For me, drinking was always deeply sensual. From the very beginning, I loved it all. The sound of a cork sliding from the neck of a bottle, the glug-glug-glug of the first glass being poured, the tingle on the tongue, and the feeling of my shoulders relaxing as the universe seemed to say: unwind.
I loved the peaty earthiness of Irish whiskey under moonlight, the sharp nip of Pinot Grigio at day’s end. I have a particularly fond memory of sipping scotch in the Oak Bar of the Plaza hotel in New York on a snowy evening with Jake. Another: drinking a flute of champagne in the lobby bar of the One Aldwych hotel in London. More than once I sat in a Boston Whaler at sunset, dressed in lumberjack plaid, toasting the beauty of a day’s end, supremely happy as the world evolved as it should.
It is no coincidence that my favorite drinking memoir is the late Caroline Knapp’s "Drinking: A Love Story"—a book I read and reread as my own drinking escalated. Wrote Knapp: “For a long time, when it’s working, the drink feels like a path to a kind of self-enlightenment, something that turns us into the person we wish to be, or the person we think we are. In some ways the dynamic is this simple: alcohol makes everything better until it makes everything worse.”
For more than two decades, I more or less forgot that this substance—let’s name it by its clinical name, ethanol—had caused me endless sorrow and heartache in my younger years. For years, I rarely abused the privilege of drinking—and yes, I saw it as a privilege. And when my drinking caught up with me, I was as surprised and sorry as anybody could possibly be. I had promised myself I would never be outfoxed by drink.
I loved Knapp’s book for many reasons, but one of the most practical was the little questionnaire halfway through the book, the twenty-six questions put together by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to help you decide whether you’re in trouble. Knapp published her own answers, which I always thought was exceptionally generous—I felt such solidarity with her when I saw her answering “yes” to such tough questions as “Have you often failed to keep the promises you have made to yourself about controlling or cutting down on your drinking?” and “Have you tried switching brands or following different plans for controlling your drinking?” Most of all, I liked that she included the following helpful tip: if you answer yes to questions one through eight, you are in the early stages of alcoholism, which typically lasts ten to fifteen years; if you answer yes to nine through twenty-one, you are in the middle stages of alcoholism, which typically lasts two to five years. I have a dog-eared, annotated copy of her book, with my own answers marked in the margins—the early stages in 2002, and the middle stages up until my sobriety date in 2008. I am eternally grateful that I didn’t make it to the third and final stage, where the questions run this way: “Sometimes after periods of drinking, do you see or hear things that aren’t there?” and “Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time?”
I often turned to the questionnaire in Montreal, and near the end of my stay, to the underlined portion of page 33 in my copy of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous: “To be gravely affected, one does not necessarily have to drink for a long time nor take the quantities some of us have. This is particularly true of women. Potential female alcoholics often turn into the real thing and are gone beyond recall in a few years.”
* * *
New sobriety is a fingernail-on-the-blackboard experience: many things can set you off. Restaurants walled in wine, movies with up-close-and-personal drinking shots, driving by your favorite liquor store. Billboards. Magazine ads. Just about anything. Alcohol jumps out of cupboards, into your line of vision: it has no end of tricks. You reach for ice in a friend’s freezer, and there it is: a Tanqueray bottle, chilling for cocktails, taunting you.
In my case, one thing bothered me more than most. It was summer. The summer of 2008, to be exact. I was fresh out of rehab. Driving the Boston Whaler across the water, loaded with our groceries and suitcases, Jake said one prophetic sentence: “I feel like we’ve been studying all winter for final exams, and they’ve finally arrived.”
He was right: summer tested me in ways I had never imagined, sitting for thirty days in treatment. Days were easy—but for me, days had always been easy. It was the waning of the light, when the magic hour approached: this was when I wanted a drink. Summer meant parties; nights with friends and family; celebrations at sunset. How was I going to handle all this?
Rehab had prepared me. I was to take a scorched-earth approach to our environment: remove all alcohol, hide all drinking paraphernalia—corkscrews, pretty glasses, ice buckets. I was to make sure my environment was alcohol-free. We asked Jake’s daughter to keep any wine discreet, but we stopped short of all else. It seemed extreme. I was wrong.
Less than a week into our holiday, a phone call came late in the afternoon. A friend of my son had died tragically: an overturned canoe, a drowning, a search for the body. Jake’s brother had invited us to dinner, and we were on our way there when the news came. I promised to call as soon as we arrived. I placed the call in a small den, with a fridge. My son was distraught. I was distraught, too: he was thousands of miles away, and I felt helpless.
Without thinking, I reached in the fridge for a drink, and stumbled on something new—or new to me: Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Perfect: a ready-made cocktail. How convenient: vodka premixed with lemonade. I’d like to say I paused, but I didn’t. I downed it quickly, without remorse, like a thief. It brought instant relief. I placed the can in the wastebasket and joined the others for dinner. I didn’t say a word to Jake. I was too scared.
I snuck the occasional drink that summer: maybe twelve in total, from July to Labor Day, two on my birthday while I sautéed onions. It took the anxiety of new sobriety down a notch, and added a new worry. I knew it didn’t matter that the volume was small: I had blown my sobriety. I had to go back to zero, come fall.
And by fall, I did. I gave up drinking, and stuck with it. I started going to recovery meetings regularly, and I began a new hobby: I started clipping, in earnest, the news stories that were starting to appear on women and drinking. I bought a bright yellow box and tossed in anything that caught my eye. There was not much to clip, but three stories drew my attention.
First, New York magazine ran an excellent feature called “Gender Bender,” in December 2008. The deck read: “More women are drinking, and the women who drink are drinking more, in some cases matching their male peers. This is the kind of equality nobody was fighting for.” I was one month sober. For the first time I began to think: I am not alone.
Then, in July 2009, Diane Schuler made headlines when she drove her minivan the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, northwest of New York City. Schuler’s vehicle collided with an oncoming SUV and eight people were killed, including Schuler’s five-year-old daughter and three nieces, all under ten. A successful account executive and married mother of two, Schuler died with undigested alcohol in her stomach; her blood alcohol was more than twice the legal limit. Police found a jumbo bottle of Absolut vodka in the crushed metal wreck of her vehicle.
Schuler’s story was horrific. I clipped it, but it wasn’t the one that hit home the hardest: I never drove when I was drinking.
No, the story that got under my rib cage was one that ran less than a month later, in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, under the headline “A Heroine of Cocktail Moms Sobers Up.” Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, author of "Naptime Is the New Happy Hour" and "Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay," had quit drinking. The California mother of three—best known for her popular online column “Make Mine a Double: Tales of Twins and Tequila”—had retired her corkscrew. Wilder-Taylor had announced her news on her popular mommy blog, Babyonbored, with this simple statement: “I drink too much. It became a nightly compulsion and I’m outing myself to you. . . . I quit on Friday.”
What got me was this line: “Whenever her husband questioned her nightly routine, she would retort, ‘I’m fine.’ ”
My words exactly. Whenever I had too much to drink, this was my mantra: “I’m fine.” Teetering across pink granite in lake country, late at night: “I’m fine.” Tossing off my high heels, after a gala awards night: “I’m fine.” It was easy to say without slurring, and it was defiant. It never changed.
Except I wasn’t fine. Not even close. And it was beginning to look like I was not alone. As Wilder-Taylor said, when I finally interviewed her: “Alcohol is glamorized in our society, and it’s everywhere. You’d be surprised how many people are drinking during the day. And then we’re shocked when some mother crashes her car with her kids in it?”
* * *
If my drinking makes me a statistic in a growing trend, it also makes me unremarkable.
I drank, for the most part, what others drank. In fact, I have no trouble charting the decades between university and 2008, using not my jobs as markers, but the wines we consumed.
In the beginning, there were those thin Italian Chiantis—cheap, astringent, and gravelly (think unreliable candleholders in walk-up apartments); plus the ubiquitous Germans (think Blue Nun). These were the wines of our university years, when we ate cheese fondue without guilt.
