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.
One of the best, and probably most important, articles I’ve read on MALT. Gutsy and necessary. I applaud Adam for writing it and MALT for posting it.
Ah, thanks very much GW.
Not an easy write, certainly, but hopefully it chimes with a few of our readers.
And, as you say, really decent if Mark and JJ to be open-minded enough to post it.
Thanks again for reading.
Brilliant piece. Best I’ve read on MALT so far. I don’t mind people who blow their own trumpet, it’s the twitter bugles that I find tiresome.
Hi Smeds. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to feed back.
Hi Stewart. Well here’s an answer from an old fart (60s) for you. It creeps up on you over the years, so now I force myself to have 3 alcohol-free days a week (this is not easy); I know I still drink too much on the other 4, but have been lucky that my health is otherwise good (it’s my only vice, I’m otherwise a health nazi).
My husband (50s) though, is a different story: not just a drinking but also a whisky-hoarding problem! And it takes its toll, on his health and on our marriage; it’s only a matter of time until a chronic problem becomes life-threatening. Meanwhile I can only hope that the kids realise what an inheritance they have when we’re gone!
Thanks very much for bringing your voice to the discussion. The 3 days off policy is an excellent one, I think, and one that I need to get better at emulating.
Other, bolder voices than mine have spoken eloquently about hoarding on this site, as I know you’ll have read a fair bit, so I won’t try and match what they’ve already said, but I do hope that you and your husband are both able to find the right balance.
Best wishes – and thanks again for reading
Nice to read your words again Adam and such an important topic. Speaking as one who had four weeks this year to contemplate possibly never being able to drink again, it was very frightening. Not least who should I give my whisky to?
Luckily for me all ok, but did I nearly ruin it all for myself? Yes with all honesty and I never want to spend another four weeks becoming obsessed with liver health, thinking about how I may have screwed myself for what for me is a passion that has outlived all others in my life.
Getting checked out and scared ****less was my warning, so dont ignore it if you are worried.
Take care all and remember it is only a drink ( i hate saying that but its true! )
Thanks so much for reading and for having the guts to post such an honest reply. I’m sure you’re not the only person reading this to have gone through something like that and I hope that you’ve found whatever the right balance is for your health now.
It’s such w tricky line when it’s an important part of your life from an intellectual and passionate perspective as well as just something that gets you lit up. But at the end of the day, health always has to come first.
Thanks again so much for helping us start a conversation.
Beautifully written. Yes this struck a chord with me. This is an important topic.
My doc told me I was at least drinking 50% more than the recommended guidelines this was after my health was suffering. The liver test was fine but alcohol effects other parts of the body. This hobby is not a zero sum game. I believe I secretly did realise and thought it was okay because I felt okay and sure I wasn’t getting blind drunk but of course it is accumulative and sneaks up on you and our poison is potent stuff. I’ve ordered a measuring cup and I’m sticking within the guidelines, drinking a pint of water with every dram. I’ve been taking month long periods off in addition.
Thanks for reading, and hats off for coming forward with your own story – very brave.
Thanks for writing this. The really weird thing is since I’m currently suffering with my health and not able to drink I have been wondering why this kind of article never appears on all the whisky blogs I read. In the race to acquire all the latest bottlings, the whisky community doesn’t seem to acknowledge that if the rate of drinking keeps up with the rage of purchasing then we’re in sticky territory. We live in an era of conspicuous consumption and there is little acknowledgment of the flip side of this enthusiasm. I’ve only been an enthusiast for the last 18 months but then going to the doctor I had to explain I was drinking quite a lot more, still short of 14 units but a lot less than the one drink every other weekend I would have had before. I’m now in the odd situation of maintaining an interest in whisky whilst being unable to drink and wondering whether I will have to prioritise my health over my interest in spirits. I think like smokers, a lot of regular drinkers think they will stop short of doing themselves harm as the damage doesn’t show for years and years. At that point though, it will be too late. It looks quite a lot like I have gallstones and will need to have surgery but I’m already thinking that what I eat and drink will need to undergo a lot more scrutiny going forwards.
It’s a difficult one. Blogs/professional writing tend to be celebratory and all come from a place of love. I don’t think it’s so much people having their heads in the sand as it is a case of writing this sort of article not even occurring to them. It’s been something I’ve wanted to write for a while, but actually sitting down and squeezing the words out was a different matter.
You’re right that we live in an age of serious bottle purchasing – how many of those actually get opened is another matter of course!
I’m hoping that more people come forward with pieces like this now – I’m hugely encouraged by the people who have already been brave enough to talk about their own experiences either here, on twitter or on Facebook. I don’t think it needs to intrude on the general discussion and celebration of whisky/wine/beer/cider etc … but I do think it can be a vital part of that discussion.
Thanks again for engaging.
An important and uncomfortably close to home read.
I don’t drink 2 days a week to coincide with my wife’s work. I also teetotal each year from April 12 – May 19 (between my wife’s birthday and our anniversary) for pure health reasons. I don’t like to think too much about the long term health affects of drinking. I suppose I reckon this 5 week period buys me permission to go as hard as a like the rest of the year. By the end of the 5 weeks, I certainly am sleeping deeper and longer, feel healthier. By the start of June it’s back to the old habits. I sometimes think I’m happier during the 5 weeks – no hangovers, no pressure to think about what I’m drinking or spending any given night.
I can certainly respect a teetotal who has been a past drinker and made the decision to quit for the health reasons.
Thanks so much for your honesty – I knew this would be a tough read, just as it was a tough write, but this is just the sort of engagement I was hoping for, and discussion I was hoping to start.
Best of luck finding that balance, and do keep talking about it.
Great Article Adam , it’s a difficult subject and an even greater balancing act
Running a Whisky Society and holding tastings and being a member of other clubs and Society’s and a Tormore 4 member .
I spent most of my teenage years living in pubs as my old man was a landlord so drink has always been around , being of strong mind I have managed to control how much I drink , which all goes to pot when the T4 are in town
Yes, the closer you are to it, the tougher the balance is. You sound like you’ve struck a good one though … T4 reprobates notwithstanding.
Cheers for reading!
Great article Adam and dare I say sobering as well. Honesty I’ve always wondered on the frequency of sampling spirits, whisky in particular since that’s my passion, when I see such prodigious output from bloggers. Including Malt but at least it’s a bunch of writers. My own blog is going nowhere as I drink far too less to post frequently enough for it to matter. Something that I’ve been contemplating on; should I even have a blog? But a lot of that has got to do with the fact that I’m in Bombay and I simply don’t have the access like you guys do. Would it be the same of I were in the UK? Probably not. Of all the bloggers I follow, I don’t know how many use spittoons. But I sincerely hope that they start after reading this article. Passion cannot come at the cost of well being, physical and mental. Thanks for wearing your heart on your sleeve.
Thanks very much for reading Nik, and as I’ve said before, don’t stop blogging. Quality trumps quantity, in blog posts as in drinks.
Spittoons are something close to my heart, as you know, and I’d advocate their use by anyone reviewing whisky or tasting more than a couple on any night. (As you should do, if you’re to compare and contrast properly). I don’t think I could do Malt stuff safely and properly without them.
Thanks again and best wishes
Thank you Adam and thank you Malt. Such an important subject and one which is an issue to every single person reading this article. With ever increasing releases by distilleries and the want and ‘need’ to taste everything. It’s difficult to keep up with tasting everything you want to without drinking too heavily. The bottles pile up, you need to finish one bottle because you desperately want to open the next one; so many bottles, so little time but only one liver…
Cask strength whisky, barrel-proof bourbon, 60% rum… the units keep adding up; our poison is poisoning us.
I try and have 3 days booze free a week, it also helps having a tea-total wife to keep me on the straight and narrow, otherwise god only knows where I’d be…
Thank you Gav for reading and taking time to feed back.
Your 3 days off a week are a really good idea, and something I should be looking to emulate myself. Keep it up!
Thank you Adam for your candour and heartfelt words. It can be especially difficult ‘putting yourself out there’ to the public about what’s inside us. You should feel proud of yourself for doing so. And this piece is very, very welcome on Malt!
Goodness knows, reviewing whisky is such a privileged gig that it behaves us to write something tougher every once in a while. The rest of the team do a brilliant job at that, so it’s a nice lead to be able to try and follow.
Best wishes, and thanks for reading
Great article and even better discussion in the comments. Throughout 2017 my interest in all things craft beer, whisky, Armagnac etc was getting expensive but it took a rather too boozed night just before Hogmanay for me to join all the dots. I did not drink in 2018 at all and that sort of reset my relationship with Alcohol. I stopped drinking beer altogether and basically ditched social drinking but not socialising (does that mean all my drinking is now anti-social?!). So now I have more disposable income left for better whisky which I drink in moderation. I’m much happier for it and feel generally healthier. I’ve had one hangover in 18 months and realise I don’t want another. Of course it’s not my income stream and appreciate that it’s going to be harder for you, Adam, and so I wish you the best of luck working that all out.
Sometimes we all need that moment of brutal clarity. It’s amazing and inspiring that you took a whole year off – I hope I’d be able to do that if the need arose.
