Sandwiched as it is between the first socially sanctioned dry periods of the year (Dry January, Febfast) and the later ones (Dry July, Ocsober), March can be a pretty boozy month. Those of us who abstained from drink after the excesses of Christmas have now probably eased back into our regular consumption patterns. When it comes to Anglophone drinking culture, it’s often feast or famine, which isn’t exactly a healthy approach.
Most people who consume alcohol regularly do so despite knowing the health risks involved – not just the risk of hangovers but, over the long term, much less pleasant health conditions, including cancer.
Nonetheless, many of us continue to imbibe, for any of a number of reasons – cultural, social or simply because it gives us pleasure. So how can you maximise the pleasure that drinking gives without increasing the quantity of alcohol you consume?
As someone who has derived a living from working with and writing about booze, I’ve used a few of these techniques over the years to recalibrate my own quality-to-quantity ratio. I hope you’ll find them useful.
1. Measure your drinks – and your glassware, too
At a dinner party recently, I was handed a gin and tonic that nearly blew my head off with its potency. The host had made a round of them after some wine had been consumed, and she had eyeballed the gin pour rather than measuring. It’s a common occurrence and it can easily lead to overconsumption – because it’s easy to rationalise a glass of extra-strong rum and coke as “just one drink”.
The simple solution is to make like the professionals and invest in a jigger – those little metallic or plastic measuring devices for spirits – and use it for every drink you make for yourself. (The size of the jiggers you find may depend on your location – US jiggers measure in ounces, Australian ones in 30ml increments and UK ones in 25ml or 35ml increments.) You can get a cheap one from your nearest restaurant supply store, but if you want to splash out I can recommend the Leopold model by Cocktail Kingdom.
If you drink wine, it also pays to know exactly how large your glasses are and to what level you should fill them. Wine glasses are now, on average, seven times larger than they were in the 1700s, which can lead to inadvertent over-serving based on the “it’s just one glass” principle.
An easy way to find out the ideal fill level is to measure a half-cup (125ml) of water and pour that into your wine glass. Take note of where the water level lies and use that as a target for your wine pours. As a bonus, you’ll find drinking wine more enjoyable with smaller pours, as there will be more space in the glass for the wine’s aromas to express themselves and develop.
2. Get to know and love lower ABV alternatives
Unlike full-fat versus skim milk, lower ethanol levels don’t necessarily mean less flavour. One of the quickest ways to drop your alcohol consumption is to swap your favourite hard spirit for a fortified wine analogue – something that’s on the same wavelength but has less ethanol.
For instance, if you enjoy the herbaceous complexity of gin and tonic, you’ll probably equally enjoy a high-quality vermouth with a splash of soda. If you like to finish your meal off with a finger or two of whiskey or brandy, you might find that a measure of madeira, oloroso sherry or rancio sec does the job just as well.
The world of fortified wines is surprisingly diverse – you can even find a vermouth-based alternative to strawberry liqueur (Dolin’s Chamberyzette) or a quinquina with a pronounced orange flavour that can stand in for a post-dinner Cointreau (Distilleries de Provence’s Orange Colombo).
Fortified wines are often used in cocktails as modifiers – something to soften the blow of the harder spirits. But they also make great bases for cocktails in their own right, as the bamboo cocktail proves. This drink, supposedly the first cocktail to be invented in Japan, drinks like a sherryfied version of a dry martini – it’s the perfect tipple for when you crave a bracing aperitif but don’t want to drink a glass of cold gin.
Make it at home: bamboo
If you find the bamboo cocktail a bit too dry and lenten, you can fatten it up with a teaspoon (5ml) of syrup, made from one part water to one part sugar.
45ml fino or manzanilla sherry
45ml dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash aromatic bitters
Build ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
3. Spend more money on less booze
Cheap booze is a big business; the real robber barons of the booze world aren’t the tiny Burgundian domaines making bottles worth thousands of dollars apiece, but the gigantic corporations making oceans of cheap wine (usually stuffed full of preservatives and flavour and colour enhancers to boot). Many of us habitually drink mass-produced, highly commodified alcohol products because they’re easy to find, cheap and consistent – but they aren’t exactly the peak of bibulous pleasure.
You can get much better bang for buck by spending a little more money. And, having invested in some of the good stuff, you’re more likely to treat it with reverence – one fancy gin and tonic on a weeknight rather than three subpar ones.
Of course, spending more money on alcohol is no guarantee you’ll be getting a better product; the shelves of liquor stores the world over groan under the weight of overpriced pap.
For a better shot at finding something you’ll love, shop at independently owned, specialist liquor stores rather than chain stores that compete on price or supermarket wine sections. The staff employed by these stores tend to be knowledgeable and passionate about their product, and can help you find something nice that’s suited to your budget.
4. Invest in a wine preservation system
If you consume wine regularly at home, you’ll understand the problems posed by the common 750ml bottle format. You want one glass of wine, so you open the bottle – but now the bottle has been opened, the oxygenation process has kicked off, which means the wine is already on its way to becoming vinegar. Better drink another glass or two now and polish off what’s left tomorrow night. It’s a recipe not only for increased consumption but also for a lower quality-to-quantity ratio because it’s hard to justify spending more on wine when drinking it is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.
Fortunately there are ways to maximise the window of time between opening a wine and its oxygenated demise. The current gold standard is the Coravin, which gets around the problem by never actually opening the wine: a thin, hollow needle punctures the cork and the wine that comes out is replaced by non-reactive argon gas. If it sounds very hi-tech, it is – its inventor also works in the biotech industry as the inventor of spinal implants. In practice, though, it feels more like wine sorcery.
Since acquiring one, I’ve been able to enjoy smaller pours of much better wines than I previously drank without worrying about the leftovers turning into expensive vinegar. (There is also an attachment that allows the Coravin to be used on screw-cap wines.)
The only downsides are that it takes a bit of practise to master and it’s not cheap – not just the system itself but also the replacement argon canisters.
If a Coravin sounds like too much hassle, you can still use argon to preserve your wines – simply grab a can of the stuff (sold at most specialty wine shops) and squirt a dollop on top of your wines after you’ve poured a glass. Argon is heavier than air, so it will form a layer over the remaining wine and slow down – but not entirely stop – the oxygenation process, giving you a few extra days in which to enjoy your bottle.
5. Take a few nights per week off – and have a delicious no-booze drink instead
While the jury’s still out on the effectiveness of long periods of abstention from alcohol such as Febfast and Ocsober, there’s merit to giving yourself a few nights per week on the water wagon. The good news is you don’t have to stick to sparkling water or sugary “mocktails”. Thanks to a growing focus on health and wellbeing, bartenders have applied their skills to non-alcoholic drinks, with some delicious results.
Possibly the biggest news in this sphere has been the development of non-alcoholic distilled spirit Seedlip – essentially a non-alcoholic gin analogue that delivers the herbaceous complexity of mother’s ruin, minus the ruin. If you can bear the price – which can equal the cost of a nice bottle of gin – then it’s worth trying with tonic and an extravagant Spanish-style garnish.
But you don’t need expensive distillates to have booze-free fun: any well-balanced drink with a bit of acidity and tannic grip can give much the same satisfaction. Tea is particularly versatile here: think not just iced teas but also kombucha, or tea-based syrups mixed with sparkling water and fresh citrus. Or, for something approaching a classical tiki drink, whip up a Mister Oxford, invented by bartender Matt Siegel.
Make it at home: Mister Oxford
30ml pineapple juice
30ml lemon juice
30ml orgeat (an almond-flavoured syrup)
2 or 3 drops sherry vinegar
Build pineapple juice, lemon juice and orgeat in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake to chill. Strain into a tumbler or old-fashioned glass and top with fresh ice. Drop sherry vinegar over the surface of the drink and garnish with fresh mint, grated nutmeg and, if you have some, pineapple fronds.
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