Dr. Lisa Ryan, Head of Department of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition at Atlantic Technological University and Scientific Advisory Council member of KHNI discusses the benefits of reducing alcohol on health and mindfulness with Derek Brown, a renowned author, wellness coach, bartender and Founder of Positive Damage. Discover key insights into the benefits of reducing alcohol, the concept of mindful drinking, and innovative non-alcoholic beverage options for social settings. Whether you’re considering a healthier lifestyle or curious about the intersection of nutrition and alcohol, this insightful discussion is a must-watch.
What is Mindful Drinking?
A perspective by Derek Brown; author, wellness coach, bartender and founder of Positive Damage.
The holidays can be joyful and connect us with loved ones. But it’s also a time where the alcohol flows freely, from feasting with family to toasting the year’s end. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the holiday season without a glass of eggnog or Champagne. But what is tradition––and part of our celebrations––can lead to drinking out of habit, conformity, and peer pressure. And, sometimes, it can lead to drinking much more than you intended.
However, more and more, the scientific consensus is that little to no alcohol is the best approach to health and that previous studies suggesting alcohol could have a positive effect on health––especially the French Paradox that suggested wine had protective factors against cardiovascular disease––were biased or neglected to consider certain factors such as “sick quitters,” which are participants that quit alcohol for health reasons. Some governments, such as Canada, have gone so far as saying there is no amount of alcohol that is healthy.
Whether you drink or not, there remains a need to be social and have complex adult-sophisticated beverages. It can feel isolating and frustrating if you don’t drink or are drinking less than everyone else. And social wellness is an important aspect of our health––we should spend time with our friends and family. On top of that, alcohol is often a part of our cultural foodways. It doesn’t just connect us to our family and friends, it connects us to where we’re from and our past.
With alcohol playing such an important role in our lives and culture, it’s hard to ignore it. But also with all of the health implications, it’s important to be deliberate in the way that we drink (or don’t drink) alcohol.
The solution to this is mindful drinking.
Mindful drinking is a self-led strategy to drink (or not drink) in a way that supports your goals, health or otherwise. This self-directed approach is really just drinking with intention. With mindful drinking, you can choose not to drink alcohol, to drink some alcohol, or even substitute alcohol with delicious no- and low-alcohol beers, wines, and cocktails. It’s about making choices that support your goals. And those choices are getting better all the time.
Where does Mindful Drinking Come From?
There have been a number of different phrases to express reducing or eliminating alcohol in the past decade such as “sober curious” and “sober-ish.” Books like “Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life” by Rosamund Dean and “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol” by Ruby Warrington have inaugurated a movement to drink more mindfully. There are also newly emerging terms such as “tempo drinking” and “flex drinking,” which indicate when someone is switching back and forth between no- and low-alcohol drinks based on the occasion. All of these fall under the category of mindful drinking.
Mindful drinking may be a trend but it also has roots in traditional wisdom and foundational religious texts. In the 19th century, there was a movement to reduce the way we drink called Temperance that found a stronghold in the United States and was eventually hijacked by zealots, leading to the Prohibition of the sale and transportation of alcohol in the United States between the years 1919 and 1933. However, mindful drinking in its more contemporary form is more about individual consumption and less about governmental policy, culture, or religion. Anyone can adopt mindful drinking and set the rules for themselves.
Try Dry January
January is a great time to start drinking mindfully. During Dry January, people generally take a break from alcohol for the entire month. Although some may choose to practice “Damp” or “Dryish January,” drinking less alcohol than they normally might. Either approach can help you explore your own drinking habits during a time when other people are doing the same. There are even some studies that suggest the effects of Dry January can be seen for months after.
The important thing to remember is that you set the rules. Therefore, drinking in a way that meets your goal is a higher priority than purity or perfection. You can break the rules for one night if a friend is in town or decide you’re going to only reduce alcohol on the weekends. This is not to say you shouldn’t give it a sincere try, but that black or white thinking may even be a hindrance to achieving the month’s goal.