Keep it up – and thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure it’ll help a lot of readers.
Great article, Adam.
It’s always important to consider the negative side of the things we love. My relationship with alcohol has always been a love/hate one. My father was (and still is) an alcoholic, and my childhood was spent either in a pub or hiding from my abusive father when he returned from the pub. Despite this, I have a great love for whisky – tastings, festivals, distillery tours, and being a fellow BBS member. Recently, I’ve been really struggling with depression and I’ve begun to realise, despite it being my love, how much alcohol has contributed to my mental health. Addiction and thrill seeking has lead to unnecessary purchases, which have caused major marital arguments; a horrible part of my personality comes out when it’s stoked by alcohol, reminding me of the man I try so hard to not be like; large parts of nights become a complete blank in my mind, and, above all, the shame and embarrassment of my actions only contributes to my depression. Yet, I only ever set out to have a good time and enjoy the thing I love.
Raising awareness of the darker sides of drink is so important. The irony of the wealth of social media and blogs that are at our fingertips is that so much is written about things that don’t really matter. This is a good start.
Wow. What an astonishingly candid and brave response. Thank you so much for sharing it – I’m sure several readers will benefit massively from your honesty.
I didn’t get onto the subject of depression in the article, but could have gone on and on if I had. Whilst I’m very fortunate not to have suffered it myself, it has had an incalculable effect on a few of those closest to me, both friends and family. So I do hope that you find yourself on a more positive mental footing very soon, and that you have people around you who you can talk to.
Thanks particularly for talking about your family history and your own personal struggles with alcohol. Incredibly courageous, and it’s only by talking about it, without taboo, that we can start to make a difference.
Thank you so much for bringing your voice to the discussion.
Excellent article. I liken alcohol to the relationship between radiation and those of us who work with radiation. The concept for radiation safety is ALARA, “As low as reasonably achievable”. While I know that radiation is necessary for many things in the healthcare industry, x-rays, CT scans, heart catheterizations, we do our best to minimize exposure to the workers and the patients. Considering your profession Adam, this seems like a reasonable analogy.
Alcohol isn’t ‘necessary’ in my life, but whisky is a big part of my life, socially, and as a personal solitary interest. I just returned from Feis Ile, and am currently in an alcohol free period. I do not frequently drink to excess, but I do like to savor a small dram or two several days a week. I’m doing my best to avoid less enjoyable alcohol exposure such as most beer and wine. Even going out with friends, I don’t drink much considering the price and quality of the available drink as compared to my reasonable collection at home.
I went out with friends last night and didn’t drink. I had fun. As much as I would have had with a drink or two? Perhaps not. And don’t get me started on the non alcoholic ‘shrub’ beverages that the restaurants and bars are selling for $12 as alternatives.
This movement for less alcohol exposure seems to be a thing, and a reasonable one at that. I appreciated the article Adam, and you finally got me off the couch to join up as a patreon supported for Malt.
That’s a super analogy and I shall definitely use it in future. Sounds like you’re doing a brilliant job finding the right balance.
Thanks for reading and engaging – and special thanks for signing up to Patreon. Really appreciate the support – as will the rest of the team.
Excellent article and something that anyone who likes a drink should read, whatever their favourite tipple might be.
I know I’m certainly drinking less myself, from the amount poured into a glass to the number of glasses I have.
Whisky is an expensive product and I want it to last, but I also want to enjoy it too.
Going to a whisky tasting isn’t something I do that often, and feeling obliged to finish what’s in the glass* before moving onto the next will certainly have a detrimental effect on me getting anything worthwhile out of the latter drams, which are more likely to be the more special ones.
*More so when you have to use the same glass.
Having had a too fond of affinity with Absinthe in my youth, I certainly wouldn’t nor couldn’t go down that road with my fondness for whisky.
I think you’re right to have abandoned Absinthe … for your tastebuds as much as for your liver!
Thanks for engaging.
Bravo! The resurrection of the spitoon! I loved the definition of metronomic use too, largo or prestissimo. I advocate ‘liver pauses’ and avoiding mega-binges. Still plenty of fun. Cutting ‘boozing’ helps curb obesity (a growing problem in the land of debauchery, sloth and gluttony that is Scotland), and helps preserve liver function. In the end its advice – genuinely offered and eloquently expressed – ‘liver and let liver’ and ‘de-liver us from evil’, and all that!
Cheers El G!
You’re right – there are so many good reasons to be careful about how much we’re drinking. It’s all about having a balance that puts your health first.
