The drinking habits of the middle-aged are endlessly fascinating to doctors and scientists. And probably not because we’re so good at it. Hot on the heels of a UK government campaign that beseeches midlifers to lay off the sauce for at least two days weekly, a study at the University of Adelaide has discovered that middle-aged drinkers are less bothered about the health risks of excess booze than by the chance they might make fools of themselves. The lead researcher, who has clearly never met any of my peers, found this “surprising.”
Allow me. We’re so healthy in other ways, it negates our alcohol intake. What with our love of cycling, yoga, and half-marathons, we’ve never worn so much Lycra. If we don’t eat clean, we eat well. Organic chickens. Blueberries. Broccoli. And we can afford luscious velvety wines – no getting pickled on paint stripper. By maintaining such comforting standards and beliefs, we don’t have to worry about the harm of drinking too much. Except that we might embarrass ourselves.
Ah yes. That time a firework whizzed around the walled garden, narrowly missing the children. After many beers, one of the fathers, a responsible accountant type, had jammed it into the soil and lit it, without thinking it might take off. Jokes about “Courage Under Fire” warded off other feelings.
After the latest gin-soaked 50th, a pack of us staggered home to carouse and cackle till 4am – waking the teenagers, who were most disapproving. Two days later we were still messaging each other to complain about how terrible we felt. Meanwhile, friends send an Uber to collect their 13-year-old from netball on Tuesdays so they can “chill”. For some, mints and mouthwash disguise boozy morning breath at corporate breakfast meetings. A parent drove home her guest (my son) half a bottle down.
Let’s just say that Britain is one of the booziest countries in the EU (we guzzle 10.7 litres of pure alcohol a year, compared with a European average of 8.6, reports the World Health Organization), and consequently – the cheek of it – is among the fattest. We midlifers are well aware of the health implications. And yet, as Drinkaware chief executive Elaine Hindal noted, “an increasing number of people, particularly middle-aged drinkers, are drinking in ways that are putting them at risk of serious and potentially life-limiting conditions, such as heart disease, liver disease and some types of cancer”.
You’ll understand if we find it hard to listen. We don’t want this fast-ticking time to feel like penance. Midlife contains enough tough challenges that we want to relax and enjoy it while we can. It’s inconvenient to be nagged by Nanny State to be sensible.
And yet, unhealthy alcohol habits creep up on us. Clinical psychologist and author Professor Tanya Byron says: “A lovely bottle of wine with a fantastic meal is part of the cultural pleasure of breaking bread together, but alcohol is now something we have in the fridge with a screw top, and we pour ourselves large glasses as we’re cooking for the kids, so it’s infiltrated our lives in quite a different way.” She adds: “The reality is, it’s a mind-altering chemical and it has an impact on our function, and our health. It’s a socially acceptable drug and it’s addictive.”
Happily, it’s perfectly possible to drink smarter without depriving oneself. Laura Willoughby, 44, is co-founder of the mindful drinking movement Club Soda, which offers social events, and a guided programme for members, mostly aged 35-65, who wish to reset their relationship with booze. “They want to have a positive discussion around the benefits of change, rather than the evils of alcohol,” she says.
Willoughby compares the approach to “Weight Watchers, but with booze.” Some people want to quit, others want to find balance. No need for talk of “recovery” – we’re not all alcoholics – but rather, how we can tweak unhelpful habits. “Alcohol’s become a coping mechanism and slowly, deviously, become a bigger issue – ‘Oh my God! I’m drinking nearly every day, it can’t be doing my anxiety or stress any good, how do I begin to deal with that?’”
Indeed, sales of alcohol-free beer have increased by 27 per cent in the past year, and sales of low alcohol strength beer (between 0.5% and 3.5%) rose 16 per cent. The rise of non-alcoholic distilled spirits seems unstoppable. Seedlip founder Ben Branson, out for dinner one Monday night but not drinking, was offered a “disgusting, sweet, fruity, horrible mocktail. I felt left out. It didn’t go with the food, or fit the occasion.” He subsequently founded his company in 2015 – and his distilled non-alcoholic spirits now sell in 25 countries.
Truth is, we fear suffering in some way if we cut our drinks allowance. In fact, it’s a joy – mentally, physically, socially, personally. Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey compares it to mindful eating. “When people disengage their brain and eat in a medicative way, inhaling calories and sugar just for the hit, they lose track of their consumption,” she says. “They lose the pleasure of it. If we’re drinking smarter, we’re saying be much more conscious of what we’re drinking – and enjoy it more.”
20 ways to drink smarter
1. Take a month off
Taking a month off (see gosober.org.uk) is a great way to get a clear picture of your drinking habits before deciding on the moderation tactics that are right for you, says Willoughby. Until you’ve felt all the emotion of a stressful day at work, you may not realise that your first response is to have a drink. Taking time to build up a bank of knowledge about yourself and what triggers you to want a drink will help you to establish rules.
