We live in a golden age of booze: Our pint glasses overflow with tasty craft beer while the quality and variety of wine improves with each passing year, and precision-made cocktails sparkle like a string of jewels across the lounges of the land.
These are glorious days to be a drinker — but tricky ones to navigate. Who really knows what all that stuff is and how to enjoy it? Well, as you’ll learn from my new book Drinks: A User’s Guide, it’s easy and fun to get up to speed on the essentials of wine, beer and spirits.
To start you down the right path, here are 13 everyday rules to help you drink like a boss.
1. Take a vacation from vodka.
Some will protest that vodka is a no-brainer spirit that mixes with everything, and that’s my point: It’s too easy. A wider world of booze awaits you. Try gin next, and work up to funkier stuff, like mezcal. It might taste at first like a cross between tequila, gasoline and bear spray, but you just might start to fall in love.
2. Spread the whiskey love around.
You might be drinking too much bourbon at the expense of other kinds of whiskey. Bourbon is lovely, but don’t get stuck there. For example, a Manhattan is meant to be made with deliciously spicy rye, not bourbon. (As for a brand, how about start with Sazerac or Rittenhouse Bonded?) And use that rye in an old fashioned next: It’s an equally valid option — and actually more old-school than bourbon, which only gained popularity after Prohibition was over.
3. There’s no such thing as a man’s drink and a woman’s drink.
Sure, inexperienced college kids might think so — but the world of wine connoisseurs, beer experts and whiskey wizards has become a gender neutral place, and huzzah for that. If a man is drinking white wine or a woman is slugging down a rum on the rocks, the mature thing to do is to let it pass without comment. Take a booze expert’s word on this: When you repeat the old stereotypes, you just prove that you don’t know a damn thing about how people drink in the big leagues.
4. Champagne cocktails are your friend.
What’s the easiest cocktail to make in a pinch? A Champagne cocktail, which requires a minimum of supplies. Like so: Drop a sugar cube into each glass. Douse with Angostura bitters (available at supermarkets and many convenience stores). Fill glass with dry sparkling wine — it doesn’t have to be Champagne; try cava from Spain, dry California bubbly or crémant from France. If available, garnish with a twist of lemon peel. Ta-daa! Great for parties, airport lounges, church bazaars, et cetera.
5. Don't pop the cork.
Oh sure, that seems like fun, but — and I hate to sound like your dad — you really are going to put your eye out like that. I know a guy who got pinged in the eyeball and needed multiple surgeries. Here’s how to avoid that: Hold the cork firmly (some people use a tea towel) and turn the bottle, not the cork. Do it with a nonchalant “this is just how I roll” face, and it will look like you drink bubbly every day …
6. But do drink the sparkling stuff whenever you can.
Don’t just reserve sparkling wine for special occasions: Keep it in the fridge and enjoy it any day you want. It’s not just for birthdays, it’s for garbage day, too. Remember the aforementioned three Cs — cava, crémant and California — as your sources for great dry sparkling wine at weekday prices. Ask for recommendations at the wine shop.
7. Avoid garish wine labels.
Great products speak for themselves, so beware the ones that are obviously jockeying hard for your attention. Poisonous organisms often warn off predators with a show of bright colors — and a similar vein, wine that features eye-catching animals on the label is usually toxic. Also regard with suspicion any beer with a television commercial, or a whiskey with a too-cute origin story.
8. Drink whiskey as simply as possible.
You will read that there is no right or wrong way to taste whiskey. That’s bull. There’s a way that’s righter than all the others. In order to give yourself the best possible opportunity to detect the nuanced aromas (vanilla! caramel! honey! Et cetera), do as I say. When encountering an unfamiliar offering, serve it neat — that is, with nothing added — then sniff it from a distance; try chest height.
OK, now bring it toward your nostrils and sniff it close up. Then add just a little splash of water and repeat. Stick your nose in the glass and open your mouth while you inhale. Sure, you look like an asshole right now and I’m sorry for that, but you’ll smell more of those aromas. At last I give you permission to sip. Finally, you can mix it now — if you still want to.
9. It's OK to get weird on absinthe.
Repeat after me: Absinthe is not a hallucinogen. I don’t care what else you hear. I don’t care what else you read. Absinthe is simply a bitter, licorice-flavored liquor that the Europeans invented to settle their stomachs after dinner. (How to serve? Dilute with cold water, add optional sugar to taste, and sip.) Granted, absinthe does contain one ingredient that will mess with your business: It’s called alcohol. Most absinthes are in somewhere around the 55% to 70% ABV range — you’re not fooling around here.
10. Buy ridiculous amounts of ice for your parties.
Hoard ice like Scrooge McDuck piling up cartoon riches. A bag for every two guests is good for starters. Skimping on ice is the biggest hosting mistake around and I see it all the time. And here’s the thing: I know you’re not going to listen to me yet. You’re going to learn the hard way. You’re going to force your guests to drink things lukewarm when they ought to be cold. But you’ll know better for the next time.
11. Always eat when you drink.
I don’t mean, “I had some chips. I’ll be fine.” Eat actual food, something with carbohydrates that you have to chew, to slow down the flow of alcohol sluicing into your bloodstream. Pizza saves lives (and reputations).
12. Avoid the wine at weddings.
“Let’s buy nice wine for our beloved guests, who will totally appreciate it,” says no one who is planning the inferno of cash that is the 21st-century mating ritual. This is why you, dear guest at table 18, will be served the worst kind of tongue-stripping plonk to wash down your rubber chicken. Meanwhile, the spirits (and sometimes the beer) over at the bar tend to be all the usual quality products you’ve come to know and love. Sneak off and focus your efforts there.
13. Finally, play it cool.
Remember that drinking is a social activity, so don’t geek out on booze facts when you’re out with friends. You might learn a lot of neato stuff about wine and cocktails and beer — and that’s wonderful; bully for you — but don’t whip out your newfound learning in the middle of conversation. Focus on your company, and never forget that drinking is supposed to be fun.