Of course, there was a brief stint when I—freshly graduated from university—perched for a few months in a flat in Notting Hill with the man who would become my husband. He was at film school; I was trying to become a writer. Our landlord, who played polo on Sundays with Prince Charles, had swish parties to which we were invited. There were fancy film parties, too. I remember these days with a phrase: “Mink coat, no underwear.” Champagne cocktails with Helen Mirren on a Saturday night, followed by dates at Hamburger Heaven, drinking plonk. Upstairs, Veuve Clicquot; downstairs, Szekszardi.
Back home in Canada, newly employed as interns, we moved to Burgundies: easy-to-parse reds that matured quickly, just like we did.
What came next? The 1980s: travel in Europe with my filmmaker husband: fruity rosés at lunch at the Cannes Film Festival; Saint-Émilion at dinner; learning about port and the cheese tray. On my return, the Californians had arrived: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir.
The 1990s opened with my separation and a new love affair, toasted with Australian reds, full of gusto, and golden whites. A new century brought new affluence for so many of us, and endless choice. And then? Back to the Italians: my nightly glasses of Pinot Grigio. Full circle, or almost. Where I ended was very different from where I began.
By the time this decade opened, I had stopped drinking—but I hadn’t stopped watching what was going on. In fact, my bright yellow box was filling up, not just with news stories but with glossy inserts as well. What came next were the girly names: French Rabbit, Girls’ Night Out, Stepping up to the Plate (label sporting a stiletto heel), and yes, MommyJuice. Wines in pretty little purse-size Tetra Paks, in picnic-perfect six-packs, ready to go.
I have at my desk three different promotional inserts from 2011. Item number one features a come-hither blonde in a sexy gold dress, balancing a martini between polished red nails, painted just a shade darker than the swizzle stick poking through the o in “Classic Cocktails” above her head. Call her Miss February. She’s a Betty Draper lookalike posed on the front of a shiny celebration of the sixties. “You’re swingin’, baby!” it reads. “Do it up right like they did when after-work martinis were de rigueur . . .”
For several weeks, Ms. February was the hottest girl in town, her image stuffed into every newspaper, towering tall from storefronts. By March she was toast, supplanted by a lanky brunette in a fuchsia minidress. By April? The cover girl was no girl at all. Instead? An egg: peach-toned, hand-painted, inscribed with the name “Lily.” Martha Stewart picked up where "Mad Men" left off, and a bottle of Girls’ Night Out had replaced the martini.
When did the alcohol market become so pink, so female-focused, so squishy and sweet? I wondered. When did booze bags turn pastel? When did my gender become such a focus of the alcohol industry?
In 2011, I clipped a story from the New York Times: Clos LaChance, makers of a wine called MommyJuice, tried to get a California court to declare that they were not infringing on the trademark of a rival wine called “Mommy’s Time Out.” Clos LaChance argued that the word mommy was generic, one that no company could monopolize. Eventually, the two companies settled out of court, agreeing that both could use the “mommy” moniker.
As you might expect, Mommy’s Time Out features a chair facing the corner, with a wineglass and a bottle on a table nearby. The MommyJuice label features a supple woman juggling a computer, a teddy bear, a saucepan, and a house. “Moms everywhere deserve a break,” coos the back label. “So tuck your kids into bed and have a glass of MommyJuice—because you deserve it.”
I called Cheryl Murphy Durzy, so-called Mom in Charge and founder of the label, at her home in San Martin, California. Why MommyJuice? “My kids call my wine ‘Mommy’s juice.’ Lots of kids I know do this. Moms love talking about why they need MommyJuice, things like their kids wetting the bed. ‘Can’t wait for MommyJuice!’ ”
What are her thoughts about playdates with wine, about the fact that risky drinking is on the rise for women? Says Murphy Durzy: “For years, men have been relaxing at the end of the day. Does anyone ever say anything about a dad who has a beer at the ball game? No. I think it’s sexist.”
In Canada, the makers of Girls’ Night Out wines—featuring what they call “aspirational” cocktail dresses on their labels—went to the trouble of registering their hot title in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Doug Beatty, vice president of marketing for Colio Estate Wines and originator of the Girls’ Night Out name, says: “Eighty-five percent of the purchase decisions in the twelve-to fifteen-dollar range are ‘female-driven.’” For that reason, he was “just shocked” when he learned that the name “Girls’ Night Out” was up for grabs. Having expanded into wine-flavored beverages—Strawberry Samba and Tropical Tango being two—he says the future of his successful label looks “terrifyingly fun.” Says Beatty, “Those of the female gender are those who have done all the hard work.”
