Monday, March 21, 2011

The Evolution of Drinking in Contemporary Urban & Suburban America

If you grow up in a culture in the United States that does not condemn the consumption of alcohol (e.g. Mormons & Native Americans (ha!  Everyone knows that Native Americans are a myth just like unicorns, the Tooth Fairy, and Social Security payouts past 2015) then the odds are that, at some point in your life, you will wind up drinking.  Now, obviously, there are exceptions to the rule: children of alcoholic parents, people with liver conditions, people born without mouths.  By and large, though, sooner or later--and especially if you attend college--you will consume at least one alcoholic beverage.

Random diatribe: I love how smokers bitch about being limited in where they can smoke and cite that consuming alcohol is far more dangerous than smoking and that they aren't harming anyone.  You find me one non-smoker who would elect to stand next to someone actively smoking for an hour over someone who is drunk and I will eat a hat made out of cooked bacon.  Seriously.  I might even wear it first just to prove that it's a hat.  But seriously--come on smokers!  Do people cough when they stand next to people who are drinking?  Nope, that would be people who are smoking.  Do people come away smelling like dumpsters after standing next to drunks (excluding, obviously, those who vomit in a projectile fashion)?  Clearly it is a smoker.

Fact: I would rather race a smoker than a drunk because I can almost guarantee that, over a long enough distance, I will win.  Drunks have superpowers and thus might find a way to beat me.  They are also angered easily and could thus, well, beat me (seriously--they get that sick crazy super drunk strength!)

Anyway, I am an active imbiber and have been since I turned twenty-one.  I was reflecting recently on the progression that my drinking has taken in terms of what I drink and the levels on which I enjoy said potent potable potations and I realized that there was an identifiable albeit variegated evolution between the point that I began drinking and now.  I thought about it further and I realized that, to some degree, there is a distinct--if not finite--set of pathways that people can embark upon in terms of their choice of drink.

And thus we begin our exploration of "The Evolution of the Drinking in Contemporary Urban & Suburban America."

Almost everyone starts with a sip of something as a kid.  It might be a beer, a rum and coke, or any other mixed drink (God save the child who starts off with a sip of bourbon or scotch!) but, invariably, it will happen.  Children are curious creatures and, when in attendance at family gatherings or any sort of large organized party, they are often mesmerized by the adults, always wondering what is going on in the grown-up section of the party instead of at the crummy kids' table.  Usually the conceding provider is a parent grown tired of the incessant needling of the child and he or she gives willingly of the drink knowing that the child will find it displeasing to its young palette.  Older children might be given a Shirley Temple to appease their curiosity and to help them to feel grown up but, by and large, there will be relatively few inquisitive instances after that initial taste (especially if that taste is of beer or bourbon).  Most kids will make a disgusted face and ask their parent(s) how they can stand to "drink that stuff!"

We reach our first node as we depart the sweet innocent waters of childhood nescience and reach the turgid tributaries of adolescence.  For some (like myself), drinking is still an off-limits activity--one that must wait until at least the age of adulthood (eighteen) if not the legal age of drinking (twenty-one).  I was never in a rush to attain adulthood and was thus content to avoid imbibing, for the most part.  I felt that there was a sequence that marked one's progression through the ranks of childhood--one that rewarded those who accepted each defining moment in its own time and punished those who sought such riches too soon.  Turning twenty-one should signify a coming-of-age--the final numerical point of significance before one would begin observing, mostly, the fives and zeroes.  At eighteen one would be eligible to vote, to drive, and to graduate high school.  Twenty-one represented the final transition into adulthood when one could drink legally.  After that...there really wasn't much to look forward to, so why rush it by engaging in serious underage drinking?

But I digress.  So around the burgeoning teenage years is when some people will break off and begin to drink with consistency.  Usually whatever is quaffed is done so in hurried secrecy, either in one's basement or bedroom when one's parents are not around or at some sort of party--either at a house or, in the case of my neighborhood growing up, in the fields away from prying eyes.  Generally what is consumed is of low quality: if it is beer, it tends to be cheap, readily available macrobrewed beer such as Budweiser and Coors (Light especially) or malt liquors such as Colt 45 and Olde English; if it is liquor it is usually of a basic variety and quite inexpensive (Georgi Vodka, for one); more often than not, though, it is of a sweet variety in the vein of wine coolers--things such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff/Bacardi drinks, and, depending on the area, possibly even Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers.