2. Know when you want to drink
Sunday and Monday are “pretty key days” for Seedlip’s Branson, so for him they’re strictly non-drinking. But a different approach might better suit others. Willoughby says: “Rather than non-drinking days, decide when, where, what and with whom it’s most important for you to drink. Decide which times are special, and when you drink almost incidentally. Some of our members don’t drink alone, or at home. Most people say ‘losing my social life’ is the reason they won’t quit, but if they cut out what they drink at home it would make a real difference.”
3. Mend your off-switch
What the everyday drinking does, at some point, is break your off-switch, and once you’ve started drinking it becomes very hard to stop, says Willoughby. Try to understand why you’re drinking more than you intend. It’s easily done, says Prof Byron, “Drinking is so socially acceptable. We’re all knackered, we do too much, there’s a lot to be worried about. But if you’re edging into something that’s unhealthy, stocktake. Be clear about why you drink and its impact. Are you more likely to have a petty argument if you’ve had a few drinks? Might you be driving your children to school over the limit without realising?” If you want to check your units, download the Drinkaware app.
Know what you’re going to drink if not alcohol, says Willoughby, who phones ahead to bars to find out what they offer, and sometimes takes her own drinks to events. “If people are buying rounds, say what you’re drinking instead without missing a beat. ‘I’m having a lime and soda.’ Know what you’ll say in response to ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ Say firmly, ‘I’ve decided I’m not drinking tonight, so just grab me a lime and soda’. Don’t be bullied. If you need a reason, it could be, ‘I’m up early tomorrow, I’m driving, I’m on antibiotics.’ Move the conversation on quickly, ‘How’s your son/job/dog?’”
5. Use small glasses.
Unlike pub glasses, which hold 125ml measures, wine glasses at home are vast. (Our elegant crystal goblets, filled just over halfway, hold one-third of a bottle.) No wonder it’s easy to chug beyond advised limits. Health writer Helen Foster, author of Quit Alcohol (For A Month) says, “Put your glass down on a table when pouring a drink, as you put less in it – 12 per cent according to one study.”
6. Enjoy the ritual
If part of what you enjoy about drinking is the ritual, drink all beverages from a wine glass – be it fizzy water, tonic, non-alcoholic beer. “It just makes you feel like you have a drink in your hand,” says Foster. “When I’m swapping from alcohol to soft drinks, I keep the same glass and top it up.”
7. Identify your trigger
Know what, or indeed who, prompts you to drink, says Foster – if you drink in the same place, same time, every night, and would rather not, change the trigger that sets you on the habit path. So, if you always have a drink while you’re preparing dinner, batch cook on a Sunday morning and then defrost meals for a week or two to get you out of the habit. Or if you loathe cooking, and wine is your treat for doing it, consider how else you could reward yourself.
8. Start soft
Always start any event with a non-alcoholic drink, says Branson. “You can then have a glass of wine or whatever you want, but that deliberate action of just being mindful spaces your drinks out.” Even if you go on to drink, “instead of having three glasses of wine, you’re having two”.
9. Take your time
Choose a drink you’ll linger over. If it’s warm, we often drink wine or beer partly to quench our thirst, so we end up drinking fast, says multi-award winning barman Ryan Chetiyawardana. “When it’s hot, I always worry about people sitting with a bottle of wine on the side, because it’s so easy to knock back.” Even though wine has a lower ABV, you may consume less alcohol if you choose a gin and tonic, whisky soda, or tequila highball. “I describe them as garden drinks – drinks that give you time to chat away with your friends – they have complexity. The first sip is different to the last, which means you can take time with it. You’re not inclined to neck it.”
10. Water down
Spritzers are a brilliant way to dilute your booze without feeling deprived – but white wine and soda isn’t always the best option. Chetiyawardana says, “White wine and soda is very flat, clean, with not a lot of complexity, and because it’s also thirst-quenching, you’ll probably drink it quickly. But a dry vermouth [Noilly] served over ice, lengthened with soda has a lovely bright acidity to it, some bittersweetness, these nice green herbal notes, and a bit of minerality, so while it’s still thirst-quenching, you take more time to enjoy it.”
11. Look the part
If you don’t fancy a drink but friends are pestering you, keeping up appearances can be useful. Helen Foster says, “I’m very good at filling wine glasses with water, ordering neat tonic instead of one with gin and, while I might have a pint glass in front of me, I don’t finish it – I top it up with halves so it always looks full.”
12. Start or stop
Know if you’re a “starter” or a “stopper”, says Foster. Can you go to the pub, have one or two and then switch to water? Or, once you get on the booze is that it – you won’t swap to water? “I’m the latter, so the best thing I can do when I walk into a pub is order a soda and lime. Sometimes I don’t then bother with a drink, but if I do, I’ve already cut my consumption.”