And what about Skinnygirl Cocktail line products, reported to be the fastest-growing spirit brand of 2012? Founded in 2009 by reality star Bethenny Frankel ("Real Housewives of New York"), the Skinnygirl line was the fastest-growing spirits line in the United States two years ago. Last year, Skinnygirl Cocktails—“the brand that has re-energized the way women cocktail and define themselves”—launched an advertising campaign called “Drink Like a Lady,” including its first-ever national television commercial: “The lady knows how to cocktail! Skinnygirl now has all the wine, vodka, and ready-to-serve cocktails you need—without the calories you don’t! Drink like a lady!” The campaign coincided with the brand’s expanded product offerings, including Skinnygirl Vodka with Natural Flavors (White Cranberry Cosmo being an example) and Skinnygirl The Wine Collection.
Imbibing, without the extra calories: this is key. Last year, even the musician Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas got into the act, launching Voli, a new low-calorie vodka. It comes in six flavors, including “Original Lyte,” raspberry cocoa, and pear vanilla. She was reported to have said, “I think a lot of people with healthy lifestyles like me, who love to work out, work hard, socialize, and have a drink at the end of the day, have been craving something like this,” adding: “There are no extra sugars.” In other words, girlie spirits, with up to 40 percent fewer calories than leading brands. Meanwhile, beer companies have started pushing their product as diet-friendly: lime-infused beverages, low-carb alternatives, lower-calorie options.
What’s surprising about all this? We are used to a drinking culture pitched at men—a great example being German liquor company G-Spirits, which promises that every single drop of its alcoholic beverages has been poured on the naked breasts of a female model. Its whiskey, for instance, has dampened the breasts of Alexa Varga, Hungary’s 2012 Playboy Playmate of the Year. All bottles come with nude photos of the model involved in the process. This example is bizarre, yet somehow predictable. So too is an ad for Belvedere Vodka, in which a beautiful model uses the reflection from a guy’s shiny belt buckle as a mirror in which to apply her lipstick: her mouth is close to his crotch.
But Skinnygirl Vodka? MommyJuice? When did the female drinker become the focus of the spirits market?
I flew to Baltimore to find out. I knew that David Jernigan, the savvy, boyish-looking director of CAMY, would be willing to ballpark a date. Based in his spacious office at Johns Hopkins University, Jernigan has spent his career watching the industry. When, I want to know, did the world begin to change?
Apparently, in the late 1960s: Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, bought Miller Beer, and brought the techniques of market segmentation and lifestyle advertising to the marketing of Miller. They took a relatively regional beer and turned it into the number two brand in the United States—and they did this by using the tobacco marketing playbook. “In response,” says Jernigan, “August Busch III, who was head of Anheuser-Busch, took the thick book of sporting events in the U.S. and threw it at his marketing people, saying, ‘Buy this!’ And they did, everything from tiddlywinks to baseball.” At one point, they were sponsoring twenty-three out of twenty-four major-league baseball teams. It was a sea change: they bought into all the lifestyle marketing that had been pioneered by tobacco. Says Jernigan, “The wine and spirits folks were left in the dust.”
Beer ruled North America in the 1980s and early ’90s. Beer was fun, beer was sport. The spirits industry was seen as stodgy and boring. Suddenly, says Jernigan, it decided to play catch-up: it did market segmentation, looked at who was underperforming, and of course, it saw women. “For the spirits industry, this was a global opportunity. This was conscious: they understood they had to shoot younger and they had to shoot harder.”
Thus was born the alcopop. Also known as the cooler, “chick beer,” or “starter drinks”—sweet, brightly colored vodka-or rum-flavored concoctions in ready-to-drink format. Jernigan calls them “the anti-beer,” “drinks of initiation”—and my favorite: “cocktails with training wheels.” “They’re the transitional drinks,” he says, “particularly for young women, pulling them away from beer and towards distilled spirits. Getting brand loyalty to the spirits brand names in adolescence, so that you get that annuity for a lifetime. An obvious product for reaching this wonderful and not yet sufficiently tapped market of young women.”
