Simon J Woolf reflects on his alcohol consumption during January. Was it normal, moderate or just plain unhealthy? How does it compare with the wine industry and what are the lessons learned?

Simon J Woolf not enjoying an empty glass

If you documented every alcoholic drink you drank for a month, would you be comfortable with the results?

That’s what I did during January, as a personal reality check, and also as a reaction to the ‘Dry January’ initiative, which (as I explained in my previous post) is fundamentally flawed. Being honest about one’s own alcohol consumption feels similar to having awkward conversations about money or sex. I see myself as a ‘normal’, functioning, healthy individual who nonetheless enthusiastically enjoys a range of beverages (wine, craft beer, occasional cocktails or other mixed drinks). Drinking is a part of my everyday social life. it’s an activity shared pleasurably with friends, family and partner.

According to this Wikipedia page, recommended alcohol consumption for a male varies from country to country. The Netherlands, where I live, has one of the most extreme optimum recommendations: zero consumption of alcohol. Up to 10gr pure alcohol per day (barely even a small glass of light wine) is the suggested advisable limit. The UK Medical council’s advice, famously revised downwards in 2016, is also very low: a total of 14 units per week, where each unit is 8gr of pure alcohol – making a small (125ml) glass of wine around 1.5 units, or more if it starts to stray south of 13% ABV.

Would the mere act of documenting what I drank cause a behaviour change? It did on more than one occasion, especially early in the month before the novelty had worn off. I refused a couple of night-caps, and became more vigilant in tipping away wine I wasn’t enjoying.

Increasing risk

That said, analysing the months’ intake makes it very plain that I drink significantly more than the recommended amounts in most countries. During January, my weekly UK units ranged between 27 – 42 (my monthly total was a scary 166). I’m barely clinging to Italy’s generous recommendation of up to 40gr pure alcohol per day (3-4 glasses of wine), but in the Netherlands and the UK I’d be regarded as a binge-drinker or even a medical problem waiting to happen. The UK’s drinkaware site assesses me as follows: “Your drinking is dangerous to your health, increasing your risk of serious health problems including seven types of cancer, liver and heart disease, and high blood pressure. Unless you cut down you are at risk of damaging your health.” (An aside: Whether I input a week with 30 units or my most extreme week with 42 units, the assessment was unchanged)

 

How did colleagues in the wine industry react to my reporting? By-en-large, it was met with stoic indifference. I am no social media celebrity, but the tweets that I posted with the #MyJanuary tag (mostly nightly consumption updates) got far lower engagement than my other online content. Perhaps they were just plain boring? Or could it be that some of my colleagues in the wine sector found the topic a bit queasy?

I received one comment which trotted out the macho “you’re not drinking enough!” trope. It was a response to a fairly mild (by my standards) Friday night out:

 

No-one commented that I was drinking too much, although a couple of twitter-pals nervously inquired at intervals “Was that your first alcohol-free day this month?” (spoiler – I had six alcohol free days in total during January).

January should have been an easy month to drink moderately. I didn’t travel at all, I attended almost no major wine tastings and social engagements were moderate. Yet, as is clear in the detail below, I found ample opportunities for socially-acceptable boozing, and no shortage of willing companions. Needless to say, this did not require hook-ups with street drinkers, just normal social engagements with friends.

Healthier and happier?

So what did this exercise accomplish? I’ve confirmed that I drink at the top end (or beyond) of what would be considered healthy. But this is almost certainly not unusual within my peer group (age, class, income bracket, industry). It’s difficult to fully substantiate, as most people under-report their intake. Resisting the urge to under-report during January required considerable will-power on my part.

There’s a more serious issue here: because countries such as the UK and Netherlands have set their recommended limits so far below socially normalised levels of drinking, there is a risk of those limits being counterproductive. Many regular drinkers (who do not fit into the problem drinker or functioning alcoholic category) tend to regard the 14 UK units a week (about 9 small glasses of wine, or 1.5 75cl bottles) as an absurdity. And if the weekly recommended limit feels absurd, that prompts a devil-may-care attitude – “I’m drinking more than is advised anyway, so what the hell?”

