It’s summer. You’re going to some festivals. You’ll be outside, at bars with patios, drinking. If you’re most people, no one ever told you how to drink well or right. Hey, no one told us. More often, people told us not to drink—ever—because it’s bad. But preaching booze abstinence works about as well as sex abstinence, and if you’re going to drink, drink right. So: How do you drink right?
Let’s first define what drinking right means, because the art of drinking is not part of the national conversation when it comes to drug use (not that that conversation is particularly astute, of course). Drinking is a lot of fun; in the wrong hands, it’s also a lethal weapon. Drinking right allows you to maximize the former aspect while bringing the element of danger to an absolute minimum, and the art of drinking right excludes both the “never drink” mandate promoted by many parents and institutions, as well as the “drinking is glamorous in excess but please don’t do it in excess” mixed message promoted by beer companies who are trying to avoid association with the casualties of drunk driving.
Well, you’re definitely not going to drink and drive—you’ve got too many options in car services now to do that. But what you want is something in the middle. You want to get a little fucked up. You want to feel something—or rather, less of something, as the case may be—when you drink. You want to be a little bit uninhibited, because that can make it easier to relax, have fun, loosen up, and get out of your head. But you don’t want to black out, get the spins, spend all night barfing, or wake up next to awkward finger-banging guy.
You want the sweet spot. Just fucked up enough to be able to give in to the fun goofiness of being buzzed, but still sober enough to get to your desired destination and keep your wits running in the background.
To be clear, I know exactly how to never get too drunk, and I still get too drunk sometimes. I still find that even after not that much booze I awake to a terrible hangover. It happens way way less because I’ve learned how to drink after age 28 and what to drink to minimize the risk (eat shit, white wine) but it still happens. And when it does, it’s for these reasons, which appear, carved out of immutable fact every time:
- Not enough water
- Not enough food
- Drank too fast
Seriously, it’s never too much booze per se—I’m not doing keg stands, or shots even. At some point you can drink three beers and feel like you had 12 if you don’t honor the three tenets of Good Drinking:
Food, water, pacing.
Food, water, pacing.
Now let’s shout it, together:
Seriously: Eat something first! Or throughout, or after. Drink some fucking water in between the drinks. And don’t drink too fast. It’s so basic, but life is better if you get these things right every time. So let’s get into the details.
Food is good. You’re having some today anyway! Make sure you have it before drinking. I can eat dinner, have some drinks, and wake up like I never had a sip of booze. Or, I can drink before dinner, after a light lunch, have the same few drinks, and feel like I funneled vodka. Salads are bullshit when you want to drink well (unless the salad is all the stuff that could be a sandwich but on a bed of arugula instead of bread). Eat some carbs of some kind and some protein.
The trick is, you want to feel slightly full—that good sense of satiation—but you don’t want to be stuffed, like from a lot of pasta or a giant steak, because then the booze takes forever to hit and that’s the worst, you don’t have all night, and it can sometimes put a stop to a fun night out if you ate too much and the booze can’t penetrate the glob of pizza in your stomach and you just feel all bloated and gross instead.
Alternately, snacks throughout will quell Ms. Drunk Disaster, or food at the end of the night will soak up well. You might get heartburn. Still better than a hangover.
The thing about having a glass of water in between every single drink is that you have to piss constantly. This is highly, highly irritating but still better than puking later. However, if this much H20 is just not possible, you can make up for this by pounding water at night’s end like you pounded beers, and sometimes still come out on top. Most of the time, it works.
Some people just order a water with every drink to make it stupid easy. But if you can’t make yourself drink water between every single drink, drink a big glass after a few drinks, and then a bunch again when you’re done drinking for the night. Basically try to feel like you’re never too buzzed that you can’t rein it back in with a glass of water, because at the point water isn’t helping, you’re fucked.
I can’t tell you how fast to drink; you’ll figure it out for yourself. The most important thing to remember is that if it seems really fast to you then you’re fucked.
This is the whole trick of a good buzz: How fast can I drink this to get fucked up without getting so fucked up that food and water can’t save me? I can usually drink one beer super fast at first, because that feels so good going down when it’s chilled exactly right, and then after that I drink increasingly slower for the remaining two or three beers. Your pacing may not be the same all night. You’ll have to adjust to keep yourself from going over the cliff. You want to talk and joke and be reasonably funny without becoming a complete weird sadsack who cries and barfs or even worse, won’t shut up.
I realize it changes based on food, and water, and pacing, and genetics and age, but over the course of my life I have never really been able to drink more than about four beers in an evening without suffering. I ignore this at my peril. Figure this out about yourself—should you never again take a tequila shot? Does a sugary cocktail send you to your grave?—and stick to it.
People who want you to drink more than you feel like (or faster than you can) are generally either very young and stupid people or just actual bad people. Avoid them. It’s one thing when your friend doesn’t want you to go home yet, and she’s all, “Aww, c’mon, stay and have one more beer with me—I don’t want be at this party alone,” vs. “Chug chug chug chug chug!” Or when people hound you to do shots and you’re like, “I’m not into shots?” and they won’t stop trying to ply you with them. The latter type is gross. Don’t be friends with those people. Why do they need you to drink more? What are they getting out of you drinking more? SUSPICIOUS.
I used to cover rock shows for a living. After years of doing it, I got into the habit of absentmindedly counting the number of people in any club. It was how I gauged the crowd size, but it was also a way to looked at every person in the room. Out of habit, I still do it; I take great pleasure in looking at every person in a room I’ve entered. It’s empowering, and it’s also a roundabout way that helps me assess my general safety, like whether it feels like a place where the whole thing could go Roadhouse any minute. Everything bad that can happen is exacerbated by booze for everyone involved.
Drinking well is pretty much that simple: calibrating your actions based on your knowledge of your tolerance, genetics and—yes—gender. Everyone knows some powerhouse drinker who can pound beers all day with no water and no food and spring out of bed the next day at 8 a.m. rarin’ to go. But that’s not you, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
And one caveat: Even if you get the food, water and pacing right, you’ll still on occasion drink too much. It will be because of one of these special, but all-too-common, cases:
- You mixed beer and liquor, and you can’t do that, I don’t care if someone else can just fine!
- You were out in the sun all day and got more dehydrated than usual and forgot to DRINK WATER WHENEVER YOU’RE IN THE SUN.
- You didn’t pay attention and accidentally ordered a high-gravity beer—if you know you’re drinking a lot, stick to low-alcohol, drinkable beer that’s around 4.5%, or sip liquor and definitely alternate with waters.
- Someone gave you moonshine.
- You mixed booze with weed, pills, hallucinogenics, etc and miscalculated the ratios.
These situations should be rare. They should be rare enough to remind you why your system of food, water, and pacing has served you well and will serve you well into infinity. And it will serve you well in nearly all drinking situations, whether day drinking or grabbing a post-work drink that turns into three.
This is not to suggest that tying one on to Barfsville is never a grand fun thing or even a kind of inevitable ritual of growing up. It is; it can be. (Though please consider sending this article to your niece who is going to start college this fall, so she gets a head start on the lesson.) Barfsville just shouldn’t be a way of life. If you want to do due diligence on my advice, go to the diviest dive bar you can find and look around: There is a likely a strange tension between twenty- or thirtysomethings looking to authentically slum it and sad barflies whose lives have been defined or destroyed by this place. Try always to think like the former, and you’ll be in good shape. And of course, no offense to barflies—they’ve taught us well.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby