The start of a new year seems a good time to check in on a whiskey journey, to take stock of what’s past and what might be to come…
The very first post on this blog recounted the start of my whiskey journey, the advent of which surprised me more than anyone. I could tally on one hand the total number of cocktails I’d ever had by the time I hopped the fence from a casual interest in wine to developing a fascination with whiskey—the experience of tasting it, the history of it, its multifaceted role in American and world cultures, its poetic nature as a pool reflecting who we are.
Since then my passion for whiskey and the whiskey community has continued to grow and deepen. In addition to offering a great sensorial pleasure with endless nuance, whiskey has brought me new social and political insights, and introduced me to generous people outside my usual circles with whom I’d otherwise not likely have found myself sitting at the same table. My whiskey journey has tapped many of the things I value in life or am fascinated by: history, social politics, ritual and celebration, the art and craft of making quality experiences for people to enjoy and to be inspired by.
Going into this journey, I certainly didn’t know where I’d be going. But I did know this particular journey into the unknown wasn’t to be taken lightly. Beyond tasting good, among some very practical uses for alcohol itself—in antifreeze, fuel, medical supplies—it’s a potentially addictive and corrosive toxin. Knowing my own obsessive personality, how I throw myself fully into whatever grabs a significant hold on my interest, I was intent on going about this journey with a full awareness of whiskey and all its possible impacts.
As I tried more whiskies in bars, bought more bottles to uncork and explore at home, read more books, collected more glasses, attended more tastings and events—alongside all these things I also researched how alcohol affects the body and brain. In [too] brief:
When alcohol hits your stomach, a small percentage of what eventually makes it into your blood is absorbed there before your drink moves on to the small intestine, where the greater percentage of alcohol absorption occurs. At this point, the addition of food doesn’t further “absorb” the alcohol so much as slow down the digestive process by giving your body more to do. The liver then takes over, producing an enzyme called dehydrogenase to help metabolize the alcohol. The liver filters toxins out before sending things off into the blood for general circulation.
This is a slow process. If the booze comes on too fast, too heavily, or too often, your system gets overwhelmed and fails to steer the toxins out of your blood quickly enough. Your brain’s motor and cognitive systems first slow down and eventually short-circuit. An initial brightening and disinhibition fades into a relaxed fuzziness, then imbalance, slurred speech, dizziness, a spinning room, maybe nausea, and finally passing out (you’re unconscious) and/or blacking out (you’re conscious in the moment, but can’t remember it later).
Well, hopefully a black out is the worst of it. Worse things can certainly happen after that point, from alcohol poisoning to a deadly accident. And the possible effects of longterm heavy alcohol use include organ failure and cancer. Ideally none of that happens and it’s all a matter of clinking glasses, good friends, good conversations, and good experiences.
Throughout my whiskey journey, a healthy fear of addiction and its mortal dangers has accompanied me. It’s a fear I’ve carried to one degree or another since high school. A friend showed up one Monday morning with no eyebrows—not because she’d chosen to pluck them for fashion’s sake, but because she’d passed out at a party the Saturday before and someone shaved off her eyebrows while she lay prone in a lawn chair. That’s a mild tale. Monday morning stories of drunk kids being handed a glass of urine by other drunk kids, or getting into violent or unwanted sexual situations, weren’t uncommon. At least two high school friends that I can recall died in car accidents, not drinking themselves but hit by drunk drivers.
Continuing on into my freshman year of college, I lived in the dorms. Most weekend nights I would brush my teeth in the shared bathrooms to a soft chorus of groans punctuated by retching from some handful of guys lying unconscious in pools of their own vomit. One night I noticed a guy in a bathroom stall, the door closed and him on the floor leaning against it so that it couldn’t be opened. He was very still. I asked him if he was okay and he started to convulse. At a party I watched a friend who’d been deposited unconscious into a bathtub puke up blue liquid and not wake up.
None of this made the idea of getting drunk, or drinking at all, appealing to me whatsoever. Though I occasionally drank socially in my twenties, it wasn’t until my thirties that it became a more regular social habit. I seldom staggered about and rarely experienced hangovers. I was generally quite careful. I explored the wine world with only minor seriousness. Then for a couple years I lived in Germany, where between my theater activities I got a well-rounded beer education.
Eventually the bodily changes that come with getting older meant even one glass of either beer or wine did not sit well with my stomach. So, I decided I was no longer a drinker. But a mere three weeks into that, a night of sampling some whiskeys my father had plopped in front of me (the morning after which my stomach didn’t so much as blink) was itself followed soon after by a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. There I asked the bartenders to serve me what they drink, and my scotch education commenced.