According to 2010 data, 68 percent of eighth-grade drinkers reported having had an alcopop in the past month, 67 percent of tenth-grade drinkers, and 58 percent of twelfth-grade drinkers. But in the 19–28 category, fewer than half had had an alcopop in the past month. Broken down by gender, the data showed alcopops were more popular with girls and women in every age group. The height of the craze for alcopops was 2004. By then they had done what the industry needed them to do—reach out to females, and establish a bridge to the parent brands like Smirnoff vodka and Bacardi rum. And of course, none of the marketing shows the consequences of drinking.
Let’s take a second and look at the Smirnoff brand. In 1997, two major alcohol firms merged to form Diageo, the largest distilled spirits producer in the world—both then and now. This British-based multinational developed a sophisticated strategy to reenergize Smirnoff vodka: in 1999 it launched Smirnoff Ice, which became the number one beverage in the alcopop category. With a hefty marketing push, Smirnoff vodka sales grew 61 percent between 2000 and 2008—a sharp contrast to the 1990s, when this brand saw a dip in sales.
“Smirnoff is the girls’ vodka,” says Kate Simmie. At twenty-nine, she has long matured out of her Smirnoff phase: her new love is Blue-beri Stolichnaya. But the McGill grad, now a Toronto marketing professional, has a firm handle on her own limits. “I’m five foot two,” she says with a grin. While she has many friends who do shots, she thinks twice before joining them, or having a martini. “I can’t imagine dating without drinking, but I tend to stick to wine,” she says. “I can’t handle shots.”
Shots make a difference. Compared with distilled spirits, it takes a lot more beer or wine to produce alcohol poisoning or impairment, to compromise judgment around risky sex, which is why distilled spirits, in most cultures, are treated differently. And there’s an additional health issue for women. Not only are young women experimenting with the strongest beverage, but they’re more vulnerable because of the way alcohol metabolizes in female bodies. “If you’re female and you’re drinking spirits, and the guy’s drinking beer, you’re at a complete disadvantage,” says Jernigan. “He’s drinking a weaker beverage, he’s metabolizing it more efficiently, and you’re trying to keep up. And you’ve got Carrie Bradshaw saying that this is the image of the powerful woman—a woman with a cocktail in her hand virtually every moment that you see her, except when she’s trying on shoes!”
Can we really blame Carrie Bradshaw for the martini-shots-vodka culture? Can it all be laid at her Jimmy Choos? “Let’s put it this way,” says Jernigan. “We cannot discount Carrie Bradshaw. But if Carrie Bradshaw hadn’t been accompanied by a push by the spirits industry, she would have been a pebble in the pond. As it was, she was a boulder. Women had never been targeted before in the way they were targeted: after alcopops came distilled spirits line extensions—flavored vodkas, absolutely every fruit you could imagine.”
In recent years, several countries, including Germany, France, Switzerland, and Australia, have imposed special taxes on alcopops, addressing widespread concerns about their popularity as a drink of initiation. Germany nearly doubled the tax; Australia boosted it by 70 percent. Many countries found substantial reductions in the consumption of these beverages.
And many other countries haven’t done a thing. “In the past twenty-five years, there has been tremendous pressure on females to keep up with the guys,” says Jernigan. “Now the industry’s right there to help them. They’ve got their very own beverages, tailored to women. They’ve got their own individualized, feminized drinking culture. I’m not sure that this was what Gloria Steinem had in mind.”
In the past decade, there has been a huge amount of effort to stop underage drinking in the United States. Says Jernigan: “It’s made some impact with the boys. We are not getting anywhere with the girls.” The more marketing kids see, the more likely they are to initiate drinking at an early age. This is 360-degree marketing, embedded in Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on television, and in the movies. Last year, the Australian Medical Association censured Facebook for allowing alcohol companies to target children: “Social networking sites . . . are honing a more aggressive and insidious form of marketing that tracks online and profiles, and tailors specific marketing accordingly.”
