The Definitive Rules of Drinking
How to take more from alcohol than it takes from you
“If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations.” - William Shakespeare (Falstaff, Henry IV, Part 2.)
In 1932, Milwaukeean Gunnar Mickelsen took to the local newspaper to offer a bitter condemnation of alcohol prohibition.
“Beer and wine make for conversation,” Mickelsen wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel. “There is in liquors of mild alcoholic persuasion that which quickens the flow of the thoughts in a man’s cranium, loosens a notch the belt about his reticence, and releases upon his tongue the fruits of his meditations. It is for precisely this reason that men have resorted to alcoholic drinks as a means to make their companionship more vivid and happy.”
Mickelsen’s concern was primarily social, but his observation also applied to the personal. He touched on a main reason writers have commonly been stereotyped as heavy drinkers - authors are always looking to have “the fruits of their meditations” on their tongue, and booze helps facilitate the reunion quite well.
Writing, after all, is the constant process of self-critique. This sentence is too long. This metaphor is tired. This paragraph doesn’t say what I think it does. By the time one is finished with a one-page essay, it often feels like one has wrestled a walrus. (A tired metaphor, no doubt.)
Liquor, on the other hand, helps allay those critical self-ruminations. It is often said that alcohol gives one “beer goggles,” or improves a person’s opinion of others. It is actually the opposite - getting drunk melts away one’s misgivings about his or herself. It makes you think you are good looking, erudite, and fun to be around.
And thus, drinking while writing can drop inhibitions in language, topic, and boldness. “Liquid courage” doesn’t just apply in talking to potential mates - it can match you up with some pretty comely sentences. (And trick you into using words like “comely.”)
As Christopher Hitchens noted, alcohol “makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”
Thus, many professional writers, in the hopes of being Hemingway or Bukowski or Capote or Poe, exercise both their writing and drinking muscles at the same time. As Stephen Fry once said, he did not have a drinking problem, he had a drinking solution.
(Hemingway is often credited with the phrase “write drunk, edit sober,” but in fact, he counseled sobriety while writing. "Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked?,” he told a reporter in 1964. “You're thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes—and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he's had his first one.”)
A brief pause for a word of caution: Do not ever write under the influence if you are writing for someone else. If you are a reporter or a columnist or banging out copy for a trade magazine, your time belongs to your employer. Only enjoy alcohol when you are writing for yourself - a book, poems, newsletters, etc. And never publish before getting a look at it while sober.
That being said, over the past fifteen-ish years, I have become a writer. And in that time, I have realized that judicious use of John Barleycorn can be just as advantageous to an author as a Supreme Court clerkship is to an attorney or a needle to the buttocks was for Mark McGwire.*
Recently, given my frequent social media posts about various types of liquors, it seems I have adopted a reputation for being a heavy drinker. On a recent national podcast, I was introduced as a “liquor connoisseur and noted Wisconsinite,” two descriptions which are effectively redundant. It also hasn’t helped that my favorite photos of myself tend to feature me with drink in hand.
But, as Winston Churchill once boasted, I have taken much more from alcohol than it has taken from me. Without it, I could not have sat down and written my first book. If I was more scrupulous, Johnnie Walker would have gotten a co-writing credit.
But, as Alcoholic Spider-Man’s uncle told him, “with great drinking powers come great drinking responsibility.” One cannot simply down scotch after scotch, day after day, and avoid becoming, as the British say, a “piss-artist.”
(One notable dissenter from this word of caution would be Kingsley Amis, author of the books “Everyday Drinking,” “Kingsley Amis on Drink,” and “How’s Your Glass?” Amis literally meant every day, as he even included tips on what to eat - meat, poultry, game, and eggs being the cornerstone of the drunkard’s meals - in order to avoid gaining weight on an alcohol-centric diet. Today, he would be a Keto billionaire.)
So I have collected some of my drinking tips, to help others maintain a healthy, productive relationship with alcohol. These will allow you to remain kindred spirits with liquid spirits.
Buy quality, not volume. But not too high quality.