I wholeheartedly believe that the location and season hold a direct influence over the type of alcohol that is consumed.  If it is spring, summer, or autumn and an outdoor venue such as a keg party, then the odds are that beer and wine coolers will be the potations of choice.  If it is winter or perhaps late autumn/early spring and the venue is indoors, then liquor deserves equal consideration.  Generally, though, beer is going to be the star attraction and thus lifelong brand loyalty begins, born in suburban basements, urban parks (often behind handball walls), and possibly rural expanses.

The aforementioned beer/shoddy liquor/wine cooler trinity is often upheld in underage drinking through high school.  College is where things become interesting.  Here we have another node that spawns three likely scenarios: those who do not continue to college but maintain their drinking habits, those who do continue to college and maintain their drinking habits, and those who attend college but make the next jump along the evolutionary scale.  One's undergraduate years are a time of self-exploration, experimentation, and the exhilarating first taste of the freedom of adulthood, particularly for those who go away to school.  For those who do not move on to college, the harsh reality of (usually) having to find a job and then engaging in forty (or more) hour work-weeks will begin to settle in.  In many cases, independence reigns supreme and people will move out into their own space, thus affording them ample opportunity to engage in still underage drinking.  Typically, not much will change and, in such males in particular, beer becomes the primary alcohol consumed, especially for those in labor intensive jobs such as moving, construction, or trades like plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work.

Now something interesting happens to those who do go off to college--particularly for those who go away to college and to a party school at that: a sort of de-evolution occurs, at least with regards to drink quality, and a major change occurs in how drinks are consumed.  Generally, and especially in "college towns" or more rurally-located schools, money and variety of drinking venues/options are both quite limited.  House parties and frat parties become the primary locations of drinking for the underage imbiber (bars in college towns can be fickle so one cannot say with any sort of reliance whether or not underage drinkers can drink consistently in such spots) and both the quantity of drinks consumed and people present will increase substantially.  Binge drinking will occur, usually with beer as the culprit once again.  It is the drink most frequently used for, among other things, beer bongs, beer pong, and flip cup.  Other drinking games might entail the use of liquor or other swills but generally beer is consumed...

...and terrible beer at that.  Budweiser suddenly becomes the rich man's beer when money is no longer flowing and the underage college student is relegated to buying "whatever is cheapest and most readily available."  In most cases, at least in the northeast, that translates to: Natural Light (Natty Light) or Keystone Ice/Light.  Any variation of those two beers (Natural and Keystone) will be consumed in massive quantities primarily because it is easily purchased on the cheap in large amounts AND its watery nature allows for a slow, dull, throbbing buzz to develop over a long period of time (as they say--liquor gets it done quicker!)

College students in more urban areas (the five boroughs of New York City, in particular) are likely to branch off into insanely sugary mixed drinks at places like Applebees, Chevys, Chilis, and other such chain restaurants.  It really is hit or miss with which places will not check for IDs but, for some reason, ordering the fruitier drinks seems to work better as an 18-20 year old than, say, ordering two fingers of 15 year Macallan neat.  Perhaps it's the fact that the confidence that comes with age and experience with regards to ordering the latter is non-existent in the younger, illegal-age drinker.  The ever-present fear of getting caught, along with a hesitance sponsored by a fear of not wanting to sound stupid, will cause an awkward ordering situation--perhaps a quavering voice or a slightly shaking hand--both of which are sure-signs to a seasoned server that he or she is dealing with an underage person trying to buy an alcoholic libation.

Just as safe as the fruity drinks (we're talking Bahama Mamas, Blue Skies, Mai Tais, and their ilk) are the somewhat less shittier beers that we have discussed earlier--Coors/Light, Bud/Light, Miller Lite/MGD, and others on their level.  Again, for some reason, servers seem less inclined to break chops about a Bud Light than some other sort of beer.  I believe it is the confidence thing: most people asking for Buds/Coors have probably been doing it illegally for some time and already have an escape route mapped out in the event they are carded...or they just have a fake ID.  Either way--it's easier to stick with the status quo at this point.

