I remember my first drink. As a true teen of the 90s in regional Australia, it was definitely underage. It was definitely binged. And it was with adults who definitely should have known better than to try to rack up those ‘we’re such cool adults’ brownie points with impressionable teenagers.
A couple of learnings from that experience: cask wine should only ever be used for cooking, don’t drink while you’re babysitting, and regional towns have an incredible grapevine for gossip spreading. My parents most certainly heard about it the next day, and I most certainly didn’t rush into that experience again quickly.
I remember, albeit fuzzily, the test tube shots during my university years, the snakebites in nightclubs, my tequila and lemonade phase, followed closely by my beer and lime cordial stage. There were the Jack Daniels chugs in the back of cars and rock concerts, and the very questionable Midori and lemon squash phase. There was the Guinness, Kilkenny, and Irish whiskey by-the-fire chapter while living in Ireland, the Ouzo in Greece, and then the discovery of how real wine should taste and make you feel while travelling through France and Spain. I remember tasting natural wine and knowing for certain where my viniculture preferences lay, and the time I discovered what an ethereal experience of an exceptionally well-crafted gin was like.
I can pinpoint certain periods of my life based on these liquor lines, timestamped by taste. I loved being driven by my taste buds so much I went on to study and work in the food and beverage field for many years. When I stopped working specifically in the field, I took up teaching and writing about wine and spirits, then moved into food and wine journalism. I have many peers and friends who are still professionals in that field, from sommeliers to winemakers, restaurant owners, liquor merchants, and distillers. I have been a committed drinker for most of my life and, for extended periods of time, I’ve made money out of my drinking.
So, with all that said, it probably seems a little odd that I’ve recently stopped drinking.
It’s not a permanent, overzealous declaration of teetotalism, or a vigilante decision designed to make others question their own choices. It’s not a 7-day break, a dry month, or a ‘detox-retox’ period of time that inevitably ends in a very thirsty pour and a mighty headache. It’s not even super strict, like a diet where giving something up makes you want the forbidden fruit even more; it’s more like an open-ended break, a conscious decision, a physical and mental rest. It’s not you, it’s me.
I know I’m not original in this idea. One only needs to look at the appearance of a non-alcoholic section in the beverage aisle in major supermarkets and liquor stores to realise that there is an incredible public shift in our attitudes towards alcohol. According to a recent study by the National Alcohol and Drug Knowledgebase (NADK), so many more of us are saying no to alcoholic drinks with a whopping 46% of us adults drinking only once a month or abstaining from alcohol regularly these days, up from only 11% a decade ago. In fact, 6% of Australians have chosen to empty the glass for good and not to drink at all.
There has also been a long-term increase in the proportion of young people who abstain from alcohol. While the mainstream media will gleefully talk about the binge-drinking epidemic amongst kids, the reality is startlingly different. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, from 2007 to 2020, the proportion of people aged 14–17 who abstained increased from 39% to 73%, while for people aged 18–24 it rose from 13.1% to 21%.
Growing up is a little different these days. As the stats show, the kids simply aren’t drinking much anymore, most of them citing lifestyle choices – their social experiences are simply not enhanced by downing shots at the bar. They’re out living lives, Tic Toking outdoors adventures, makeup tutorials, and dance offs.
Older drinkers – the category I now begrudgingly fall into – are driven by health choices, primarily weight management and mental health, as well as example-setting for kids at home. There’s nothing quite so sobering as having your 8 year old remind you to stop off at the bottle shop to get some more wine.
There are many reasons why people choose not to drink – health, money, and lifestyle fall into the top reasons. I’m pretty predictable – my main motivation was health and happiness. Whilst I’ve always been a drinker, during the COVID-19 pandemic I found my quantities creeping higher and higher. A glass a night very quickly turned into half a bottle, then a bottle, and with each day I’d be counting the minutes until 5pm when I could enjoy the start of a bottle over dinner, foolishly believing I wouldn’t finish it.
The ‘Mummy Wine Time’ culture certainly didn’t help, nor did having a friendship circle that enjoys many beverages, all of them very good quality. I convinced myself that I was ‘drinking well’, that is to say, my hangover was more expensive than most.
Soon enough, the fuzzy head was almost daily, but coupled with a physically active life, the justification that I was doing just fine was dangerously double-edged.
One day I woke up, fuzzy-headed and dry-mouthed, and decided enough was enough. I was grumpy, stressed, and pushing against a fitness battle instead of enjoying one.
Going without a drink has previously always meant a gaping hole in my social life. I don’t smoke or take recreational drugs, I don’t even drink coffee after midday. Without a tipple here and there? Boooring. Up until recently, bars, pubs, and restaurants also haven’t been equipped to cater to the non-drinker. Soda water with extra fresh lime to get my money’s worth, please.
But the tides are changing. With the rise of brands such as Lyre’s and Seedlip, the world’s leading independent non-alcoholic spirits brands, nonalcoholic cocktails are a thing rather than just an afterthought. Sobah is an extraordinary nonalcoholic craft beer range made with uniquely Australian native flavours, Heaps Normal is an epic brewing company with all the flavour and none of the hangover. Even Woolworths is now stocking the Australian label Naked Life with their delicious and very convincing ready-to-drink (RTD) lines.
In other places, we’re seeing non-alcoholic wine. But I’ll be honest, I’ve not given very much time here. My love affair with wine runs deep, and my view is that some things just shouldn’t be messed with. Taking the alcohol out of wine seems a bit like taking bees away from flowers and still expecting honey. And as I mentioned a little earlier, my toe-dipping into the world of no alcohol isn’t a no-not-ever-again situation, so I’ll save myself for that crisp glass of heavenly German Riesling, thanks.
While I don’t make a big deal of telling people I’m not drinking, I am quite happy to talk about being sober-curious – the term that’s being tagged for people like me. It’s a term that doesn’t put pressure on the ‘not drinking’ element, and more weight on the ‘drinking mindfully’. And I’m happy to share that I recently went out for a huge weekend event, danced until my feet couldn’t take it anymore, smiled until my cheeks hurt, all without liquor libation – the goddamn Everest of the non-drinker.
Right now, my drinks don’t have alcohol in them. Am I worried I’ll miss a solid soaking? That I won’t be as fun, or funny, or as wild on the dancefloor as I’m sure I am? Of course! I’ve had some great times and created some outrageously brilliant stories alongside a little extra social lubrication. But for now, I’m happy to go through the paces of fixing myself an alcohol-free gin and tonic with fresh lime and some rosemary from my garden.
And, like I’ve done almost my whole life, I’m letting my tastebuds guide me.