That was an eloquent and brave article. The funny thing is I believe every “Enthusiast” has had these thoughts but we justify it by some arbitrary number that we stick to most of the time and pointing examples of the generations before us and our peers who seem to be doing OK health wise despite the drink.
Personally to me one of the shocks I got on the subject was when a close friend disclosed their alcoholism and I never realised how silently it had creeped up and how well they had kept it hidden for so many years. The person is a very successful PhD and not a “Party animal” So how healthy we think everyone is around us might have a chasm between the truth and our optimistic beliefs.
I’ve certainly started to stick to some guidelines including no booze for three days of the week and I will probably have to add a two drink maximum down the road. Just because it makes sense. But nothing will clamp down harder than the fear of crossing that line on the sand and discovering that the damage to our body may have reached a point of no return.
Thank you for your words.
Thanks Kunaal, and thank you for sharing such a deeply personal story.
It’s scary how quiet some people are able to keep their difficulties – even people very close to us. I’m glad your friend told you eventually – I hope you and they are now on a more balanced footing.
One of the best articles I’ve read on a whiskey site. Thank you for this.
Just to pick up on one more thing, which is what 14 units of alcohol looks like, that is 14 25ml measures (get the jiggers out!) of whisky at 40% abv.
I think it’s easy to think ‘there’s no way I’m getting through 14 drams in a week’ but a lot of people pour freely out of the bottle and at cask strength 14 drams becomes 9 drams.
If you happen to warm up before a session with a pint of beer at 5.5% abv you’re looking at another 3 units. A 250ml glass of wine is also 3 units, though higher strength wine would be more.
I’d also not be surprised if the ‘safe amount’ of alcohol units to consume in a week gets revised down again at some point in the future. Ultimately there’s no amount of alcohol that’s more beneficial than drinking none at all.
Absolutely Mark – it’s all too easy to go over the limit, especially for enthusiasts (like me) who see 40% whiskies as too dilute.
As you say, numbers can be debated and changed ad infinitum. The bottom line is that it’s up to any of us who drink alcohol to be our own regulators and to encourage others to do the same.
“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’.”
Oh yes, you can. You can become addicting to gambling, sex, TV, internet, and everything else. And it’s not less dangerous. Still, such an article is relevant, of course. A reminder here and there doesn’t hurt.
Hi Helmut, thanks for reading.
In the selection of hobbies I listed I was very careful not to choose anything that belongs to the dangerously addictive group including, as you point out, drugs and gambling, but also tv and the internet.
I stand by my examples and my wording – I don’t think I said anything inaccurate, and I agree entirely that alcohol is not the only dangerous hobby. The word ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘unique’, but I would dispute that any of the examples I listed (stamps/Airfix/D&D etc) are ‘dangerously addictive’ the way that alcohol and gambling are.
Thanks again for engaging.
I’ve got two comments to this article. The first is to say it would be a really welcome change to hear from folks who are older, in their 50s and 60s about how drinking has affected their health and how they have had to adapt. I imagine it would shock most of us to hear most can’t continue to drink or to hear about the health issues that they’ve faced as a result of long term drinking. The second is to say that there is more than one addiction associated with whisky and one I find implied but never spoken about directly: hoarding.
I was at a festival a few years back and a fellow reveller uses the term ‘whisky squirrel’. I thought it was totally apt and admittedly j had to do some of my own reflecting because i too had become a bit of one. I don’t have hundreds of bottles but my wife can tell you there was something going on when our my bottle limit kept getting pushed beyond what was initially set. And I can see this behaviour in others who jump queues and step on toes just to get a hold of the latest release. There’s something addictive about the new release crazy and so many seem bitten by it, yet no one talks about it.
Thanks for reading and engaging! Jude has posted a reply (a fair way up the comments) that hopefully addresses your first comment. As you say, it’s great to have a perspective from someone who has had more experience than callow youths like me!
She’s also offered an insight on the hoarding front, which is something that my fellow Malt contributors have commented on a fair bit in the last couple of years. I’d particularly recommend spooling through Jason’s back catalogue, as he’s taken a particularly keen interest in addressing hoarding.
Once again, thanks for engaging, and thanks also for raising two extremely valid points. I’m glad that Jude has been able to provide a quick response to both.
First, a joy to read fine prose in a subject dear to my heart. An honest, thoughtful perspective on a serious subject that elicits reflection and consideration of the issues by those with some skin in the game. Like fire, our hobby, our vocation, has a long history, is well ingrained in myths and cultures, has valid purpose, is enjoyable in group settings, elicits a sense of romanticism and is downright dangerous.