The next node, though, comes for the FINALLY legal imbiber: the 21-24 crowd.  There will either be an extended stretch of branching out and experimenting if the drinker is interested in liquor as a whole (like me) or merely an increase in the same-old-shit if said drinker is content to wallow in the corn-piss flavored beer of his or her youth.  Some will stagnate and stick with the aforementioned beers but many will evolve into the world of mixed drinks: Jack & Cokes, Vodka Tonics (VINNY, HOLLA!), Cosmopolitans/Vodka Cranberry (for the ladies/dudes), and, the all-powerful, Long Island Iced Teas.  This will be arguably the first experience with quality liquor for many drinkers (any previous liquor experience, except at "away" party schools, will probably be limited to shitty well crap and not top shelf booze; at the party schools there is the possibility that some precocious late-teen will have developed a taste for fine liquor and will imbue his or her friends with the light of his or her respective experience).

Now it's important to note that something else is going on with the non-college and away-to-college crowds.  Once the members of both groups are of legal age, it is entirely possible that liquor will not enter the scene either right away or for quite awhile.  What might replace the Natty Light and such will be more Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade.  In other words: total Bro drinks.  Just think back to Stifler from the original American Pie movie if you can't envision what I mean by "Bro."

Sadly, we're near the end of our evolutionary road for the crowd that has managed to avoid college and/or has chosen a life-long career in menial labor.  Anyone who works their way up through the ranks of whatever job they take will likely avoid the fate I am about to lay out; it applies primarily to those who choose to avoid responsibility and elect to keep their careers at the most basic level possible.  These people are likely never to move beyond the Bud/Coors type beers and will probably venture only into straight liquor, usually bourbon, possibly vodka.  Depending upon the individual's level of financial success, even that experience might be only with rot-gut type stuff and not even reach a Jim Beam level (just kidding!  Jim Beam is TOTALLY rot-gut type stuff!).  Thus our journey with the non-college drinker is complete.

Between twenty-four and thirty, something amazing starts to happen with the collegiate crowd in terms of what they drink.  Though many of the away/party school college kids will go on just to be perennial partiers at shitty city clubs and Mexican/Floridian beach resorts and will thus stagnate at the "Bro Drink" level, many will find that their relationship with liquor--like any good whiskey--will have sweetened and deepened in complexity with age.  It is easy to get lost in the excitement that this generates in me, so let's break it up into beer and spirits to keep things organized.

For the mid-to-late-twenty-something drinker, it is likely that a graduation of sorts has occurred in terms of macrobrewed beer.  Buds might be replaced with Coronas and Heinekens; Bud Lights with Amstel Lights.  But after this happens...or perhaps even instead of it happening, the enthralling world of microbrewed beer might finally be discovered.  In the northeast, this will likely happen via Sam Adams but it can, obviously, occur in myriad ways.  Traveling and a desire to try something new (in terms of beer) will surely open up the realm of possibilities, as will eating at places that one would not ordinarily frequent, locally.  Indeed, my own experience with microbrewed beer really opened up after I ate at John Havard's out in Lake Grove, NY.  I was blown away by the varieties of beer that I could try and also by how crisp and clean they tasted; my eyes were opened and I have never viewed the world of beer in the same way since!

I suppose there are two nodes, then that might be worth establishing: one for the group that moves on to the higher quality macrobrews but who do not continue forward into microbrewed beer, and one for the group who moves on to the latter type of beer.

Between twenty-four and thirty, I would say, is when the final step in the beer evolution can and hopefully will take place.  By then, with enough microbrewery experience under their belts, the aging drinkers might now hopefully understand that there is beer beyond what is advertised during the Super Bowl.  With any luck, they will move on to Belgian beer, German beer, and the multitude of global assortments that are available.  Ideally, the final moment of evolution will transform the casual beer drinker into a beer connoisseur.  This person will be interested not simply in passively consuming beer but actively learning about it.  He or she will want not simply to explore different varieties of beer (as they will have done so, quite extensively, by this point) but also different brands of the same varieties.  This, in turn, might lead to visiting breweries and learning more about each individual brewer, what makes them different, what their brewing philosophy is, and anything else that will aid the eager philologist in attaining a level of erudition in all-things-beer.  Who knows--such a person might even go on to brew his or her own beer...and wouldn't THAT be something?

Back to liquor!

So from mixed drinks the next evolutionary step would be to move away from the sugary-sweet kids' shit pined after by underage college kids and to migrate instead towards somewhat classier ones.  This isn't to say that anything sweet is uncultured--a Jack and Coke is still my preferred mixed drink--but rather that a branching out beyond the Applebee's or TGIFriday's menu will occur.  Bahama Mamas and Mudslides will be replaced with Alabama Slammers and Soco and Limes.  Some might elect to go for some traditional drinks like martinis and Manhattans but this is not necessary for evolution to occur or to be recognized as occurring; any interest in trying a variety of liquors and drinks will suffice.

At this point we reach the penultimate point on our evolutionary scale: moving on to straight liquor.  I've clearly avoided discussing shots in terms of drinking because, truthfully, it's not "drinking" it's "getting drunk" and, for me, there is a HUGE difference between the two.  Anyone who would ask for a shot of Jameson 18 Year Special Reserve clearly has no idea of what they are doing and no respect for the liquor that they are requesting.  The person who orders Grey Goose on the rocks or a nice añejo or reposado tequila is clearly evolving beyond their previous state but this still does not represent the pinnacle of liquor-based evolution.

Finally--the ultimately evolved drinker of liquor--much like the similarly evolved lover of beer--is (s)he who embraces a spirit fully, desiring not simply an interaction with it but a relationship.  This person will want to know everything they possibly can about their spirit and, as they grow more perspicacious and their palette more experienced, they will begin to make better decisions about their respective spirit.  What needs to be understood here is that I am NOT talking about top shelf versus well liquors; not everyone can afford to play beer pong with bottles of Louis XIII or 60 year old MacCutcheon!  Instead, what defines the sagacious spirit-lover is his or her ability to determine what suits his or her respective palette to the best degree.  Anyone can purchase a bottle of 25 Year Macallan and say that it tastes good...but to know that your heart lies in Islay with the unique peatiness of a bottle of Laphroaig, whether it's 10 or 30 years in age, THAT is what denotes that evolution has occurred.

Usually the evolved party will pick one or two spirits at most to which they will engage themselves.  Over the course of one's lifetime it is possible to learn a great deal about all types of spirits but, for the truly evolved, a relationship with only a handful will prove to be much more valuable.  My love is with whiskey with a fleeting interest in rum that was inspired, primarily, by a trip down to the Bacardi distillery in San Juan. 

I suppose that I can use myself as an example for what I hope represents the fully evolved beer and spirits drinker (and what I hope, myself, to become someday).  To put it simply:

The fully evolved drinker of beer/spirits is one who embarks upon a life-long journey of learning about one's preferred alcoholic style, who perpetually matures one's palette by exposing it to an ever expanding panoply of similar and different styles, and, ultimately, who can then teach others thoroughly about the style.

I am just embarking upon my own respective journeys: my relationship with beer began back in 2006 and my relationship with whiskey was sparked last year in 2010.  I began keeping a list of all of the beers and whiskies that I have tried; I have attended numerous events aimed at enlightening and edifying the attendees in all-things-beer and whiskey, including the 2010 NY Brewfest, two separate Macallan scotch tasting events, a Johnnie Walker scotch event, and, most importantly, the completion of my Master of Beer Appreciation degree at Cloverleaf Tavern University (I am currently almost halfway through my first PhD--Professor of Hops and Draughts).  I have read up on my preferred alcohol styles and have completed reading numerous books on bartending and mixology.  Most importantly, though, is the fact that I have held my own tastings for friends of various scotches and beers and THEY have developed stronger interests as a result.

I still have far to go in my never-ending journey towards beer and whiskey enlightenment but it is rewarding to know that I have made the progress that I have.  I am beginning to know what I like with whiskey and am refining continually my beer palette.  I find that I am able, finally, to pick up on certain flavor notes and aromas in both beers and whiskies--something that I never would have dreamed to be possible only a few years ago.  There are still thousands of whiskies that I have yet to try and probably ten times as many beers...but I know what I enjoy and I continue to seek out new things to help me to define better just what I do like.

If you seek a higher state of drinking evolution then I implore you to take to heart this quotation by Oscar Wilde:

"I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best."

Find what you enjoy and enjoy what you find but never feel satisfied that you have reached the end of the journey.  You might always be satisfied with the best, just like Oscar Wilde, but you must keep in mind, too, that there will always be something better--something new, something different out there for you to try and that that experience, once had, will forever alter what you thought you enjoyed and what you thought you knew about liquor. 

May you always be satisfied with what you try but never satisfied that you have tried it all!