Nothing gets older white guys in more of a poetic mood than describing their favorite scotch. They wax rhapsodical about the notes of tobacco and cinnamon and vanilla. They perfect the pronunciation of impossible to find single malts. They name drop their favorite malt masters and whisper of the quirks in each distillery that makes a bottle’s chemistry unique. (According to legend, one distiller was going to clean the cobwebs out of his fermenting room, but opted against it…just in case.)
Problem is, these scotches and bourbons get really expensive really quickly. You can easily end up paying four to five times more for a bottle that may taste three or four percent better than what you would normally drink.
For a special occasion, sure. But stick with what you like - sometimes you may even prefer the basic model of, say, a rye more than you will the fancier “small batch” version. (Obviously, if you can afford it, and like hunting down more obscure liquors, go for it.)
Just pick a few bourbons and a few scotches that you like and hold them close. My rotation: Balvenie, Aberlour, McCallan, and the occasional Lagavulin for when I’m feelin’ peaty. Knob Creek Rye and Bulleit Rye do the trick for whiskey, although you’d be surprised at how good Wild Turkey is given its hilarious name.
One primary benefit of scotch is that if you drink it neat, it can always just sit on your bookshelf. No need to ever get up to run to the fridge for ice or mixers or anything. It’s basically just like having a box of granola bars on hand if granola bars made you awesome.
Another upside of drinking straight alcohol is the consistency of the drink. You know exactly how much your limit is and how much you need to drink to get the desired effect. If you go to a bar and ask for a whiskey sour, chances are you’re going to get some whiskey mixed with a horrifying yellow liquid that is typically used to clean aircraft engines. Take out the sour, and you’re getting exactly what you like, the way you want it. Can’t screw up a Bulleit on the rocks.
The thing nobody ever tells you about drinking better alcohol is that it leaves you with less of a hangover. A couple glasses of a good single malt, two ibuprofen before bed, and you wake up golden. This is the secret you never learn in college.
Instead, younger people drink sugar-infused mixed drinks, whether with Red Bull or with Coke, which is the fast lane to a hangover. Amis hated rum and Cokes, and blamed our country for their popularity.
“I love America, but any nation that produces drive-in churches, Woody Allen and the cola drinks can’t be all good,” he wrote.
Finally, never do shots. The purpose of a shot is to drink a terrible liquor so fast that you can’t taste it. Instead, just get a drink that you do enjoy and take your time with it. It probably costs about the same and the contents of your stomach will remain safely where they belong.
Do not drink ironically.
If you enjoy a basic pilsner or can’t afford more expensive beers, go ahead and drink all the Pabst you want. As Hitchens said, “cheap booze is a false economy.” But if your alcohol budget can stand it, go ahead and drink something you enjoy. If you have friends that give you a hard time for drinking “lady” drinks, you need better friends, preferably ladies.
Also, never assume that drinking scotch or bourbon is a man’s activity. The days of masculinity being tied to enjoyment of straight whiskey are long gone. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten on whiskeys and scotches are from females - respect their brown liquor game.
Space it out.
Rarely do I drink more than once a week. I value my organs and would like to keep them intact.
In the event I do find myself with a beverage in my hand more than once in a week, however, I never drink two days in a row. Give it at least a day in between. (This can be more flexible if you are young and healthy.)
I have heard from other writers that they are perfectly happy having one drink a day. If this can work for you and unlock your brain waves, go for it.
This also happens to be the topic of the Oscar-winning film “Another Round,” in which a group of friends vow to live their lives moderately buzzed - the idea being that people who are only slightly inebriated are the perfect level of confident and assertive.
This idea was also the topic of a great skit by British comic duo Mitchell and Webb, who posit the idea that the world is secretly run by people who have had slightly less than two drinks:
Now seems like a good time to drop in an anecdote about my 96-year old grandmother, who has never shied away from a drink. When I called to wish her a happy 90th birthday, my uncle answered the phone and informed me she wasn’t there. “She’s out drinking with her girlfriends,” he told me.
Drink when you’re happy, not when you’re sad.
