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How to Save American Drinking in Five Easy Steps

By tightening some restrictions, loosening others, and rejiggering alcohol’s place in common life, we could better foster a culture of safe enjoyment.
March 2, 2023
How to Save American Drinking in Five Easy Steps
(Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

As we enter the part of the year known as the Mark Wahlberg 40-Day Challenge, it is perhaps worth taking stock of our overall relationship with alcohol—why we drink, how we drink, and its relation to our happiness and virtue. On an individual level, this is an accounting that everyone must do for themselves. But on a cultural level, I believe there are five changes that could make American drinking more humane, more elegant, more fun: more worthy of such a potent engine of both delight and danger.

1. Drink more at lunch.

In most of middle-class America, drinking is strictly a post-5 p.m. affair. An iron boundary divides the day; the post-work drinks ritual is sacrosanct, but enjoying a snifter before then teeters on the verge of louche—something only fast women and incipient alcoholics would do. But this taboo is equally opposed to rational prudence and humane indulgence. Alcohol consumption interferes with sleep; it is better to have a drink earlier in the day rather than later. And a midday drink turns lunch from a hasty utilitarian chore into a little interlude of civilization.

Living in France a lifetime ago, I was struck by two elements that, to me, provide crucial support for the whole cultural edifice of the French lunch, which is a two-hour exit from the office to visit a cafe, meet friends, enjoy a meal, and participate in the life of the street. One is the French salad. The French salad (or salade—what magic in an extra “e”!) is not an act of penitential self-denial or an optimizing thrust towards self-improvement. It is a vehicle for the consumption of various animal fats and organs.

I can still taste the great ones. Quartered tomatoes and unremarkable lettuce dressed in a simple vinaigrette, draped in translucent folds of smoked salmon and dotted with chunks of silky foie gras—they shouldn’t have worked together, but did they ever. And the same basic preparation lay under the strips of rare duck breast and sautéd gizzards at Bistrot Smiley. Expensive American salads—kale, flaxseed, açaí berry—are all about maximizing nutritional bang for your buck. French ones are about composing an elegant frame for your duck.

And an indispensable component of this wonderful phenomenon is the little half-bottle carafe that comes with the meal—a decadent indulgence for one, but a civilized treat for two. It is the carafe of wine that turns the sad Soylent-adjacent desk salad into a celebration of abundance: of time, of conversation, of fat. It is the carafe that liberates the French from the tedious pretense that everyone is still doing their best work, day in and day out, after 2 p.m. It is the carafe that places conviviality squarely in the temporal center of the day and metaphorical center of life. Much ink has been spilled over the inability of American workers to erect even the flimsiest boundaries between work and life. A little postprandial carafe of burgundy at lunchtime would go a long way toward solving the problem.

2. Make glasses small again.

There is, of course, an American midday-drinking tradition: the three martini lunch. I used to think this was a function of the indestructible livers of the corn-fed ’50s. Men of earlier days, I thought, were to us as Superman is to Clark Kent. Alternately, perhaps Mad Men had undersold it, and everyone who lived in New York from 1959 onwards was just a dipsomaniac. But the truth of the matter, I now believe, is much simpler.

The glasses were smaller.

Have you ever been to a thrift store to buy glassware? There are almost always cocktail glasses, priced between ten cents and a dollar each, 40 to 70 years old. They are delicate, compact things, smaller than a woman’s fist.

The last time I ordered a martini at a bar I was handed roughly a pint of very cold gin in a glass as big as my head.

The most obvious reason to reject container size–creep and return to the small glass tradition is the natural pace of consumption. I am sure it varies somewhat from person to person, but I at least find that I finish each drink at exactly the same rate, irrespective of serving or vessel size. (This is in keeping with the variable experience of satiety, which can be elicited by a smaller serving of food when it fills a smaller dinner plate.) If I am handed a pint of gin, between forty-five minutes and one hour later I will have consumed a pint of gin. If I am handed an ounce of gin, in forty-five minutes to an hour I will have consumed an ounce of gin. A small glass allows you to extend the pleasure of “having a drink” without actually liquoring yourself into oblivion.

Aesthetically as well, smaller cocktail glasses are the clear winner. You can barely carry those hollowed-out bowling balls currently in vogue back to your table without some of your drink wobbling over the brim. Because the stem would have to be the size of a giraffe’s neck to be proportional to the bowl, they are always top-heavy and slightly ridiculous looking, a vaudeville prop in your hand. The tiny martini, by contrast, fills the same role as a cigarette. It gives you a small, graceful object to gesture with as you talk, and occasionally raise alluringly to your lips.

3. Serve margaritas as flights.

This will probably be the most controversial of my proposals, because everyone hates the true innovator.

What is the best part of a margarita? Do not let establishment pieties dictate your response. Speak what your heart knows to be true: It is the salt rim. The salt rim is the saving grace of the bad, pre-mixed margarita. It elevates a good margarita—clean tequila, fresh lime, the slight sweetness of Cointreau—to a briny sea breeze on a hot summer day.

And yet however generously you coat the rim in those chunky crystals, it is always inadequate. The perfect margarita experience, booze and salt mingled in perfect harmony, sip by sip, can only last for half the glass, at most.

The solution is to serve margaritas not in a glass, but in a flight of shot glasses, maximizing the vessel-to-rim ratio so you are never deprived of delicious salt.

There are, of course, objections. According to one source, I have merely reinvented the tequila shot. Another posits that the actual problem is that I am a deer in search of a salt lick, not a woman in want of a drink. For my part, I am content to let history decide.

