How Bartenders Can Help Build a Better Drinking Culture

"Guilty Pleasure" seminar panelists Zoe Cormier, Iain Griffiths (Trash Tiki), Jeffrey Kluger (TIME) and Claire Smith-Warner (Belvedere).
The "Guilty Pleasure" panelists discussed the bartender's role in shaping a more productive and healthy drinking culture. From left to right: author Zoe Cormier, Iain Griffiths (Trash Tiki), Jeffrey Kluger (TIME) and Claire Smith-Warner (Belvedere). (Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography)

You can call it preaching to the choir, but the panelists on the Guilty Pleasure seminar at Tales on Tour Edinburgh had a few positive things to say about alcohol.

According to Zoe Cormier, whose book "Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll: The Science of Hedonism" examined the reasons behind the human desire to become intoxicated, our base pursuits need not be denigrated: they are, she said, integral to what it means to be human. Jeffrey Kluger, TIME’s editor-at-large, said that “it’s undeniable that humanity would be poorer without our discovery of alcohol.” Panel host Claire Smith-Warner from Belvedere was even bolder in her enthusiasm, suggesting that the social interaction facilitated by alcohol consumption saves lives.

That, however, is not to say that we cannot all be drinking better.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” said Cormier, “my life is richer and more interesting for having had alcohol in it; however, that being said, we need to be aware of the dangers and how the industry handles these dangers. This was a point taken up by Iain Griffiths, of Trash Tiki and Dandelyan, who said that one of his passions is driving this industry toward professionalism, and that we need to “acknowledge alcohol as the drug that it is, but do some good with it.”

But how can bartenders work toward that? “For me,” Smith-Warner told us, “it’s about responsible drinking in action.” We caught up with her to find out more.

Tell us about taking a more balanced approach to drinking alcohol.

I think that very often our industry dismisses responsible drinking guidelines because we are professionals and we consume alcohol, therefore those guidelines are not meant for us. But we still need to acknowledge the impact that alcohol can have and be more mindful of that and also really think about interesting ways to help the consumer drink responsibly. Moderation shouldn’t be a boring dictat.

How do you do that?

We can actually have a bit of fun; through low alcohol cocktails, through not using sugar in an irresponsible way, by making sure our cocktails are balanced and by using the freshest ingredients.

Zoe (Cormier) looked at how we have the ability to metabolize alcohol. That’s particular to the human race, so in a sense we are built to drink. She argues that to drink is human, so I think it’s almost inevitable that throughout your life you might experience alcohol and for me it’s important that we use the creative power of our industry to ensure that the cocktails we make are there to give the consumer greater choice. They come into our bars very often looking for inspiration, which they often find in the menu, and that menu, or the bartender’s role, is to help guide the consumer to make better choices. So while acknowledging that we will no doubt drink throughout our lives, we also need to acknowledge the role that bartenders have in helping to shape the decisions that we make when we drink.

Ensure that our menus are not confusing that, where we can, we are using sugar moderately. Ensure that our drinks are well balanced, also blend fruits rather than using fruit juice because the fiber in a blended cocktail will slow down the absorption of fructose, which helps mitigate the impact on the liver; use things like coconut fat or coconut cream as another way to slow down the absorption of alcohol. There are strategies that you can put in place to help protect the consumer and ensure that drinking responsibly actually means something more than, ‘we’re not going to over-serve somebody that’s drunk.’ That is not where your responsibility starts and ends. You should be a little more proactive about that.

How did you put the panel together?

I read Zoe’s book and I wanted to explore some of the reasons why we drink and acknowledge that we have the ability to drink and so we need to acknowledge that it is likely that you will consume alcohol, so how can you do that better?

Zoe’s approach is that hedonism needs a rebrand. We often think that eating, drinking and partying are quite primal pursuits but actually there’s been a lot of positivity that comes from exploring through intoxication, whether it’s what we have discovered through LSD or some of the beautiful poetry that’s been written while poets were intoxicated. So a lot of positive things have come out of being intoxicated, but (we should) acknowledge that there are obviously adverse impacts that alcohol can have.

If only Zoe spoke, we’d all have run out and got high, but I wanted to bring it back to the science that falls on the other side of the coin that suggests that ‘yes, we can drink, but should we drink as much or should we drink in this way?’ And acknowledge what happens when we drink too much and when to know to get off the merry-go-round.

I wanted to talk about ways we can look into the responsible consumption of alcohol into other areas. And broaden our responsibility. So it’s not just about not over-serving, it goes into other areas where you can protect your customer.

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