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Oakes Weekly - January 29, 2004
The Art of Drinking Alone
January 28, 2004
Written by Oakes
It is an act which has become rather stigmatized, but most of us do it anyway, at least from time to time. Drinking alone. There are good ways to approach this and bad ways, positive results and negative ones. As someone who does this with some regularity, I thought I’d take a closer look at the issue.
<P>Drinking Alone is Bad
<P>First, let’s talk about the notion that drinking alone is a bad thing. The Vaden Health Center at Stanford puts forth the notion that while social drinking is okay, drinking alone is not. This is garbage, for a number of reasons. While to their credit, they also discourage binge drinking (ludicrously defined at anything more than three drinks – as if we’re all 150 pounders) under any circumstance, they are missing the point. The reasons for one’s drinking are more important, in health terms, than the manner in which they choose to do so. I cannot fathom how this notion still exists that it is acceptable for someone to lubricate themselves in order to be a functioning member of a social group. If you need to drink to talk to people, that speaks of an underlying problem. And no matter what Homer Simpson might say, drinking is not the solution to any problem, especially ones concerning a person’s ability to function in society.
<P>While no question there are motivations for drinking alone that do indicate some degree of antisocial or dangerous
behaviour, what the Vaden Health people are missing out on is the fact that drinking alone does not inherently mean drinking to get drunk.
<P>A Question of Motivation
<P>Modern Drunkard Magazine, an online publication, has an <a hrefhttp://www.moderndrunkardmagazine.com/issues/03_03/03-03_zen_drinking_alone.htm>interesting article on the subject that, while at times seeming a little tongue-in-cheek, hits upon some truths that the medical community seems to have blithely ignored (at least based on what I was able to find in the course of my research). For one, drinking alone allows one to focus more on the flavours of the beverages. We’ve all been down this road as beer-tasters – it is a lot easier to evaluate a beer in a quiet room in the comfort of your own home than while out for a night on the town in a crowded bar.
<P>But back to the motivation question for a moment. A couple of the reasons most often cited in medical literature pertain to loneliness and depression. Loneliness is specifically tied to people who take to drinking by themselves in order to comfort the pain of loss. Getting hammered upon the breakdown of a relationship isn’t really what they’re getting at, but more at long-term problems, such as those encountered by the elderly when their friends start to die off, their family is far away, and they have no job or regular social structure to keep them level. Depression is more common in younger people, but the results are the same – casual drinking alone escalates into dependency. I can’t argue with any of the medical community’s assertions here but it comes back to what I said – if you are drinking to solve a problem, or to medicate pain, that is not healthy drinking, and that stands whether you’re drinking by yourself or not.
<P>Quiet and Solitude
<P>The Chinese poet Li Po wrote a <a hrefhttp://oldpoetry.com/poetry/1395>famous poem about drinking alone, with the moon and his shadow as accompaniment. This poem taps into the heart of the healthier aspect of drinking alone. One gets to spend time with themselves in quiet and solitude. The Modern Drunkard piece goes farther, pontificating about unleashing one’s inner monkey…a little silly but the thinking is the same. In a world where you are bombarded from the cradle to the grave with other people’s ideas and influences, sometimes it’s nice just to be by yourself, indulging in whatever you may wish to. Li Po dances and sings because he wants to.
<P>You control the setting, too. You drink what you want, you listen to what you want, and you let your guard down as much as you want. I don’t personally like to write when I’m drinking simply because my mind cannot unleash sentences and concepts with sufficient clarity and sense of purpose while under the influence, but for many being alone allows them to express themselves creatively. It does point to certain problems when one needs not only to be alone but to make use of mind-altering substances as well in order to unleash their creativity, but inhibitions can be strong things to break. And I see no reason to stigmatize someone for unleashing these inhibitions in the company of themselves any more than we should stigmatize people for unleashing their inhibitions in order to socialize with others.
<P>So let’s dispense with the stigma, because it is wholly unwarranted. If “social drinking” is acceptable because people need a little lubricant to interact with others, then “drinking alone” should also be acceptable because people need a little lubricant to fully express themselves. After all, artists, writers and musicians have been doing this for millennia and it would be hypocritical to enjoy the works of such individuals while simultaneously looking down at the lifestyle choices that allowed them to open their minds sufficiently to produce said works.