Drowning your sorrows never works. When you sober up, your sorrows are still there, and you may have added a spare sorrow or two while you were under the influence.
This especially goes for drinking while sad around other people. Sometimes when we’re imbibing we say things we don’t mean. But more often, we say exactly what we mean, and that causes big problems. The modern translation of “in vino veritas” should be, “in White Claw, tell Steve everyone knows he’s bald and should stop wearing that stupid hat around all the time.”
Don’t get hammered in public
One of life’s great mysteries is why people pay hundreds of dollars to attend concerts and sporting events, only to get so drunk that they have little memory of being there. In a philosophical sense, isn’t your story and experience of attending the event all you will carry with you throughout your life? If that’s the case, why damage it?
Alcohol exists to take unbearable situations and make them somewhat more bearable (work picnics, meeting girls, parent-teacher conferences, etc.) Why would you take an already awesome experience, like going to see your favorite team, and make it somehow less memorable by getting liquored up?
Further, getting hammered around civilians is always a bad move. You’re like a pubic hair in the potato salad - you ruin the whole thing for everyone.
The only place where it is acceptable to be drunk in public is where everyone is drunk. The amateurs are at home and inebriation is the default setting. Then take your shot, king.
Start later in life.
If you are reading this, chances are you are older than Olivia Rodrigo. However, if you are not, you know that high school is difficult enough, and drinking in your early-to-mid teens really ratchets up the degree of difficulty in becoming a productive human.
I can speak from experience on this, as I never touched a drop of alcohol in high school. My best friend and I made a pact not to drink - we would often go to parties and grab beers, only to sneak out the back, empty them, and fill the cans with Sprite we had bought at the gas station on the way there.
I think he saw the effect heavy drinking had on his own family. I thus offered solidarity.
This was even despite my parents’ efforts to teach me responsible drinking. Sometimes they would come home from a dinner out and my dad would say, “your mother and I are going to have a glass of wine, if you want to try some.” And I would immediately call 911 and report that my parents had been abducted and replaced with cool people.
The bottom line is, you have enough chemicals firing around in your skull as a high schooler - don’t confuse the ones you already have with ones you can avoid. You have your whole life to drink. Just start when you get to college and take that time to learn how much you can handle.
(Somewhat-related side note: “Learning how much you can handle” used to be a process that took place in a world where everyone didn’t have a high definition camera in their pocket. Now, growing pains are simply clickbait for the world. Try not to end up on the Drunk People Doing Things Instagram feed, if at all possible.)
So what are the preferred ages to drink heavily? If you’re going out and getting hammered past your mid-to-late 20’s, that’s probably a red flag. If your drinking is affecting your family life and work product in your 30s, 40s, and 50s, it is certainly a sign you need help.
But then, like magic, you get to the age where your heavy drinking once again becomes adorable. Old drinking is celebrated because people don’t judge you nearly as much for engaging in it. If you drink a lot when you’re young, people worry about its long-term effects; it could cost you jobs, relationships, and keep you from reaching your potential.
However, once everyone sees you’ve pretty much maxed out on the potential scale, you’re free to pickle yourself as you see fit. When you’re young, you drink to make new memories. When you’re old, you drink to forget the memories you’ve made.
And remember, if you don’t drink as an adult, you won’t live longer, it will just seem longer.
In parting, I will simply urge you to enjoy everything in moderation. As G.K. Chesterton said, “the dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink.”
Oh, and drink lots of water.
*Side note: It is strange to tell someone you are a “writer,” as there is no credential that qualifies you to call yourself one. If you tell someone that is your occupation, be prepared for them to look at you as if you are trying to fit your whole fist in your mouth. It could mean you sell books in J.K. Rowling-like numbers, or it could mean you write subtitles for pornography. The only clue they have that you can stitch words together is that you still have phone service and you still boast a full set of teeth. Anyway.
Bonus Cut: Over the past half-decade, I have made my deep and abiding love for Australian songstress Courtney Barnett known to anyone who will listen. She has a recent album out, and it lives up to all my expectations. Here is “Before You Gotta Go:”