4. Serve beer in public parks.

There are many things I enjoyed about the drinking culture of the Republic of Georgia: the fact that most of my neighbors had fully operational winemaking setups in their basement, and would take offense if you bought wine at a shop instead of telling them when you’d run out; the fact that Georgian basement wine is generally made with nothing but grapes and alchemy; the fact that on just about any street corner I could, with some discernment, buy a plastic water bottle full of delicious homemade chacha from an old man selling out of his basement kitchen.

But the element I would most like to bring back to the United States is the custom of drinking in public parks. (There is, of course, already much drinking in many U.S. public parks, but not in the way I mean.)

Tbilisi boasts a playground, a park, or a public square designed for sitting every few blocks. They are occupied by a diverse crew: old men playing a game of chess, eating pickled jonjoli and drinking chacha brought from home (sometimes waving you over and offering you a glass); young lovers, taking refuge from watchful eyes in the dusk to hold each other close (the park is a necessary third place when generations live together in the same homes). And there are always young families with children, often a few of them together, talking and laughing and relaxing with one another. The children run around and swing on the swings while the adults buy Black Lion lagers from the little beer kiosks and sit at picnic tables. It always struck me as a lovely way to spend a Friday night—everyone doing much the same thing (fooling around with their friends) in their own ways, together.

We should have these little beer kiosks at our parks. Why don’t we? In part, it is probably an American suspicion of alcohol corrupting otherwise-wholesome environments. But there is also, I think, a sense that the proper attitude towards children is vigilant and unceasing supervision or interaction, that the proper mode of family life is a kind of work.

There’s a sense that family time is supposed to be quality time; it’s hard to come by, and nothing should be allowed to come between parents and their role of superintending the creation of tender memories and meaningful togetherness. There is plenty of room in American parenting for alcohol, but it is conceptualized as an earned escape from an otherwise constantly active relation to children. It is the wine mom’s stolen nips of merlot in the laundry room—not a pleasure taken in due course, genially and casually in the midst of others, because in the midst of others is simply where life happens.

Alcohol draws a perimeter around adult escape, and few things so quickly awaken vocal grievance as children breaching the barrier of a sexy, sophisticated, presumptively adult space. “Not everything is a children’s space!” The intrusion of children into first-class flight cabins can draw this response—imagine if they had the gall to invade places actually set aside for drinking. There are duties toward children and pleasures for adults, and to mingle the two is to destroy the latter, runs the common line of thinking.

It would certainly be good for the American cultural imaginary if adult responsibility for children’s dependence could take other forms than a cycle of masochism, resentment, and escape. But I think it would be a good thing for drinking, too, if less of it occurred in “adult spaces,” and more of it took place in spaces constructed with no particular restrictions on or mandate for who should fill them. This would imbue the consumption of a pint with a truer conviviality, a more capacious joy. It might also produce a more instinctive moderation. Much can be permitted when drinking is quarantined from everyday responsibilities. The main form temperance takes now is managing your fitness or unfitness to drive. Perhaps a better question than “Am I competent to operate heavy machinery?” would be, “Am I comporting myself well around a young family?”

5. Make the drinking age the drinking ages.

My father has given me many excellent pieces of advice over the years. “Never cut yourself before tryouts” is one. “Sand with the grain,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Put food in the areas you want people to move to at parties,” and “Ask St. Joseph for help” are others. But the one I most frequently return to, drawn from his years of bartending, is, “Don’t do shots.”

Trouble at the bar always started, he said, when people started doing shots. Everything was good, rowdy fun as long as people stuck to beer. But when the shots came out, other things started: the fights and the quarrels, the tears and the puking and the stumbling.

I doubt Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane were more effective on their target audience than this advice has been for me. I will do shots at special occasions—weddings, wakes, the Eagles winning the Super Bowl (Ha! Ha! Ha!)—but generally, I avoid them. And it would be a good thing, I think, if the force of law encouraged others to as well.

The current legal regime encourages young people to develop their habits of drinking in conjunction with habits of secrecy, deceit, peer-group isolation, and inevitable excess. It puts a sanction on the camaraderie of intergenerational drinking. And with no one but each other to look to for guidance, and no context for consumption but a rager, American teens find hard liquor quickly taking on an outsize share of what they consume.

A better regime would allow young people to drink beer or wine in the company of parents or guardians at 16, the age when they are generally considered mature and competent enough to drive a car. Then when they are 18, old enough to vote, to enlist, to support themselves, they would be permitted to buy their own beer and wine at stores and bars. But not till 25 could they buy hard liquor.

Under this scheme, young people would be given opportunities to learn civilized drinking habits, with some reasonable barriers placed against the most uncivilized ones. A legal structure less absurdly detached from every other progressive badge of adulthood would perhaps have more widespread cooperation. Overseeing teen drinking would not be left to the kind of parents willing to offer other peoples’ children illegal alcohol, and mixed-generation parties would be necessary for young people who wished to drink. The perverse liability incentives that stand in the way of reporting serious crimes like sexual assault at underage parties would be removed. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and similar groups would receive a regulatory tightening at one end in return for a regulatory loosening on the other. And, while it is a comparatively minor point, a little legal danger might put some pep into those exhausted but seemingly unkillable Great Gatsby parties and speakeasy-themed bars.

The only people likely to lose, in fact, would be the purveyors of cheap liquor, whose commercials tell you to please drink responsibly, while their profits come overwhelmingly from those induced to drink the least responsibly.

Drinking will always be a fraught exercise, and I honor anyone who has soberly assessed how best to pursue the good for themselves and their loved ones and decided that it doesn’t include drinking. But for those of us still mixing martinis, the question is not how to drink as much as possible or as little as possible, but as well as possible. May we ask and answer with every glass.

Clare Coffey

Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho. Twitter: @ClareCoffey.