Incorporating Non-Alcoholic Beverages
One of the best ways to achieve your goals around mindful drinking is by substituting delicious no- and low-alcohol drinks, including non-alcoholic beers, wines, spirits, and cocktails. This has even been shown to reduce the amount of alcohol people drink in a recent Japanese study. Instead of concentrating on what you aren’t drinking, focus instead on trying new things. And no- and low-alcohol products are not just growing but also getting better.
At one point in time, non-alcoholic beverages were relegated to syrupy sweet mocktails and bad tasting non-alcoholic brews. However, over the past few years we’ve seen a tremendous growth in both the number and quality of non-alcoholic beverages. Perhaps one of the largest growth areas has been non-alcoholic beer. However, non-alcoholic wine and spirits are also growing, too. Then there are the cocktails, which range from ready-to-drink cocktails to cocktails made on the spot using fresh ingredients.
Making Non-Alcoholic Cocktails
In my book, “Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails,” I outlined four sensory characteristics that make great non-alcoholic cocktails. Really, these characteristics are what distinguish a non-alcoholic cocktail from other non-alcoholic beverages like ice tea.
I came up with the sensory characteristics after thinking about cocktails like the Tom Collins. The only thing that distinguishes a Tom Collins from lemonade is the gin. What characteristics does the gin add besides gin’s unique flavors?
Intensity of Flavor
Alcohol has an intense flavor itself but it’s also a great solvent. Therefore alcoholic drinks from flavored vodka to Bourbon include strong flavors from additives such as extracts or barrel aging. Using strong flavors in non-alcoholic drinks can help to mimic this sensory characteristic. This might include over-steeping tea or packing in more spices and herbs.
Piquancy is that burn you get from the alcohol itself. Another way to say this is stopping power––cocktails contain some element we don’t usually enjoy drinking by itself. And, though it may seem counterintuitive, this is what makes cocktails so delightful. Ideally, it slows us down and makes us sip the drink slower and more thoughtfully. For non-alcoholic cocktails that element can include bitter, sour, or spice. Think gentian (a bitter root used in bitters) or capsicum (spicy peppers).
Cocktails are also richer than juice or tea. They carry more weight and mouthfeel. This is partly from syrups and juice but also from the alcohol. To get a similar mouthfeel with non-alcoholic cocktails, you might use salt tincture or aquafaba (chickpea water). You can also use fresh juices that are high in pectin.
Lastly, there is length or volume, which is the amount of liquid that is not from juice or sugar. In a cocktail with alcohol, this is usually the spirit. There are a number of things to use in place but also non-alcoholic spirits are a great way to replicate the flavor profiles of classic spirits such as Gin, Bourbon, and Tequila.
Ultimately it’s not just the taste but the ritual, too. It’s fun to make non-alcoholic cocktails and you can substitute them on occasion whether it’s Dry January or just because you have a big meeting the next day.
No matter how we choose to drink, mindful drinking can be there to help make your choices more intentional. We can’t always, and likely shouldn’t, avoid our friends and family when alcohol is present. And we can’t always avoid the pressure to drink alcohol. But we can be deliberate and choose to substitute non-alcoholic beverages when the occasion calls for it.
Derek Brown is an author, NASM-certified wellness coach, and founder of Positive Damage, Inc. Previously, Brown owned Spirited Awards 2017 “Best American Cocktail Bar” Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., and was one of the nation’s top bartenders.
Brown published his first book, Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World in 2019, and was named 2020 “Author of the Year” at the Nightclub & Bar Show Awards. He published his second book, Mindful Mixology: a Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails in 2022.
Brown has been recognized as a leading beverage figure affecting positive change in the global bar industry by Drinks International in 2020 in their “Bar World 100” list and as “one of the most inspirational people and places that will shape how we drink in 2023” in Imbibe magazine’s “Imbibe 75” for 2023