My name is Jennifer Perkin and I am a drinker. I have been on and off for about 15 years now, since I first moved to England and learned how to drink pints of beer. This is not about my regret, my plans to give up drinking, how much better I felt when I stopped drinking, or an apology. This is my love letter to alcohol.
This is not about alcoholism. I am not depressed, though like most empathic people who are in touch with their emotional interior I do get sad sometimes. Many of the best times of my life have happened while I was buzzed, tipsy or drunk. Many have happened while sober too. I have lived and continue to live a fairly fun and fruitful life and have held down many stable jobs and relationships. Some months I drink 5-7 nights a week. Mine, good reader, is not a story often told.
I rarely drink at home. I love bars, I really love bars, and not just because they serve alcohol. A good drinking hole is almost entirely about vibe. I have been to aesthetically gorgeous bars with no atmosphere, and absolute shitholes that have felt like home. I’ve even spent time in great bars with terrible music that I’ve enjoyed, though all of the very best places involve good music. A great bar is a sacred place. A great bar should always be dark. A great bartender is a God / Goddess. Bars are places where people get together to talk to each other, to connect, to flirt, to be where other humans are. Connecting with people, be it through drinking, conversation, art, or a shared meal, is my favourite activity.
Ernest Hemingway is quoted as having said the following, and I have to say I tend to agree:
“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares, if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”
A local tipple can tell you a lot about a place. I have my favourite drinks, as I have my favourite foods, but my style is very much ‘when in Rome consume as the Romans do’. Sometimes the experience is no different from eating locally sourced food – like drinking wine in France, mezcal in Mexico (❤️), port in Portugal. What a pleasure to taste the very terroir of the very location you are in! Sometime it is more about a cultural experience. Drinking Guinness in Ireland, real ale in England, Flor de Caña rum in Nicaragua, Mojitos in Cuba. I’m not saying a ‘Low Life’ boilermaker (Miller High Life and cheap whiskey) is a global culinary highlight, but I will say the experience of drinking one, or many, in a NYC dive bar is as enjoyable as any drinking experience I’ve had.
You can learn a lot about a place by drinking as the locals drink. You can learn a lot about a place by drinking what they USED to drink as well – think poitin, mead, cocuy. There’s so much history there. I think if we started looking at alcohol more like food we might be getting somewhere. I love the taste of good alcohol, I love nothing more than trying new things. To me a vodka & soda, or hard seltzers, are for people who drink to get drunk. It’s like people who drink diet shakes; they want to feel full without eating. I don’t understand that – I’m in it for the experience. I want to savour it. Just as I don’t understand people who eat the same meal every day or refuse to try the local food when they travel, and believe me I’ve met plenty of them. Yes alcohol gets you drunk, but it’s not necessarily the point.
Drinking outdoors is great. Drinking at a friend’s house is great. Drinking on a train is great. Drinking with food is great. Drinking for taste and drinking for refreshment and drinking to celebrate is great. It’s great as long as you are in control, and mindful, and consensual. Mainstream media and popular opinion would have you believe people are not clever enough to do that. Alcohol laws in many places (Hi, Sydney) treat people like idiots. I have zero tolerance for obnoxious drunks and pure fury for drunk drivers, but they only represents a minority of drinkers. Can we talk about a positive way of drinking? There’s obvious a reason why so many of us do it.
Every week a new article will surface on my newsfeed about the joys of sobriety, or a new study which further proves that alcohol is bad for our health. I’m not here to deny the adverse effects of alcohol on health. I’m not here to say it doesn’t feel great to be sober. I’m here to say: I love drinking. I don’t always get drunk when I drink, and that is not the reason why I drink, but I do get drunk frequently. While drunk I have never hurt anybody or done anything I’ve regretted. While drunk I’ve never lost any friends but I’ve certainly made a bunch. I’ve danced, I’ve laughed, I’ve made spontaneous plans, had new ideas, talked for hours and hours and watched thousands of bands blow my mind. Drinking is not always about drowning sorrows, it can also be about heightening joy. Mine is not an opinion often shared, though the late great Bill Hicks had a similar things to say about drugs.
For a species that loves to drink we sure are hypocrites about it. I’ve been thinking about why we are so puritanical about something that is so widespread and I have a few ideas, if not really an answer.
