Here’s a health warning: this column is no advertisement for Dry January, which I view as an irritating fad liable to make an unpleasant time of year more difficult still. For those who aren’t enslaved by alcohol, a month of abstinence seems a strenuous way to prove the non-existence of a drink problem. And those who actually do have a problem should not, of course, be limiting their abstemiousness to a month.
Most of us are in bondage not to alcohol but to boredom. We demand novelty, to say nothing of group validation, and trendy temporary deprivation offers both. The problem is we leave off one tether at the expense of another: sugar. Most non-alcoholic cold beverages are sweet, yet I don’t see anyone committing to Sugar-free January. But then, sugar has a long history of rotting our moral teeth. Alcohol was certainly implicated in the slave trade (“When the slave was drunk the slaveholder had no fear that he would plan an insurrection,” wrote Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery), but slavery was built on the sugar economy. Today, sugar has a subtle hold over many of us in the form of sugar addictions – whether or not we admit it.
Sugar isn’t my drug of choice: wine with my dinner is. I don’t want to drink lemonade with roast lamb – or kombucha, or tonic water. They won’t go. And before I give up caring about what to drink with which dish, I’ll crack open the meths and race towards the ultimate oblivion.
Fiona Beckett, a wine writer whose website is matchingfoodandwine.com, understands this concern. Her new book, How to Drink Without Drinking: Celebratory Alcohol-Free Drinks for Any Time of the Day, wants to open up new vistas, not close down old ones. She doesn’t ban alcohol – she adds non-alcoholic options, spiced up with common sense. Her cordials are too sweet for me, but I defy anyone to level that accusation at a Habanero Mary (contains scotch bonnet sauce) or a Rosbif (livened up with beef stock). She suggests shrubs (cordials made savoury by cider vinegar) and advocates steeping fresh herbs and pimping up ice cubes. Make sugar syrup, if you like it, but with less sugar; cook fruit before you concoct it, to intensify the flavour. Remember that mineral content changes the flavour of water, and that water bottle labels offer a lot more information than their wine equivalent. Some cuisines (French, Italian) cry out more for wine than those from non-wine-producing countries, so exercise the gift of choice there, too.
Signe Johansen, the Norwegian cookery writer, does the same, from the opposite direction. Her book Spirited: How to Create Easy, Fun Drinks at Home mixes recipes that do and don’t include alcohol with a debonair ease that suggests an relaxed relationship with the demon drink. Lemon Vanilla Barley Water or Chai? Fine. Boston Sour or Rum Old-Fashioned? No problem, either. Drinking like this seems so much healthier than chaining oneself to excess or abstinence.
Douglass relates that 19th-century American slaves were given a few Christmas days to get blind drunk: a slave-owner’s sly way of suggesting that freedom was no better than slavery. But of course, obligatory drunkenness was not freedom any more than enforced sobriety is. The liberty to choose is the elixir I cannot live without, and no cajoling to dry out for January will persuade me to try.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing