My neighbour breezes into the kitchen with a posh looking bottle, glasses, a shaker and snacks, which she sets up on the island*. Whoa, what’s this? – it’s only 3 o’clock. (She thinks I’m one of those work-from-homers who don’t know how to discipline their daytimes?) She grins. You’re interested in AF and low alcohol, right? Indeed I am. Liberated from lime soda by Big Drop, Drop Bear and Hazy AF. I love craft beer and decent natural wine, but I don’t want to get pissed every time I drink – so alcohol free (AF) has a big place in my drinking life. That’s mostly meant beer. I’ve tried Seedlip AF gin and a few low ABV wines, but the way we gulp it down in our house means we’re basically beer drinkers. A couple of times a year, we put on a modicum of sophistication and do cocktails – and usually regret it. The person who prompted the invention of the espresso martini with their request for a drink to wake them up and then fuck them up wasn’t joking.
Neighbour grins. This is the stuff we’ve been getting into – thought you’d like to try it. Well, yes. Looks interesting. There’s three types, – I’ve brought the Livener. Just as well, there’s a hell of an afternoon slump going on here.
She snaps open a posh tonic, carefully pours in a measure of ‘Livener’ with all the panache of a pro mixologist, blends it up with one of those proper little spoon thingies, and hands it to me. I wait for her to mix her own and we clink glasses. With a sense of ceremony and discovery, I sip. And sip again. And once again, trying this time to hold it in my mouth a bit longer and allow the flavours through (I already confessed that we’re more quaffers than sippers round here). This stuff is really interesting. Think of something tasting like the polar opposite of a WKD. Its mouth-feel is herbal, aromatic, complex. It’s warming, like a short, and has that shot-like ‘kick’ kind of feel – but without the faintly petroleum-or-vinegar aspect of many spirits.
We begin to talk and I grab my notebook.
A friend asked me if I’d ever tried this “very expensive shamanic herbal” thing. It was Christmas and both me and my husband were having alcohol-related health problems, so we were ready to try it.
Problems? I prod, not quite as delicately as I might have. (I’m not trained for that kind of interview, people – I’m just an anthropologist, though God knows we very often end up on the other side of soul-bearing reflection).
Yeah. I was getting these headaches and I realised that they directly connected to when I drank. We like the buzz of alcohol, but not the blues, the ups and downs, the hangover. But we still wanted a social drink. Like, on a girls’ night in, I’m not quite ready to be around loads of drunk women if I’m not one of them, so I was looking for something with a buzz, but no alcohol. The other alternatives – J2O, OJ, Coke – they’re all rubbish.
Absolutely. I shudder as I remember that ‘end of the evening’ feeling after 5 pints of lime soda – a gut-busting overload of sweetness, sourness and fizz that left a nasty coating in my mouth and my jeans uncomfortably tight from an over-full belly. That experience often pulled me back towards a bottle of beer, even if I didn’t really want to drink.
I’ve got a friend who always asks for a cup of tea when she’s out, just because she doesn’t want that sugar feeling. And who wants to pay £2 for a bottle of plain water?
I nod. Small plastic bottle. Plastified water. Two quid. Ew. Been there too.
I understand that pubs need to make a profit. But I do think there’s a market for low alcohol and alcohol free drinks. Alcohol was making me sick. Ill.
I nod. Brave of her to tell me all this – and thank goodness that we can talk about it. I share with her a not very impressive story of being stranded at a roundabout in Lewes after a lesbian wedding reception and too much Guinness, because I was too image-conscious and ‘hard’ to accept a proffered lift and to admit that I was utterly pissed and could not really get home safely on public transport. (I ended up in a dire Lewes B & B for the night). I wasn’t even young when this happened. Sheesh. I nod. Alcohol was not making me sick, but I’ve been no stranger to the ‘one over’ syndrome and, yes, eventually, you do get bored with doing that.
So we tried it – and I loved this. It didn’t taste of harsh chemicals, or sugar. It has a kind of aromatic taste. If you wanted the gin factor, you’d be disappointed. I like the Livener, my husband likes the Nightcap, says it actually feels like sitting sipping a whisky at the end of an evening.
I nod super-enthusiastically. I’m loving the Livener too. I feel like the two of us are at some kind of fascinating party and really hitting it off. At a certain moment, I recognise the signs of high stimulation: I’m super-engaged, nodding and listening carefully, writing my notes fluently and fast and talking a lot – a lot. I feel like I do when I’ve had a short or a coffee and I groan. Does this has caffeine in it? Shit, I can’t do caffeine after 10am – I’m going to be awake till really late tonight and wake up at least twice during the night. Bugger. My fault – I should have checked. She reassures me that it doesn’t have high caffeine and that the high is something else, and temporary, with no heavy aftershock. Let’s have another, then, and talk to me some more …
My love affair with alcohol is well documented. I’ve used it as a party tool, as a relaxant, as a stress tool. It’s been part of my culture, my inner family, something I turned to when the kids slept – or didn’t. Recently, health problems stopped me from drinking – terrible headaches. I found the alcohol substitutes horrible in taste. A pretend G&T is not for me – I can’t say why, but I’d rather have water than a drink that is pretending to be alcohol. This tastes good, has its own taste, not remotely alcoholic.
Here we differ – the more an AF beer tastes like the usual beer, the more I like it and the more successful I feel it to be. Beck’s Blue and Heineken are considered in our house as even more vile than their alcoholic versions – utterly undrinkable, and as nothing like the recent slew of craft beer AF / low ABV options, which have all the flavour and body of proper craft brewing.
As promised, the high was over quickly. Within half an hour I’d stopped running my mouth like a cokehead and later on I had no night-time wakefulness horrors. This experience was a quick lift followed by a smooth slide back to normality – not a come-down in any way, more of a realisation after the event that I’d been momentarily high, in a positive and body-happy way – a bit like a post-workout buzz.
She looks thoughtful, nods in recognition at the quandaries. Speaks.
(TBC in Part Two – Dry January, no-Gan Jan and all that)
- Yeah, this conversation happened way back in January, B.C. This blogpost is published A.C. Neighbourly pop-ins are suspended right now for lockdown.