I’m certainly not against restraint. Initiatives to keep alcohol consumption within healthy limits are to be welcomed, especially alongside a message to drink better but drink less. I strive every year (with some success) to be fitter, healthier and happier. But the poisoned narrative that so often seems to accompany research or articles about the dangers of alcohol doesn’t support this goal. See this recent example in the FT. Although it’s a reasonably balanced piece, the language often gets emotive. There’s plenty of talk about drinkers “slowly killing themselves” and of “courting death”. As the article also mentions the relatively minor additional risks of drinking moderately, much of this language feels like hyperbola.

 

Excerpt from article in the FT, 14 Feb 2020

Not so easy

#MyJanuary also illustrated the considerable challenges of monitoring consumption (an important first stage in assessing whether further action is necessary). Cocktails and glasses of wine at a friend’s house don’t come in neat 125ml measures. Serving sizes in bars and restaurants span a bewildering range (was that draft beer 25cl, 30cl or 33cl?), and alcohol levels are often not stated on menus or wine lists. Keeping track of it all requires sharp eyes and a quick mind – precisely what one tends not to have as successive libations are broached.

Aside from navel-gazing about the tension between the drinks industry and the anti-alcohol brigade, I needed a personal take-away. Was I shocked by my own consumption? Only slightly. I wasn’t expecting this to be pretty. Do I intend to change my ways? I have no desire to give up, but could I work towards staying within the 14 UK Unit limit? Right now, my aim is to stay within the old UK limit of 28 units for men. This is the level of consumption which, for me, appears to keep health and conviviality in balance. It cannot be stated strongly enough that choices like this are highly personal.

You’ll find the full details of my fairly average month below, together with bottle shots of some of the most delicious poisons ingested.

Here’s to a conscious, yet enjoyable year.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Wed January 01

Not included: Everything that I drunk after midnight on 31st Dec! Oops.

Sharpener at Arends’ Nest beer bar

1 x Draft Beer 25cl @ 6.8% = 1.7 units

Dinner at home

1.5 glasses Weingut Tauss Weissburgunder 2012 (half-bottle) total 187.5cl @ 12.5% = 2.3

4 UNITS

Thu January 02

First dry day of the month

0 UNITS

Fri January 03

Butchers Tears beer bar (the new one by the Markt Cantine)

1 x Animal Space 250ml @ 5.2% = 1.3

1 x Green Cap 250ml @ 6% = 1.5

1 x Bierkeller 250ml @ 4.8% = 1.2

Mamas & Tapas restaurant

2 x glasses Clandestino de Menada (Tempranillo), total 250ml @ 14.5% = 3.6

7.6 UK UNITS

WEEKLY TOTAL = 11.6 UK UNITS (Part week of 3 days, expanded to the theoretical 7 days = 27 units)

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Sat January 04

Beer after squash game @ Match sports club

Vedett Extra White 330ml @ 4.7% = 1.5

Party at a friend’s house

Aperol Spritz (c. 70ml Aperol @ 11%, c. 70ml Prosecco @ 11.5) = 1.6

Prosecco 175ml @ 11.5% = 2

Alentejo Red 50ml @ 14% = 0.7 (dumped the rest as it was disgusting)

Wolmuth Zwiegelt 125ml @ 13% = 1.6

1.5 glasses Le Volte de Ornellaia, total 200ml @ 13.5% = 2.7

Entirely forgettable champagne 100ml @ 12% = 1.2

Demi-sec champagne 50ml @ 12% = 0.6 (dumped most of it, ugh)

Adding an extra unit as I think I drunk more forgettable champagne after that: = 1

12.9 UK UNITS

Sun January 05

Lunch at home

½ Løwlander White Ale 165ml @ 5% ABV = 0.8 units

½ Jopen Mooie Nel IPA 165ml @ 6.5% = 1

Boat trip – light festival

Albert Heijn Chilean red wine 125ml @ 12.5% = 1.5 (Didn’t really want to drink this, but it was a kind purchase by friends who came on the boat trip with us)