13. Plan ahead
We improve our resolve when we plan, when we make conscious decisions, and when we keep track of our behaviour, says Dr Kilbey. It’s when we disengage and become unconscious about what we’re doing that things slide. Instead of saying, “I don’t know if I’ll drink tonight,” say “I’ll have one espresso martini, that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
14. Support each other
Communicate your intentions about cutting back to your partner, says Dr Kilbey. You might have decided you’ll have one glass of rosé, then they open a bottle of white and top yours up without giving you a chance to say “hang on”. Dr Kilbey says, “If you don’t want to do the same thing, decide how you’re going to support and respect each other. Flexibility is needed on both sides. So how are you, as a unit, going to manage?”
15.Be clear in your intention
If your partner resents you cutting down on alcohol, Willoughby says, “Be clear about the behaviour you want from them. ‘I’m cutting down. It’s important to me. I’d rather you didn’t pressure me to drink. And if you’ve ever got a health goal, I’m happy to help you in return’.” It can feel unnerving for the relationship, she says. “But you could still do the thing you enjoy – one member enlisted her partner to help her find some high-quality alcohol-free wine, so that they could still have a glass together in front of the TV.”
16. Control supply
Managing portions is key. It’s more cost-effective to buy a bottle of wine or gin, says Dr Kilbey, but if you only want to drink a small amount, buy small bottles, or pre-mixed cans of gin and tonic. Once the big bottle has been opened, it’s much harder to regulate. “Know where your willpower strengths and weaknesses lie. Don’t have a month’s worth of alcohol in the house. If you buy sparingly, you put barriers in place that prevent you making bad choices.”
17. Be kind to yourself
The no-alcohol option should never feel like punishment. Suffering “a blend of cranberry juice, orange juice, sugar syrup, with a cherry in it is not a positive choice,” says Branson. “That’s deprivation and feeling hard done by. We champion the idea that complexity, great taste and sophistication is possible without alcohol. It should be a positive experience where you don’t feel like you’re missing out.” Willoughby says, “If you miss the burn of whisky, try drinks like Pimento, a non-alcoholic ginger beer with a chilli kick. If you’re pining for gin, explore flavoured tonics or the new wave of botanicals like Ceder’s, Berkshire Blend or Sea Arch.”
18. Embrace luxury alcohol-free
Much about how we drink is designed by marketing to create a sense of occasion, says Willoughby. But no matter how expensive the bottle, or from what glass it’s drunk – if you drink too much it does the same damage. But your indulgence doesn’t have to be alcohol. Fancy ingredients and expensive cocktail equipment can also be used to make great alcohol-free drinks. Superb restaurants become less ruinous when you’re not drinking. “I now have a £60-a-month tea habit that fills me with absolute joy,” adds Willoughby. “You can’t get more ceremonial than that!”
19. Make a break
Changing your environment is also key to breaking habits, says Willoughby. If there’s a drink you find irresistible, get it out of the house. But make adjustments to suit your personality. Some people decide to get rid of their wine glasses, while others love drinking their new alcohol-free drinks from them.
20. Have an exit strategy
If you’re moderating your drinking, planning your exit before you arrive at a party is key, says Willoughby. “I always say goodbye when I arrive – ‘If I don’t see you later thanks for inviting me and let’s catch up soon’ – that way I don’t get caught up in staying for one more.” Order the supermarket delivery for 11 pm, the babysitter to go early, or arrange an appointment you don’t want to miss for the following morning so that your motivation to leave is high. And ensure you have a non-alcoholic reward at home to look forward to.
Four delicious drink swaps
Award-winning barman Ryan Chetiyawardana suggests some alternatives to alcohol
Exchange a G&T for a fino & tonic
Fill a slim highball glass with large cubes of ice. Add 35ml Tío Pepe fino sherry, and top with chilled Fever-Tree tonic. Garnish with a slice of pink grapefruit and a big sprig of mint. The drink still gives layers of complexity. The fino gives nutty vegetal brightness, and the tonic a bittersweet edge. This means it’s clean, dry and refreshing, but with enough time to sit and chat away with friends. The grapefruit and mint give it a lovely lift.
Instead of a Moscow Mule or Dark ’n’ Stormy, try a Martini Rosso with ginger beer
Take a lowball glass and fill with cubed ice. Add 40ml Martini Rosso and top with Fever-Tree ginger beer, and garnish with wheels of lime or mandarin. Nicely autumnal with warming spices, but still with enough brightness. The drink has the spice and complexity you crave when reaching for the classic.Fill a wine glass with cubed ice, add 50ml Noilly Prat, then add 100ml chilled soda and garnish with a swathe of lemon zest
White wine isn’t too high an ABV option, but it ends up getting drunk so quickly in the sun, or when catching up with friends. Serving it over ice, or with soda, helps pace this out, but turns a white wine a little thin and insipid. Although the Noilly is higher in alcohol than (most) wines, the added brightness, bitterness and herbal notes ensure you have something dry and complex.
Pour 35ml picon over ice and top up with 100ml of Gingerella ale. Again, beer isn’t too boozy, but it’s easy to sink fast! Serving this over ice, and with a touch of the bitter maltiness of beer, this has sweetness, spice, acidity and bubbles that you crave, but slows your pace of consumption.