More than three-quarters of twelve-to seventeen-year-olds in the United States own cell phones; and of Facebook’s one billion users, 600 million visit the social media site primarily through mobile devices. “This is the ultimate extension of lifestyle advertising,” says Jernigan. “The brand is now a human being. It’s interacting with you in real time. It’s talking to you on Facebook. These are worlds that are being created by the brand in conjunction with, in cooperation and collaboration with, their user base. It is a marvelous innovation in marketing, and it’s a disaster for us.”
Brands mounting their ads on YouTube, launching their own channels: this is known as pull marketing. The consumer is seeking out the ad, rather than tuning out a commercial. They’re focused. The granddaddy of this genre, Tea Partay by Smirnoff—a two-and-a-half-minute ad—has had more than six million YouTube viewers. “This is all about engagement,” says Jernigan. “It’s the future of marketing, and it’s virtually unregulated.”
There’s a strong public health interest in delaying the onset of drinking: the brain is still in its plasticity state during adolescence. Every day in the United States, 4,750 kids under the age of sixteen start their drinking careers. As Jernigan says, “This is a human capital development issue.”
When it comes to deconstructing advertising and the role it plays in our lives, few do a better job than Jernigan and Jean Kilbourne, the woman behind the film "Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women." I became intrigued with Kilbourne, reading her brilliant book "Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel." In the opening pages, she tells the story of her own early experimenting with alcohol, which taught her that “alcohol could erase pain. From then on, for almost 20 years, my most important relationship was with alcohol.” She saw a doctor about her drinking. His response: she was too young, too well educated, and too good-looking to be an alcoholic. Eventually, Kilbourne says drinking ended up “burying me alive”: “I used to joke that Jack Daniel’s was my most constant lover.” She writes of her perfect verbal score on the SAT, dating Ringo Starr, being in love with Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski, partying at Roman Polanski’s apartment—and confronting her eventual addiction in 1976. Like me, she was in the middle stages of the disease.
Astutely, Kilbourne warns us: “Advertising encourages us not only to objectify each other but also to feel that our most significant relationships are with the products that we buy. It turns lovers into things and things into lovers.”
Two years ago, I wanted to meet Kilbourne, having had a spirited and bracing conversation with her on the phone. I was intrigued. Learning that she was flying to Toronto to give a speech in a nearby city, I offered to pick her up and ferry her to her destination. It was a smart idea. Kilbourne is incisive, savvy, and thoughtful. We had a long drive—good for getting to know someone, poor for taking notes: my hands were on the wheel.
The next time I spoke to her, Kilbourne was laid up at home outside of Boston, having broken her leg skydiving. I wanted to know: why are we so oblivious to the effect advertising has on us? “Ads are so trivial and silly that people feel above them,” says Kilbourne. “And for that reason, they don’t pay conscious attention. The advertisers love it: our radar is not on. We’re not on guard; it gets into our subconscious and affects us very deeply.”
Kilbourne quotes the chairman of an ad agency saying, “If you want to get into people’s wallets, first you have to get into their lives.” And there’s no doubt: the spirits industry has infiltrated the female world. Which makes me want to say: Is alcohol the new tobacco?
“It took a very long time with tobacco, for people to believe that advertising and marketing had anything to do with it,” says Kilbourne. “People perceive the tobacco companies as more clearly evil than the alcohol companies. Of course they’re different: any use of tobacco is harmful, and that’s not true for alcohol. There’s such a thing as low-risk use of alcohol—although that’s not the kind of use that is of any interest to the alcohol industry. If everybody drank in a low-risk way, we’d all be better off—except, of course, the alcohol companies. They’d go under. They depend on high-risk drinkers and alcoholics, and that’s what people need to understand.”
It may be pushing it to say that alcohol is the new tobacco, but the alcohol industry is the new tobacco industry. Says Kilbourne: “They’ve had enormous influence on politicians, enormous influence on the media, and they’ve framed the story: this is about your right to drink, this is about freedom. And like the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry is in the business of recruiting new users. We need to frame this in an entirely different way: this is a public health issue.”
Excerpted from "Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol" by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Published by HarperWave, a division of HarperCollins. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.