Krua Thai Restaurant

2 x Singha Beers, total 660ml @ 5% = 3.3

6.6 UK Units

Mon January 06

Second dry day of the year

0 UK UNITS

Adamy Urziger Wurzgarten Alte Reben 2016Tue January 07

Dinner at home

½ Brewdog Clockwork Tangerine 165ml @ 4.5% ABV = 0.7

3 glasses Adamy – Ürziger Würzgarten 2016 375ml @ 12% = 4.5

5.2 UK UNITS

Wed January 08

Aperitif at 5 Brothers Fat

Brut Nature Cava – 100ml @ 12.5% = 1.2

Dinner at Nnea (hipster pizza joint)

3 glasses Casa Setaro – Munazei (Piedirosso) 2018 375ml @ 13% = 4.8

6 UK UNITS

Thu January 09

Third dry day of the month
(Well, I drank a 330cl bottle of beer with 1% ABV – that’s a total of 0.3 units)

Coco Farms / 10R - Zwiegelt 2016Fri January 10

Dinner at home

Aperol Spritz – Aperol 50ml @ 11%, Cremant de Bourgogne (Lidl’s finest!) 70ml @ 12% = 1.4

Cremant de Bourgogne 125ml @ 12% = 1.5

2 glasses Coco Farms/10R Zwiegelt 2016 – total 250ml @ 12% = 3

5.9 UK UNITS (not 5.4 as wrongly calculated in original tweet!)

WEEKLY TOTAL = 36.6 UK UNITS

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Sat January 11

Poker game at home

8 x 25cl beers @ average of 5% = 10 (impossible to keep track accurately, particularly as I was the host)

2 shots whisky, total 60ml @ 40% = 2.4

12.4 UK UNITS (So I consumed almost the UK recommended weekly limit in one night. Oops)

Sun January 12

Brouwerij Het Ij Session IPA 330ml @ 4.5% = 1.5

Lowlander IPA 330ml @ 6% = 2

3.5 UK UNITS

Mon January 13

Fourth dry day of the month

Tue January 14

3 glasses Mlecnik Cuvée Ana 2011 375ml @ 12.5% = 4.7

3 glasses Tenuta Grillo Pecoranera 2004 375ml @ 14% = 5

Nikka single malt whisky 43% @ 30ml = 1.2

10.9 UK UNITS

Thirsty Wednesday

Wed January 15

Wine tasting at Wine Professionals

C. 21 wines tasted and spat. Assume average 13% and equiv of 125cl ingested = 1.6

Dinner at home with some thirsty Slovenian friends

ACV Talha Branco 2017 125mll @ 13% = 1.6

2 glasses Wachter Wiesler Eisenberg Alte Reben 2015, total 250ml @ 13.5% = 3.3

2 glasses Ch Musar 1995, total 250ml @ 14% = 3.5

2 glasses Oude Geuze Boon Black Label 250cl @ 7% = 1.7

11.7 UK UNITS

Thu January 16

Baltika export beer 470ml @ 5.4% = 2.5 (have to say, it wasn’t very nice)

2.5 UK UNITS

Fri January 17

Evening at home, working on deadline

Quinta do Infantada Tinto Bio 2015, 125ml @ 13% = 1.6

1.6 UK UNITS

Mlecnik - Cuvee Ana 2014WEEKLY TOTAL = 42.6 UK UNITS

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Sat January 18

Post squash beers at Sport club Match

2 x Vedett Extra White, total 660ml @ 4.7% = 3.1

Evening at home

3 glasses Mlecnik Cuvée Ana 2014, total 375ml @ 11% = 4.1

7.2 UK UNITS

Sun January 19

Afternoon walk and stop at Brouwerij t’Ij’s cafe in the Vondelpark

Brouwerij het Ij session IPA 25cl @ 4% = 1

Evening at home

½ Kompaan Restless IPA 165ml @ 6% = 1

½ Cloudwater Soft & Juicy IPA (Can) 22cl x 6.5% = 1.4

3.4 UK UNITS

Mon January 20

Fifth dry day of the month

0 UK UNITS

Tue January 21

Dinner at home

3 glasses La Biancara Chenin Blanc 2011 (skin contact), total 375ml @ 12.5% = 4.7

4.7 UK UNITS

Wed January 22

Aperitif at Bar Ramona

Two Chefs – Funky Falcon (draft) 300ml @ 5.2% = 1.6

Dinner at Pazzi (pizza restaurant)

Valli Unite Bianchino 2018 125ml @ 13% = 1.6

Later at home

Ansitz Waldgries St. Magdalener 2017 125ml @ 12.5%= 1.6

4.8 UK UNITS

Thu January 23

Dinner at Goldmund restaurant

Pares Balta Cava 100ml @ 12% = 1.2

(BYO wines)

2 glasses Union des producteurs Montagny 2014, total 250ml @ 12.5% = 3.1

2 glasses Weininger Gemischter Satz Nussberg Ried Ulm 2017, total 250ml @ 13.5% = 3.4

7.7 UK UNITS

Fri January 24

Samples tasting @ Angolo Vinoso

Tasted/spat 10 wines + drank 1/2 gl Mlecnik Ana Cuvee 2014 (11%) – so c. 125ml @ 12% = 1.5

Dinner at home

2 glasses Zorah Karasi Areni Noir 2017, total 250ml @ 13.5% = 3.4

4.9 UK UNITS

WEEKLY TOTAL = 32.7 UK UNITS

Zorah - Voski 2017Sat January 25

Lunch at home

½ Polly’s Brew Co Pale Ale (Can) 220ml @ 5.2% = 1.1

Evening at home

Gin & Tonic 45ml Styrian Gin @ 44% = 2

2 glasses Zorah Voski 2017, total 250ml @ 14% = 3.5

2 glasses Zorah Heritage Chilar 2018 250ml @ 13% = 3.2

9.8 UK UNITS (originally miscalculated in tweet as 10.8 units)

Sun January 26

Boozy brunch @ Little Collins West

1 x Espresso Martini (no idea about alc. content, guessing 2 units)

2 UK UNITS

Mon January 27

Sixth dry day of the month

Tue January 28

Evening at home

Gin & Tonic 40ml Duke Munich dry @ 45% = 1.8

½ De Molen Op & Top 165ml @ 4.5% = 0.7

½ Bruut Eigenweiss 165ml @ 5.2% = 0.9

1.5 glasses Zorah Heritage Chilar ’18 190ml @ 13% = 2.5

Zorah Karasi 2017 125ml @ 13.5% = 1.7

7.6 UK UNITS

Wed January 29

Dinner at home

Hareter – Sankt Laurent 2014 125ml @ 12% = 1.5

Walk & Cocktail at Parakeet

White Negroni (Smoked Mezcal, Sake, Vermouth) guesstimated at 2 units (didn’t like it, why mess with the classics)

3.5 UK UNITS

Thu January 30

Unnecessary aperitif at home

Kompaan Orange Blanc 330ml @ 3% = 0.9

Club 8 Pool hall with friends

Heineken 250ml @ 5% = 1.2

2 x Afligem Blond, total 600ml @ 6.8% = 4

Paulaner Weizen 330mll @ 5.5% = 1.8

7.9 UK UNITS

Fri January 31

Aperitif @ 4850

Roxanich Malvazija Antica 2010 125ml @ 13% = 1.6

Mencia 125ml @ 14.5% = 1.8

Dinner @ Bambino

3 glasses Tutto Anfora 2018, total 375ml @ 12% = 4.5

2 glasses Col Fondo Prosecco, total 250ml @ 11.5% = 2.9

Some additional freebies (small tastes brought by the sommelier) = 1

11.8 UK UNITS

WEEKLY TOTAL = 42.6 UK UNITS

MONTHLY TOTAL = 166.1 UK UNITS (Average around 36 units a week)