How I Learned to Drink

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Ta-Nehisi's post on rules about who folks are willing to drink with really struck me this last weekend, though not because I necessarily disagree with it.  Instead, it got me thinking about the strange ways we figure out how we like to drink, what we like to drink, and who we like to do it with.  Drinking is supposed to be one of the signifiers of adulthood, it's one of the legal demarcations of full majority.  Even if almost everyone drinks before they're legally 21, I tend to think having truly figured out drinking is one of the demarcations of being grown up.  And yet unlike voting, where you can register, and think about who you support, and march off to the voting booth, or driving, where you're licensed by the state, there's rarely a threshold act or a genuine training process for learning how to drink.  As Malcolm Gladwell writes in a piece on the sociology of drinking (subscription required for the whole thing, but well worth it) in this week's New Yorker,

When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction.  But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink....Nowhere in the multitude of messages and signals sent by popular culture and social institutions about drinking is there any consensus about what drinking is supposed to mean.

Both the post and the piece got me thinking a lot about where my drinking habits and preferences, both in type and in company, come from, and how they've evolved over time.  I think I'm fortunate in that a lot of the people who taught me to drink were guys so I've never associated drinking with sexual danger or a threatening loss of control.  That's freed me up to think about what I like to drink, and the context in which I like to drink it.

My parents are not big drinkers, though they very effectively acculturated us against thinking drinking was appealing by giving us memorably bad-tasting sips of beer at a young age.  I was a sort of painfully Good Girl, and as a result, I didn't really drink in high school, mostly because I didn't have any friends who could have invited me to drink with them. 

The exception, really the first time I drank, was a trip to England my junior year, where I went to spend New Year's with a friend who was two years older than me, and his friends, who were mostly several years older than he was.  I was sixteen, and wearing a Yellow Submarine t-shirt to hang out with a bunch of UK college students, which should say everything you need to know about how naive I was.  In the apartment where we repaired to pregame, I drank pretty much everything they put in front of me, which could have been disastrous, but I turned out to have an absurdly fast metabolism.  We wandered around Manchester, into and out of Guiness World Record-breaking Robbie Williams sing-a-longs and bars in Gay Village, and by the time we caught a cab home to scramble eggs and dance to house mixes in the living room, I was higher on the excitement of my first real night out than on the alcohol.


I didn't really drink again until I went off to college, where I consumed an approximately average amount of deeply mediocre beer at college parties and in large groups of New Haven political operatives, settings that provided their own unique disincentives to seriously over-imbibe.  That latter setting though, taught me a lot about  how alcohol opens people up.  After months of making phone calls and knocking on doors, and after the results got called in from polling places to Democratic headquarters downtown, everyone would converge on one of the big, terrible commercial bars in downtown New Haven.  There, black neighborhood fixtures, tough little ethnic white lady operatives, hippieish grad students, and young mayoral aides in whichever of the suits they were rotating through that day, all got together and took a deep breath for the first time in weeks.  Relief unified us, and made it safe to get a little loose.  I always felt like a kid at the grown-ups table at those gatherings, but they were a pretty promising image of what it looked like to have fun as an adult, of drinking and in moderation.

Two things changed my drinking trajectory about halfway through school. First, I became a member of a club that served a formal dinner with wine ever week, and followed that mostly with bourbon, mostly Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve.  Second, I started dating a guy with a California red wine fixation.  The club taught me to think about how alcohol interacted with food, and could smooth out the end of a meal, while also requiring that we stay sober enough for an evening's productive conversation.  The boy taught me how to read a wine label and the trails liquid leaves behind on a wineglass.

The two years after college taught me how to drink outside of a big group, whether it was the club, political folks, or college parties.  A caipirinha was the first cocktail I really mastered, because I live near a Brazilian restaurant where the bartenders taught me how to make them.  A friend who lived in my building got a cocktail shaker and we drank a lot of pomegranate margaritas.  A lesbian couple who lived across the street kept bringing Shiner Bock to parties at my house, so I drank a lot of that.  After a visit from some college friends ended with us drinking everything in my apartment, and someone losing a shoe off my balcony, I basically swore off going hard like that.

All of it was useful experience.  In my favorite romance novel (Pulp Pride, folks), a moment arrives when the hero sidles up to the heroine at a bar, cancels her order for a rum and Diet Coke, replaces it with a single malt scotch and declares "Fate sent me over here to teach you to drink with dignity."  Sexism issues aside (and I don't think the moment is actually sexist), that moment arrived for me when I met one of my best guy friends down here.  Together, we've traversed DC's best beer bars, and drunk a lot of bourbon: he was the person who helped me figure out what I really like to drink, and to really treat beer and liquor as to conversation what wine is to food.  (This guy also brews an amazing beer, which I hope he'll bring to market someday.)

Today, I like bourbon neat, beer that sets off barbeque, really cold glasses of white wine, particularly in D.C. summers, and increasingly vodka martinis with a twist. I have been known to down grape drink and vodka in moments of particular elation.  I don't think I've found a single, defining use of alcohol like the ones that Gladwell's New Haven Italians or Bolivian Cambra did.  But I think I've figured out the places where alcohol fits into and facilitates my life.  Earlier this year, after an extremely extended night barhopping in New York, the person I'd been drinking with said, joking, "You drink pretty good, for a girl."  I demurred, crediting the strength of the drinks and the time over which we'd spread them.  But secretly, I felt like a lot of drinking, and thinking, had been validated.  And maybe like I'd finally grown up.

Photo credit: a4gpa/flickr.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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