For me the “study of rum” has been a life-long pursuit, a research project, the investigation of a spirit category the reflects my interests in many facets. Although it’s widely assumed that a writer, collector and promoter of rum might be consumed by the subject itself, (and I have experienced the theory of upward failure) I largely limit my exposure to the understanding, discerning, and evaluation of rum expressions, of which there are an alarming number of releases in the past decade.
A taste is a taste; a drink is a dose. One would not indiscriminately consume prescription drugs, but rather mind the dosage for the intended purpose. Having said that, social use of drugs mirrors the use of alcohol as a recreational vehicle in many instances.
Your words carry weight as a respected voice of the educated enthusiast. It’s a literal time-out that gives pause to reflect on the subject. Self discipline is at the core of the message, but saying it out loud and giving others a chance to opine, puts the message in gear toward real movement.
Thanks very much for reading and for providing such a well-worded response. You’re absolutely right; alcohol is steeped in history, romance, tradition, scientific process – everything that adds allure to the intellectually curious. And that’s before we even consider the undeniable glow that a couple of pours offer. No wonder it’s so dangerous.
I’m also glad we’ve got people coming here from the rum community; this is a topic that affects us all. And I’ve been noticing the increase in Rum expressions myself. (Though it’s some way off hitting the rate at which new whiskies are being released!)
Terminology is difficult, I think, when you’re an enthusiast as we are. Yes, we can say we’re only having a taste (and could, and should measure our pours carefully) but for so many people – myself included – that taste can easily lead to another. Often simply (and genuinely) for comparison, but it quickly adds up. That was a major factor in my decision to buy a personal spittoon. I think I’d likely be in a lot more trouble if I hadn’t. It would certainly make reviews for Malt and elsewhere tricky.
Thanks very much again for contributing.
This article captures the kind of blurry tug of war in every hobbyist’s head, I think.
One perspective I’ve always wondered is similar but different; what’s going on in the heads of distillers, brewers, and producers? Partly because it is their job, but also on the business side of things it can get stressful. I’ve never really come across stories and perspectives of those kinds of folks.
That’s a really interesting point, and I may well go fishing on social media for someone who can offer that very perspective (and is happy to).
There was an article by scotchwhisky.com at one point that spoke to old-timer distillery workers about the now-outlawed practice of ‘dramming’, and I know that went some way to addressing certain dependencies. But as with any job that requires constant exposure to alcohol, it must be an incredibly difficult balance to strike, and a perspective from ‘within the distillery’ would be a very enlightening thing to have.
Thanks very much for raising this point – I shall try to get you an answer.
A sobering truth. Thank you.
Yes, never easy to take a look at ourselves in this respect, particularly when our relationship with whisky/rum/wine/cider etc comes from a place of intellectual curiosity and love.
Unfortunately alcohol itself doesn’t make distinctions about whose liver it’s affecting, so it was about time I took a hard look at myself. Hopefully it has been helpful to a few people – I’ve certainly been encouraged by the responses we’ve had – and if nothing else it’s the start of a discussion here on Malt.
Thanks Adam, a good piece. Ralfy did one such a few years back. You touch on many important points about the dangers of over-consumption and whether we, as individuals, have crossed the line. It’s good that we talk about these things but I don’t want the direction of travel to be entirely one sided. Yes, drinking too much is bad but that’s what we do – drink. I drink too much, I know it. In fact I drink way too much if based on government guidelines. I don’t think I’m an alcoholic but then it’s been a very long time since I’ve abstained for any serious period.
I imagine many people seriously involved in quality alcoholic beverages (and I’m talking about knowledgeable amateur enthusiasts as well as professionals) are teetering on or over the line in terms of good health but we enjoy drinks and drinking. We come to sites like Malt to read reviews about drinks that might encourage us to buy more drink. We read trade magazines for more reviews and where we can buy. We visit distilleries, sherry bodegas and wineries where we sample and buy. We talk enthusiastically with one another about our samples and collections. It is, as you say, a risky hobby but a very rewarding one.
I don’t buy fine wine in order to wash my mouth out and empty it in a spittoon. Nevertheless, I have commented with Mark about the growth of high proof whiskies and many of us have become perfectly adjusted to drinking spirits that are far higher in alcoholic strength than ever before. We certainly have to keep an eye on that. I don’t mean to make light of this issue because it is a serious one. The only way out of it, as far as I can see, is to drink like a ‘normal’ drinker according to the Government guideline. That means not drinking the sort of drinks we drink and quantities we purchase. Picking up the odd bottle of wine at the supermarket. Not buying minimum boxes of cider from the online shop of a quality producer. Having one bottle of whisky in the house. Having a pint of beer with the occasional pub lunch. If this debate is to be honest we have to start by saying we and our specialist drinking companions do not fall into the that category. My own target is to try to have two or three days without and a little less when I do.