<P>How to Drink Alone
<P>There are two ways to explore the world of solitary drinking. One is in the privacy of your own home, the other is out in public. The former needs no introduction to most beer geeks, because we already know the pleasures of listening to our own music, sitting in our favourite chair, in our favourite room, drinking our favourite malty beverage. When you control every single element of your experience, you can’t help but get warm, fuzzy feelings. If you don’t, then maybe you need to re-evaluate yourself. Drinking in a situation where you have total control without enjoying yourself may speak to a degree of dependency. Why else would you do it if you weren’t having fun?
<P>Out in public is a different matter. Sometimes the situation arises because you’re on the road. Drinking in a hotel room is hardly putting yourself in complete control of the setting and no matter how hard to try, it’s difficult to mimic the coziness of your own home or even a good pub in a hotel room. Sometimes the situation arises because you need a change of pace from drinking in your favourite chair in your favourite room. Maybe you just want to try a new beer that’s on offer and can’t be bothered rounding up anyone to go with you.
<P>Whatever your reasoning, if you’ve ever undertaken to drink alone outside of your home I’m sure you’ll have noticed that some places are simply more conducive to this than others. Moreover, some places meet this standard for better reasons than others. I mean, every town has a disgusting, urine-stained dive where drinking alone is the result more of a lack of desire to mingle with the sociopaths that comprise the list of regulars than anything else, but there are other places where one can comfortably drink alone by choice, not out of a necessity to avoid interaction with convicted felons.
<P>The Perfect Place
<P>First, the place shouldn’t be too crowded. And if it is relatively empty, it shouldn’t feel as though anything is missing. So smaller places work best. Better still if they are broken into smaller rooms, like many a pub fashioned from a historical house. This will give you a sense of coziness and privacy, in addition to negating the feeling that something is missing (namely, other patrons). Further to this, the place should not be overstaffed. It’s hard to enjoy a couple of pints in solitude when those wretched of all lifers - the ubiquitous, smoke-stained, formerly beautiful serving wenches or Guy Smiley waiters - are constantly buzzing around your head like the blackflies of humanity that they are. Those types of people are real atmosphere killers when you’re trying to drink alone. They see that you’re sitting there all by yourself and reckon that you MUST be miserable, so over they come bringing all of their disingenuous, corporate-dictated perkiness with them. Invariably, the only time they aren't invading your space is when you need another pint, or to settle the cheque.
<P>One of the things I like is a place where, should your desire to drink alone wane for whatever reason, you can rejoin society smoothly. So a place with good craic is tremendously beneficial. Any place like this will also convey a sense of warmth strictly because the people are friendly enough to talk to strangers. In North America’s big cities, these types of places can be hard to come by, unfortunately. After all, we grew up learning not to talk to strangers. Thank goodness there’s still a few places left where people aren’t like that.
<P>Other accoutrements I find beneficial are a good beer list, a library (or at least some beeriodicals), comfortable seating and an abundance of quiet corners. The good beer list is obvious – I’m going to pay much attention to my beverage so I’m going to want something deep, comtemplative and flavourful. I will also want some reading material. At home, I’d normally opt for music but sitting in a pub with a discman is a little too antisocial, so a good book, newspaper or beer rag is important. It has to be something worth thinking about too – not the latest issue of Maxim. Comfortable seating is surprisingly important. I don’t find it that vital when out with friends, but when I’m by myself, all the little things get noticed, and lousy seating is one of those. Ideally, I want to melt into comfort both mentally and physically. Quiet corners are also a must. Lots of them. I want my pick of them. Going into a favoured pub and finding the one quiet corner already occupied will leave me sitting somewhere that I don’t really want to sit. So multiple seating options will guarantee a relaxing visit every time.
<P>Some of my favourite establishments for drinking alone are the Winking Judge in Hamilton, ON; the Archer Ale House in Bellingham, WA; the Star of Belgravia in London; the Henry House in Halifax, NS (in the basement, if it’s not too busy); and in parks on sunny summer days.
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When you control every single element of your experience, you can’t help but get warm, fuzzy feelings.
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