Jonathan Ray

Alcohol Consumption

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Broadcaster Adrian Chiles has got us all clutching our livers in alarm (if we can find them: Chiles thought his was in his back) thanks to his confessional BBC documentary Drinkers Like Me, which details his longstanding reliance on alcohol.

Chiles admits candidly that he drinks anything up to 100 units of alcohol a week, whereas the recommended level in the UK for both men and women is 14, a unit being 8g of pure alcohol, that’s to say a shot of whisky, a third of a pint of beer or half a 175ml glass of red wine. Just for your info – make of it what you will – in New Zealand the recommended limit for men is 19 units per week; in Ireland and Denmark it’s 21 and in Spain it’s 35.

The UK government states further that “there is no level of regular drinking that can be considered as completely safe”. Presumably just as there is no level of regular driving, flying or even walking downstairs that can be considered as completely safe. Just saying.

Sadly, as drinks editor of The Spectator and author of several books on drink I float in the same boat as Mr Chiles: last week I clocked up 110 units. I don’t drink during the day except for the very occasional shirt-popping lunch and don’t open anything before 7pm. But as the clock strikes so out comes the vino and it’s a rare evening that I drink less than a bottle or bottle and a half, be it out on the town or at home.

You know the form: a glass of chilled fino sherry or NZ Sauvignon Blanc as you wind down after work; another whilst you catch up with the rest of the family and ponder what’s for supper; a glass of Mâcon Lugny whilst you’re cooking; a hearty glass of red Bordeaux with the beef stir-fry and another whilst you clear up; a glass of sweet Muscat with a snicket of cheese and finally just a tiny measure of armagnac as you settle down on the sofa.

I’m not proud of this in the slightest, in fact I’m more than a little alarmed now that I detail it. I’m just telling it as it is. Once I’ve started I simply cannot stop. I don’t want to give up (if I did, I would be out of a job, although somehow I manage each January on the water wagon); I do, though, want to cut down dramatically as I’m fully aware that such ridiculous consumption is unsustainable.

One obstacle is that almost all my friends, neighbours and wine trade contemporaries drink (or used to drink) just as much as I do and among them such consumption is not regarded as abnormal. The other obstacle is that I’m awash with alcohol at home. Being a simple hack, I might be cash poor but I’m also wine rich, receiving several cases of wine a week from drinks PRs, supermarkets, producers, agents and importers, not to mention the many wines I get sent to taste for the Spectator Wine Club. And, having just finished writing a book on spirits and liqueurs, I’m currently surrounded by 221 bottles of vodka, gin, cognac, armagnac, tequila, whisky, absinthe, mescal and so on.

Temptation is all around me. If I didn’t write about wine and spirits I wouldn’t drink so much of them but then I wouldn’t write about them if I didn’t like drinking them so much. Oh and the third obstacle is that I’m spectacularly weak-willed. Sigh.

Alcohol is a drug, we all know that. Indeed, when I interviewed a celebrated mixologist recently he pointed out that he was little more than a licensed drug dealer, selling a controlled substance with the express intent of getting folk slightly tipsy or, indeed, pretty much blotto. And that’s the thing, I don’t care what you say or how you dress it up, whether you are the cider-swilling tramp on the park bench or the vintage claret-loving connoisseur in the swanky restaurant, we all drink for the same reason: to get intoxicated to whatever degree. If we didn’t like that slightly (or very) squiffy feeling, we simply wouldn’t do it.

Although still way over the recommended 14 units, I gather Adrian Chiles’s consumption has fallen commendably since his programme. Well done Adrian! And if I follow the dictum (attributed variously to Ernest Hemingway and Peter de Vries) to write drunk, edit sober, at least I’ll be making a start too.

That’s the Spirit! by Jonathan Ray is published by Quadrille in November.

Written byJonathan Ray

Jonathan Ray is the Spectator's wine editor.

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