I haven’t seen that Ralfy episode … I’ll have to look it up.
I’m not sure I fully take your point on ‘the direction of travel being one-sided’, as by my lights there’s really very little dialogue within the community about the various worries and dangers that alcohol causes. I think any reminder, couched in sensitive terms (as I believe the piece above is) is worthwhile, and I think that’s borne out by the extraordinary responses of so many readers of this article, many of them incredibly personal and brave.
I accept that as enthusiasts and/or industry professionals we’re inherently more ‘at risk’ than other members of the public, but I don’t think we can take such a blase attitude as to say ‘we’re not in the category of people able to drink safely, so stuff it’. (Not that I think that’s what you’re saying.)
Spittoons are something I advocate for professional reasons, and for tastings of more than a couple of whiskies. I take mine to BBS events, use it for reviews, where I’ll generally taste at least three whiskies, and at work and any industry event I’d expect spittoons to be readily available, and complain in no uncertain terms when they’re not. That said, it’s not as though I have one on hand if I’m just drinking a glass of wine in the evening.
I’m not sure that Malt exists to encourage people to drink ‘more’ … in fact I’m positive that it doesn’t, and believe that both Mark and JJ would agree with me. Rather it exists to encourage people to drink ‘better’. ‘Instead of’, rather than ‘in addition to’. Certainly bottles are bought off the back of some pieces written here, and I hope that those bottles are enjoyed, but first and foremost I hope that they’re enjoyed responsibly!
Thanks, as ever, for an extremely in-depth and thought-provoking response, and for raising so many valid issues.
Hi Adam, I knew when I finally posted it might get slightly misconstrued. I just wanted to throw in a few bombshells just to add something to the mix. It is a crocodile all right and I take the matter very seriously but if we want to stimulate a debate we have to do more than fess up to drinking too much. The matter of over-consumption is not directed at any single review in print or online. We are attracted to reading reviews of things we like and the same is true of books and music. It’s the nature of the beast that we are stimulated by well written reviews such as this one. There are a number of comments about obsessive hoarding and the temptation to keep buying and trying and I think that is a major issue in the whisky world. Jason and I recently commented about the ability to leave an expression alone even if it comes from a favoured distillery. Professionals get samples and spittoons are part of the trade but obsessive purchasers have to buy limited bottles before they run out without even having tasted the goods.
It is a fine piece though Adam and I don’t want to appear critical in any way. As Ralfy points out in his piece, it’s something the industry doesn’t want to talk about. I, like yourself, believe we should be doing a great deal more talking about it and your article helps us do just that. Cheers
I was far too prickly myself – not for the first time – sorry!
You’re absolutely right that as professionals and enthusiasts there’s a more nuanced line than simply ‘we’re drinking too much’. And of course we’re exposed to different pressures than those who don’t share our job/hobby. That’s mainly why I wrote the article, and thank you very much for engaging with it so eloquently.
Best wishes – and sorry for the misunderstanding.
What a beautifully written, and beautifully vulnerable piece of writing. Thank you for sharing. While I love whisky with a deep passion, I also know that (like most people), sometimes I use things like exercise, caffeine, alcohol, or sugar to “self-regulate”. A hard day asks for a drink to calm/slow down, a late night of work means an extra cup of coffee, a stressful family time means two workouts in a day to “burn it off”.
I have been on a journey for the last year to learn to live a life that is balanced enough that I don’t need any types of self-regulation. It means less tv/netflix, less busy work and more deep work, less social media, and more time in nature. A lofty goal, but a good one I think. And the closer I get to it, the more I truly enjoy my whisky, because I don’t drink it to calm down or slow down, but truly because I can be fully present and enjoy it.
I could probably learn a thing or two from you – I don’t exercise half as much as I should these days.
You’re right though, that we often use our vices to self-regulate – and that’s the most dangerous thing. My partner goes to Al-Anon (not to be confused with AA) and she is very good at never using alcohol as a self-regulator. She won’t touch it if she’s upset or angry, and that’s something that I need to get much better at and would recommend to anyone. She also has a couple of good books on the subject which I’m picking my way through.
I’m glad that you’ve been able to redress your personal balance this year. Less social media, less TV and more time outside is something I think any of us could aspire to. I’m guilty of binge-watching stuff and then complaining that I’ve not gotten enough done.
Thanks so much for reading and engaging.
