we use is my physique, but, like every other method of birth control short of abstinence, it is not 100 percent effective (Baby No. 3 is due in July). Evidently we are child-abusing monsters.
In my case, I am reliably informed that in my case, my nativity can be put down to the invention of the Stinger.... Regardless, I am not suggesting women go on The Drinking Man's Diet, be they fertile or not. There is a connection between drinking and pregnancy outcomes. The connection gets stronger with greater consumption, likely curving up in more than just a straight line. The advice our physician gave my wife and me was to be careful about the calendar when actively trying to get pregnant, and abstain once we succeeded. In the latter stages of the pregnancy, a smallish glass of wine on most days would likely have a higher chance of being beneficial than being harmful. Pregnancy is hard, people. There is the weight gain. The weariness. The sexual insecurity. The crankiness. The worries about the future... And guys, if you think it is hard, the women have it even worse!abc