Now I’m a certified bourbon steward with a sizable home collection of whiskeys, mostly from around the United States, but also Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Japan. I follow certain whiskey journalists, vloggers, and bloggers. I belong to online whiskey community groups. I go on “dusty walks” in various Bay Area neighborhoods, hunting for rare or otherwise odd bottles. I regularly scour the websites of local and national liquor shops, hunting for information about what’s new or next.
And I started this blog—as a place for curiosity, where whiskey, and how whiskey connects to other larger contexts in life and culture, might be explored over time.
And, I can now drink a lot more than I used to. But an awareness that this is not necessarily a good thing is never far from my mind. At one point in time it had taken only a single shot to get my head humming. Eventually it took two. Then I developed a taste for cask strength whiskeys, undiluted by water and bottled at their natural strength. My body, as bodies do, recognized a general change in pattern and began producing more dehydrogenase as a matter of course, adding a second similarly tasked enzyme, cytochrome P450, as a reinforcement. An excess of these enzymes, and of the bile produced by the liver, can cause that metallic taste in the mouth that one sometimes experiences after a night of drinking. So, if you taste that, you know your body is working harder on your behalf than you might want to ask it to work. I’d tasted that metal from time to time.
“Liquor is a deceitful mistress,” a recovered alcoholic I know once said to me. Despite the old-school casual sexism of that line, the literal aspect of it—that alcohol can fool us into thinking we’re more capable than we are, and, in doing so, open the door to accident, ill health, and other miseries—was not lost on me. When I see jokes about alcoholism or heavy alcohol abuse—made in memes, sitcoms, between friends on social media, used as advertising—I never find these jokes very funny. There’s nothing comical about alcoholism.
So, I’ve tried to remain careful, sometimes wondering to myself if I was doing a good job of it…?
Then one night I got an answer. I was having what I thought [told myself?] was a fine, if generous, amount. Typically, I’ll space out a tasting over a given night at the rate of roughly one ounce per hour. That is the average rate at which the body can process alcohol without getting overwhelmed or experiencing particularly significant effects. But since starting this blog and wishing to generate content for it twice weekly, I’d been increasingly less strict about that schedule.
So, this one night I was sipping away at a few different bottles—an ounce of this, half an ounce of that. Some whiskeys were cask strength, others as low as 90 proof. All were very tasty. I was picking well! Rather than a formal tasting for review, I was just trying different things while watching television.
The program I was watching had started at 8:00 p.m. It ended at 10:00 p.m. I’d started sampling about an hour before turning on the TV. So it was a roughly three-hour time frame in which I’d been sipping, and I’d certainly had more than three ounces. I hadn’t been tracking how many. But when the program ended at 10:00 p.m., it was as if a switch went off inside me as well. The television and I both went black.
The alcohol seemed to have hit my system in a sudden cascade. My body began its natural process of shutting down electric breakers, among them the brain’s hippocampus—responsible for short term memory. I can remember perfectly well watching the TV program, and it ending. After that, I can vaguely remember pushing my laptop away from me across the carpet in my living room. I can vaguely remember my partner sitting on the couch, looking at me with a furrowed brow and saying something quizzical. I can vaguely remember then being in the bathroom brushing my teeth. And I can vaguely remember setting my alarm clock for the next morning, though that could easily be a memory borrowed from any number of other nights.
The next day I woke up as usual and went about my morning routine. I felt a bit groggy but nothing at all out of the ordinary. My partner was still in bed, and as I was about to leave I asked her a question about her schedule. Her brow furrowed, like in that vague memory. “We talked about that in great detail last night,” she said. She reiterated an overview of what we’d discussed and my eyes scanned space looking for the memory of what she was recounting. It was not there. I argued with her a bit, not copping to my total inability to remember. She pointed out that my memory had been failing me more lately than in the past, and she stumbled about her words in such a way I could tell she was avoiding adding, “since you’ve been drinking more.”
I left to get breakfast at a café down the street. Over my routine coffee and oatmeal, I texted my partner to acknowledge what I believed she was avoiding saying, telling her that it’s okay that we talk about it, and that I wanted my whiskey journey to be fun and safe—for her and me both.