A very well written word to the wise. I can certainly empathize… Having once attended a whiskey tasting festival (100+ vendors) as an enthusiast, taking the smallest pours and even spitting, I stumbled on my way back to the subway and ended up with a concussion that took several months to clear. Me! Of all people! Valuable lessons were learned: Be selective. Pace yourself. We’re not invincible. Even if it’s an industry sponsored event, you’re responsible for what happens to yourself. Pledge to spit MORE, nobody will be offended. Don’t be cheap or stupid, get an Uber to arrive home safely.
Also in the larger picture, as we buy these tasty bottles, once they’re opened they call out to be consumed. So, do it at a party or with a group of friends so that everyone enjoys and the bottle gets consumed in an evening, nobody gets overly drunk, and you don’t sot yourself nightly. That’s the price of entertainment for this type of hobby. If not sharing, then it’s easy to fall into a routine of a nightly pour or two or three, and that’s where the boundary you’ve written about starts being pushed. Many of us have done this, once routine turns to habit it can be easier to continue rather than pull back.
Hope you’re over the concussion now? I think I’m quite lucky to have been exposed to wine tastings before I went to large-scale whisky tastings, as it’s meant that using a spittoon for everything is second nature, which I don’t think would be the case if things had been the other way round. We’ve written about spittoons on Malt before (The Elephant on the Tasting Table is the name of the article in case you want to search it). The industry itself is generally getting better at making spittoons available, but as whisky consumers we’re not always collectively great at actually using them. Since I wrote the spittoon article I’ve spoken to a few people who have started using them though, and every one of them has enjoyed tastings more as a result.
Very good advice on opening bottles with friends. Drinking alone only makes the slippery slope even more slippery. As you say, there has to be self-regulation if you want to enjoy this hobby of ours safely. But hopefully we can all talk about it without awkwardness so that there’s never ‘no route back’.
Not sure I can add much to what has already been said. But I thank you for this brave and well-written piece.
Thank you so much for reading it Pat.
Great post. Judging by the number of responses, it really struck a chord.
I have been concerned about my drinking habits as of of late too. I know that I don’t have a problem with alcohol because I can (and have) stop drinking for a week and it doesn’t bother me…much. However, that’s not to say that it couldn’t become a problem. Especially after I retire. I do love drinking whisky. In addition to drinking whisky, I like making cocktails. Plus, we are regular wine drinkers with meals. All of this adds up. We have begun skipping the wine on nights when we have cocktails. I have also been (trying) to limit my whiskies to just a couple of nights a week. It requires will power (so many lovely whiskies in house!) but, in the end, my health will be better for it.
This about sums it up:
‘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. ‘
Thanks, yes I’ve been overwhelmed by responses to this article. Really grateful to everyone who’s read and engaged, such as yourself.
It adds up so quickly, doesn’t it? My three main interests are whisky, wine and cider, which is quite enough on its own, but orbitting around them are gin, rum, brandy, stouts/sour beers, cocktails … it just goes on.
Good luck finding the balance and putting the right strictures in place for yourself.
Excellent article, Adam, on a very important subject.
I’ve enjoyed wine and studied wine for decades, but have elevated my interest in single malt really only the last couple of years. The idea of having this level of enthusiasm become a health issue has crossed my mind more than once, as has my curiosity about how all the professional tasters, writers and people who have the review channels deal with it.
It’s enough of an exercise in discipline for the casual drinker but I can only imagine what it’s like for those involved in such a level to have if be pretty much the great majority of their lives. As I’ve come to understand about wine, over these many years, I’d think tasting and spitting is almost mandatory for reviewers. I would hope most of them follow your technique.
This is the type of frank and open discussion that benefits us all, and reminds us of the discipline that is necessary to be involved in a passion that can be physically harmful. For this 71-year old, it is absolutely quality over quantity. I can’t process alcohol like I once did, nor would I really want to.
Very well done and well said by Adam and all of those who have responded!
Thanks for engaging.
Part of the reason I posted this was that I’d never read anything by drinks professionals on the methods they use to ensure that they stay safe whilst working directly with alcohol on a daily basis. Tellingly, whilst there’s been a phenomenal response from people I know within the industry, and from non-professional enthusiasts, I’ve yet to hear anything back from fellow writers outside of my Malt colleagues. I’m slightly disappointed by that, to be honest, as they’d offer the most direct comparisons to my own experiences with alcohol an I was hoping I might glean some insights and be able to spark some discussion.
Unfortunately there’s a broad cadre of the professional writing community who don’t like what we do at Malt, resenting our outlook, style and approach. I was hoping that this article might encourage a bridge or two, however briefly, to discuss things from a point of common ground. But to be honest I’m not entirely surprised that it hasn’t. Perhaps they’re just not reading! (Perhaps it’s our own fault for months of treading on toes!)
Anyhow: as you say, it’s a good discussion to have, and thank you very much indeed for contributing to it.
welcomed topic and reflection, thank you.
i gave up booze for 3.5 yrs as i was having a ‘complicated relationship’ with it.
thought at the time ‘wtf? a ‘complicated relationship’ should be for people, not a drug, whether it be food or booze.’ so i gave it up…attended a few AA meetings but didn’t feel resonated with me (i feel AA’s questionairre is outdated..makes it too black or white).
then i got back into alcohol…slowly at first then too fast. i treat booze as i do as my favourite foods, favourite junk foods or ‘trigger’ foods etc: they can be alluring but have to be carefully watched.
discovering scotch has helped me to slow down, especially coming from wine/beer.
i’m now employing a every other night approach to booze, and on days off trying to discover other equally tasty options: fab japanese, chinese teas or chais for example.
also on the days i do drink trying to limit myself to 1-2/night…if the drink night falls on wkend i’ll indulge a bit more…so far it’s working.
let’s face it: every choice we make is making a deal, a sacrifice…if i want to be healthy then i have to be disciplined and limit drinking/poor dietary choices…if i want to indulge whenever I want then I will expect the consequences (weight gain, fatigue, possible health issues, financial strain, lessened self esteem)…I prefer the former even if i know it’s not perfect and it’s surely not easy…but at least this way i don’t have to give up booze for good either and, most importantly, deep down inside i can feel good about myself…and that in itself is priceless feeling.
i should have added this, but i think a very helpful approach i’m employing to enjoying wine/beer/scotch (even food) without overindulgence is to slow down and really try to savour it in a mindful and appreciative way…to really take it in slowly, fully….and not indulge when i’m stressed or lazy or distracted.
would love to hear others’ strategies, too…imo we’re all here to share and help one another discover scotch in a healthy way longterm.
apologize…wish i could edit:
what i found helpful during my 3.5 yrs off was in discovering new ways to hit those pleasure centres…for me it was discovering the world of teas (i use this on my day off) and discovering new hiking/walking routes….reading again, listening to music. etc…it’s all about building new, healthier habits to replace the less healthy ones, but that also equally get you excited.
just knowing i could give it up for 3.5 yrs has been empowering too (the first 1-1.5 mo were tough in undoing the overindulging booze habit when i came off it…but again the realization my ‘complicated relationship’ with a substance was fucked up thinking that really jarred me into moving forward)
Thanks so much for taking the time to read the piece and offer your own experiences so honestly.
It’s fantastic that you were able to take three and a half years off – I hope I’d be able to do the same if needs be.
Your point about taking the time to savour the drink is a very good one, and it sounds as though you’ve found a great balance.
All the best, and thanks again
thanks, Adam…but I understand your situation and dilemma, if i read it correctly…reviewing spirits is your profession….as noted i got onto teas as a way to transition from over indulging in wine/beer (with the other activities noted).
funny aside but at the time when i started exploring teas i’d bought a book on the subject matter to better understand it.
the author was once a professional wine reviewer who felt he was imbibing too often, so the task of discovering the very diverse world of teas, and even eventually writing a well regarded book on it, was his way of finding balance, too….guess we all have to explore in our own way what ‘healthy balance’ entails. all the best to you!
A very interesting and well written article. I have monitored my units on a spreadsheet for 9 years and over that period have also averaged 3.5 dry days per week. The government guidelines are helpful but should not be treated as gospel and some people can process the alcohol better than others. For me it is all about quality rather than quantity. However we must live our lives and enjoy our hobby. My wife never smoked, drank alcohol infrequently, exercised every day and ate 10 of the so called 5 a day and died in her fifties of a cancer that normally gets old chain smoking heavy drinking men. To some extent our lives are a lottery and we can only try and reduce the odds by living a certain way.
Firstly, thank you for being so honest and forthright, and my deepest, deepest condolences.
You’re right – there is a huge element of lottery/chance/fate/delete as appropriate to life, and of course we have to enjoy our hobby. I suppose my own perspective – and it is only my own perspective – is one of concern/awareness for where my personal enjoyment of my hobby had got to, and a suspicion that others might be in a similar place.
Thanks so much again for reading, taking the time to comment, and being so frank.
Thank you for writing this. I would say I work industry adjacent, and it is heartbreaking sometimes to see the toll that a culture of denial can take on young folk who are just learning how to handle themselves in the world of scary things, including alcohol. It matters to speak, to say things out loud. “Good for you” sounds trivializing, so I’ll just say thank you again.
Thank you very much for reading – and for taking the time to comment.