You’re standing on a beach on a far and foreign shore. Behind you, some way yet, but edging steadily closer, the tide is coming in. In front of you, dug into the shale and shell and washed-up detritus, a single sharply-furrowed line stretches as far to either side as you can see. Beyond the line? You don’t know for sure. A Pandora’s nebula of despair and darkness and desperation. You don’t want to cross the line. In fact, you’re afraid of it. But behind you, louder and louder, is the lap and slap of the creeping tide.
I first got drunk when I was 16 years old. It was at a girls’ school leaving do in North Wales, and five of us had been summoned from our boys’ school across the Dee to balance the gender books. I’m still not sure why they chose us. A handful of half-hearted dabblings with house party lagers had established that beer and I would never be bosom companions, and I remember standing in our small English clump by the bar, fretting over the teenage social statement of ordering diet coke, when somebody gave me a cider. It was pretty thin gruel; Strongbow; industrial, sweetish, fizzy apple-grot, but for the first time in my life it was booze that I actually enjoyed. We supped and glugged under the warm, soft, blackness of a Denbigh summer evening, howled with laughter at bad jokes by weird strangers, danced to clichéd noughties music on creaking school dinner tables and somewhere amidst the chaos and revelry and half-full, half-pint bottles a new world opened and my clotted years of loathed and stuttering awkwardness were given a full stop.
Twelve years later I know more about alcoholic drinks than anyone else of my age that I’ve met. I realise that’s a startlingly arrogant sentence and I wouldn’t write it if it wasn’t both relevant and true. I know folk my age who know more about wine than me, or spirits, or cider, but not all rolled into one. I have spent every working hour of my life in the wine industry and have written over a quarter of a million words about whisky in the last four years. I have tramped my way through vineyards and orchards, cideries and wineries and distilleries of whisky and rum and brandy and gin ad infinitum. My drinks book library runs to three figures, my WSET Diploma pin is slowly gathering dust and my spare time is clogged with the polyfilla of countless blogs and brand websites.
And then there are the tastings. In an average week I’ll try something like fifty wines. In 2018 I sampled six hundred and something spirits. I’ve tasted more than two hundred ciders this year, and we’re only halfway through it. The caveat is that the vast bulk of these are at work, or at large-scale tastings where my use of spittoons is metronomic, but that still leaves a massive total unaccounted for. The world of interesting drinks is my bread and butter, my work and my play, my bit of fun and my raison d’être, and therein lies the problem.
If what you love most is collecting stamps you can do so with all the vigorous élan you can muster. Trains can be spotted with not a care in the world, so long as you stand off the rail tracks and don’t lean too far over bridges. You can indulge in a small-hours Airfix binge every night of the week, should you wish, and whilst heads and limbs might be rent akimbo during Dungeons and Dragons, they’re all satisfactorily imaginary. I dare say the world would be a better place with a few more twitchers and detectorists and even life-drawing is harmless enough, provided you’ve a forgiving model.
Being a whisky enthusiast – or a wine, gin, rum, beer, shochu, delete as appropriate enthusiast – is different. Having a drink as a hobby is like keeping a pet crocodile. If you’re not careful, it’ll kill you. And like the crocodile it’ll probably get you when you least expect it; when you’re most certain it’s under your control. And unlike the crocodile you can’t just sell it on if you get cold feet. Our hobby is different, because there is an unfixed, blurry point at which the word ‘hobby’ becomes euphemistic. You can’t have a board game ‘addiction’.
I’ve stared at this word document for the last half hour now because I don’t quite know how to frame the next paragraph, and I want it to be the truth. So here goes:
I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve thought about it, I’ve done the survey, and I know I’m not. But even thinking about it is, itself, an admission, isn’t it? A ‘what if?’ A nagging, mosquito-whine, wordless, shivering doubt that the ‘oh go on thens’, the ‘Christ, work was brutals’ and the ‘it’s Friday after alls’ have slipped, or are slipping, into something more frightening and unshakeable. The crocodile is still in its cage. But at 28 years young I can hear the latch rattling.
I’ve never been to an AA meeting. I don’t think I need to. Most people don’t think they need to right up until they’ve probably needed to for years. So I don’t know what I’d say if I went, but perhaps it would be something like this: ‘Every morning I get up and I write about wine for eight hours. I’ve never experienced a day of work in which there wasn’t an open bottle on somebody’s desk. Every couple of days there’s a quality control. That’s another twenty-four wines. And once or twice a week the buyers will come over with something new they want to add to the range. That’s work. Then I go home, log onto my laptop, look across the desk at a sea of spirit samples, make my way through a puddle’s-worth and write up what they taste like. Oh – and I’m writing a book about cider at the moment, so there’s that. It’s knackering. By the time Friday rolls round I really need a drink. But I’m not an alcoholic, honestly.’ Poor me. Poor me. Pour me.
The truth is that although I’m not dependent in the traditional, ‘need-a-drink-the-moment-I-wake-up’, sense, my life, nonetheless; its time, its meaning, its purpose, its direction, its rhythm and metre is dependent upon alcohol. I’m reminded of the almost-certainly-apocryphal Lily Bollinger quote: “I drink Champagne when I’m happy …” She probably didn’t think she was alcoholic either. The truth is that when you’re quibbling over the definition of ‘dependent’, you’re likely protesting too much. The truth is that in the last month alone I’ve tried more different alcohols than most people taste in their lives. The truth is that if alcohol vanished from my life overnight, I’d not even have the clothes I stand up in, because alcohol paid for them too. The truth is that I have seen the malevolent spectre of alcoholism glowering from the yellowed eyes of family and friends and colleagues. The truth is that in 2017, 7,697 people died in the UK from alcohol-specific causes, and it would be naïve beyond credulity of me to believe that I could never be one of them.
I’m sorry to be a buzzkill. Sort of. You’re reading this because you have come to Malt quite reasonably expecting a jolly old dissection of some bottling or other, merrily daubed with jibes and barbs and delicious pokes to the eye of the mighty. You’re reading this because you want to celebrate the marvellous, multifaceted thing we call whisky. Because it is something that adds colour to your life’s tapestry. Because you love it. And here I am pouring misery into your morning coffee with agonised broodings on worry and dependency and death.
But for all the drinkaware campaigns slathered across brands and back labels, the black loom of alcohol’s threat is shoved right to the periphery of drink-wonk discussion. We tweet and blog and facebook our bottles with gleeful abandon; we join digital friends in their sipping; we extol the virtues of alcohol more often, and more fiercely, than the virtues of alcohol have ever been extolled before. But we never speak to each other about what happens when the party ends. We don’t see behind the mahogany gleam of instagrammed Glencairns. We aren’t shown videos of the staggers home from tastings, the stumbles, wrong turns and missed trains. We don’t share the feeling of waking up with furred tongues, clagged mouths, ringing heads, regrets and the scent of the dregs in last night’s glasses. We talk to each other endlessly, sparklingly, about our hobby; our common passion; but we don’t tell each other when we’re scared.
That’s why I’m writing this. Malt is now the second or third most visited whisky site in the world. It is a hub for whisky lovers to come together and rejoice in the distilled glue that binds us. It is a place in which we may all say what we think; where voices may be heard and feelings may be shared. It is a beacon for all those of us around whose lives the undisputed joys of whisky are so closely entwined. It should also be a lighthouse against the real and terminal perils of that entwining.
I don’t want to give up whisky. Or wine, or cider, or rum, or brandy, or any other drink. But I do want certain enforced strictures to govern my life so that I might enjoy my hobby more safely. Buying a spittoon to use for every whisky I review was a first step two years ago. It is time to go much further. That may mean weeks and months off. It may mean not drinking from Sunday to Thursday and using the spittoon for anything reviewed in between. It may mean not drinking in a pub or bar when the drinks available are of a lower quality than I would buy to drink at home. It may mean sticking to no more than one or two drinks on any evening. It will almost certainly mean all of the above and more.
If anything written here has struck an uncomfortable chord with you, then reach out. Message us below; message me on twitter. Speak to a friend, to family, to a stranger at a pub. Because ‘drinking better’ doesn’t make us immune. Because livers don’t distinguish between Famous Grouse and Lagavulin. Because ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ is really ‘there but for the grace of God I have not yet gone’. Because we all share a love of a dangerous, murderous drug. Because the line in the sand is in front of all of us. And we must stand on our side of it as the tide comes in, as it washes over our feet, our knees, our waists. We lovers of wonderful drinks, we alcohol hobbyists, must stand in the sea, up to our necks, together. Because the other side of the line is worse.
Images kindly provided by NHS Grampian, Drinkaware and CBS News.