When she got home that night I was already there, and we had a good long talk. She recounted everything from the night before in full detail. I was alarmed by how much we’d talked about and done that I had zero memory of. Zero. She said I had seemed tired and a bit off, but not at all unconscious. I’d held up my end of the conversation and moved about physically without stumbling or swaying. The most noticeable signs that I’d had some amount to drink, she said, were that I was a bit argumentative around our scheduling conversation (not too unusual for me), kept nodding off when our conversation paused, and insisted Stephen Colbert was on channel 10 even though channel 10 doesn’t even exist on our TV. (Channel 10 had been the CBS network affiliate in the town where I grew up. Unable to reach for a short term memory, my brain reached all the way back to my childhood!)
I was quite spooked by this. Never in my life had I actually blacked out. (Well, if I had, nobody had been there to verify it!) Between that morning-after and the evening when my partner brought me up to speed, I’d lied to myself. I told myself the blackout was a mere brownout, given my handful of vague memory snippets. But the act of talking it through honestly with my partner helped me accept the truth. I’d blacked out.
I know in the grand scheme of drinking, black outs are as common as a college midterm. But that’s just not been my thing. I’ve not liked it when I’ve slurred my speech from drinking. I don’t enjoy being dizzy. A spinning room is not my idea of a fun ride. I find nothing masculinizing about any level of inebriation. Quite the opposite. So, to have been so fully conscious, watching TV, and then for my body to hit the point of overwhelm so suddenly, like a TV switch going off, and for everything to go black…? More than embarrassed, I was unnerved.
I eased up on drinking over the next several days. I used to aim for at least two dry nights per week. But more recently I’d slipped down to one—if that! I used to bookend a large tasting with three dry nights in advance and one or two after. But recently I was taking one or none on either side of a sizable flight.
It had all caught up with me, and my body signaled my limit by shutting me down.
Now, I could continue nudging the limits of my alcohol tolerance farther off, as by default I have been doing up to this point. But I don’t wish to. To black out and not remember an entire evening with the person I care about more than anyone? To do that to her, and to my body?
I’m glad it happened, even though I felt ashamed it happened. I’m glad it happened in the safety of my own home. I will keep it as a road marker on this journey, a literally sobering object of reflection to help me stay on track. If life isn’t healthy, fun, meaningful, and enlivening, then I’m living it wrong.
As if to underscore all this, while sitting in my local cafe tidying up this post, a few seats away a scruffy man looking to be in his 50s was meeting with another scruffy man, also looking to be in his 50s. As their conversation unfolded, it became evident that the first man had gone to Alcoholics Anonymous just recently, and the second man was there to help him start taking the steps to recovery. “Are you willing to make this commitment to yourself?” the second man eventually asked the first. Listening to the struggle leak in sighs through the first man’s forced casual tone of voice as he finally said, “Yes, I’d like to do this,” and then seeing the two men, who very clearly only recently met, hug each other so firmly and at length as they parted ways, was quieting. “It’s not going to be easy,” said the second man. “It’s hard to love yourself. Keep at it.”
Drinking in America is rife with dichotomies, not the least of which is a moral denunciation of its ills on the one hand and a flippant celebration of them on the other. Between the charged poles of this schizoid binary hums a good deal of stigma and shame. Many people do develop a debilitating addiction. Then there are those who take the pleasures of whiskey very seriously, as a sensorial hobby and a gateway to many wonderful social experiences and insights. To uphold the joy of that hobby, though a “healthy fear” may or may not be necessary depending on what works for one’s own personality, a healthy awareness is certainly essential. I’ve shared this episode in my own journey, as a gesture in recognition of our human fallibility, in order, I hope, to encourage anyone else who might also have felt the quiet hum of shame around their otherwise healthy whiskey journey. Mistakes happen. It’s what we do next that often matters most.
Although this post has focused on a darker aspect of this curious hobby, I do continue to enjoy the journey, for sure. I love the endless process of getting more and more in touch with my senses and perceptions—of taste, of people, of places. I enjoy meeting new folks and encountering new ideas. I love digging deeper and wider into the ongoing history of whiskey. And I trust that a stable undercurrent of mindful reflection is one key to keeping this journey celebratory, fun, and inspiring.
Enjoy your journey into this new year—safely, with curiosity, and with joy.
My various references in this post to medical and other scientific information related to alcohol consumption do not constitute advice. Here are a few good resources for anyone interested in more information about alcohol and safe drinking practices.
- CDC Alcohol Facts Sheet – basic information about the effects of alcohol.
- Almost Alcoholic – helpful article distinguishing alcoholism from drinking patterns that may very well be wending their way toward alcoholism.
- Alcoholics Anonymous – nationally organized support group.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – website and hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
A GOOD BOOK
Drinking In America: Our Secret History
by Susan Cheever, Twelve / Hachette Book Group, 2015.
STANDARD GOVERNMENT WARNING
(1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.