One idea is that alcohol gets blamed for societal ills that are simply exacerbated by alcohol, not caused by them. Coleman Andrews muses excellently on this topic in this article, one of the few alcohol-positive stories could find online, all the way from 1994.
I think our demonisation of alcohol is also related to how much death-denial goes on in our culture. If we avoid drugs and alcohol, eat only “healthy” food, exercise enough, it’s implied that we can cheat death altogether. Hence people who complain about the strain on the health system caused by people who choose to smoke, or eat junk food, or of course drink. To me it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will make the “best” choices for their health. We all die of death after all. Maybe some people are literally here for a good time, not a long time. Isn’t that their choice to make? What about the health implications of stress? Of sitting at a desk for the majority of your waking hours? Of living an unhappy life?
I am not at all saying that if you drink more often you will be happier, but I am saying that if some people feel that drinking adds more to their lives than it subtracts, is that really so bad? Is it your place to judge? In my experience alcohol only amplifies who you really are. Show me an asshole drunk and I’ll show you an asshole. Same goes for angry, violent, racist, abusive, and sad drunks. Like my friend Hannah likes to say: the issue isn’t the issue.
I haven’t always been a heavy drinker. I did not grow up in a drinking family at all. When I was a teenager I actually used to look down on people who drank, seeing alcohol as the ‘opiate of the masses’ that kept people stupid, complacent, and distracted from the fucked-up truths of life. Yeh, I was a bit of an intense adolescent. I wouldn’t say I was straight edge, but I was close. When I met with friends in Australia I would go for dinner, or for coffee, or dessert.
When I moved to London when I was 20, something changed. I didn’t have to drive a car any more, I started working in media. No one meets for a “coffee” in England. I learned how to drink pints of beer (the trick is not to eat) and I fell in love with British pubs. The rest, as they say, is history. A wonderful, soused, history. I’ve had so many great nights sat at a bar. At the bar, always the best spot. So many long conversations with friends have been helped along by alcohol, loosening inhibitions and deepening connections. So much laughter. I cherish these moments alongside priceless sober moments. However, to this day nothing in the world makes me happier than watching a band with a beer in my hand.
Drinking, and in particular drinking in bars regularly, is a signifier of a kind of freedom permitted by alternative lifestyles. It implies late nights, unproductive mornings. A lack of responsibility, at least in a traditional sense. Probably no kids. Although some industries historically include hard drinking – media, hospitality – traditional 9-5 jobs don’t allow for a nocturnal lifestyle in any healthy way. Which is not to say people in traditional jobs don’t drink. But the concept of a bon vivant, a hedonist, a pleasure seeker who is enjoying life for enjoying life and not to escape something is still seen as a bit vulgar and irresponsible. In our society productivity is revered, and being hungover is not conducive to productivity.
I did lead a “healthy” sober life for a year or so in my mid-20’s, when I lived in Wales. I was in a committed relationship, seldom drank, and exercised a lot. I was fitter and thinner than I’ve ever been or will be again, and just as miserable. Which taught me that being sober, thin, or in a relationship do not in themselves make you happy. What do I think makes for happiness? I don’t have that full answer either but I do think being true to yourself and living a balanced life is part of it, whatever that might look like. I for one am a great hungover runner and my favourite drunken food is vegetable pho. How’s that for balance?
There is a parallel issue here, and it has to do with being a lady drinker. The great drinkers of history are almost all men. There’s no The Rum Diary with a woman protagonist and no female equivalent to this essential Bukowski poem about drinking and making art. Most work in praise of drinking comes from a macho perspective. Though clearly not all women have children, it must be said that having children does not go hand in hand with going out drinking. And historically, if one parent is at home with the children, it is usually the mother. Certainly, being pregnant or breastfeeding does not lend itself to alcohol-focused environments either. The history of women drinkers has yet to be written – any internet search of ‘female drinkers’ only results in reams of alarmist health related articles. This is something I intend to explore further: watch this space.
Just as there have been phases of my life that have involved less drinking in the past, I know there will be again. There may even be a time when I stop drinking altogether. But for now, as long as I’m having a good time, I refuse to feel guilty about enjoying a drink. And neither should you.