Just Like Old Times?

A Three Part Lamentation on Modern Drinking Culture

 Part 1: Progress?

The idea of progress and drinking has been on my mind lately.  New drink creations, new styles of decor, and re-imaginations of old classics seem to be all the rage.  New technology follows these new trends, be it bars that pitch their Wi-Fi hotspots or boast of countless high-definition televisions.  These technologies have become ubiquitous in bars and pubs, which has made finding a place to quietly enjoy a drink or two away from the noise and bustle of daily life increasingly difficult.

Drinking culture has regressed much since the 1940s and 50s.  Since then the omnipresence of jukeboxes, televisions, and cell phones have all but destroyed bar culture, where once only the din of conversation filled the air.  Noisy, crowded, television-filled mega-bars are fine if you are looking for such a place; if you aren’t, your are likely to find that your options are disappointingly limited.  The modern pace and ambiance – the culture of drink itself – is dramatically different.

Yet have these changes bettered drinking?  What happened to traditional drinking culture, when a man could hang his hat and loosen his tie, order a whisky, and recess into dimly lit booths to conspire and commiserate beneath the background murmur of intimate conversations?

Part 2: Changes for the Worse

Technology has steadily destroyed drinking culture’s casual and relaxed pace.  Today, we consume our oversized drinks against the background of televisions flashing sports games and roaring music, all while surfing the Internet on our smart phones.  Conversation is impossible or undesirable lest the televised sports game be interrupted.  We text, tweet, and email while drinking; our technological connections leave no opportunity to unplug and escape our responsibilities and obligations.  Whereas once a drink would lead to engaging conversations and flirtations, bars are now too often places to watch a game and when alone, update your Facebook status.

An evening out, like air travel, was formerly a prestigious activity in and of itself, not merely a means to an end.  A cocktail was best taken while finely dressed, not in jeans and a sweatshirt.  To be clear: I enjoy relaxed clothing as much as the next guy; yet drinks while formally dressed are indeed pleasurable.  Unfortunately, suits and ties gave way to t-shirts, ripped jeans, and ball caps, which in turn brought an end to the unspoken etiquette of those who take drinking seriously.

Gone are the quietly mysterious taverns – darkly lit havens ushering privacy or friendship, depending on one’s mood – that disappeared along with the deliberate pace, the coat and tie.  In their place stand corporate conglomerates serving mass produced beer and neon colored “extreme” cocktails.  Size has replaced quality, service, and any ability to build friendships with regulars or bartenders.  Cavernous pubs, where light is hardly visible but bonds are strong, have vanished.

Part 3:  Some Positive Developments

To be fair, not all progress is negative; updates and changes do sometimes bring positive benefits, and that is true with the evolution of bar culture as well.  For example, the expansion of breweries throughout the country has been a significant step forward for drinkers in the last five or six decades.  New breweries have enabled Americans to enjoy fine domestic beer, and the majority of such breweries produce niche or craft brews.  Globalization’s growth during the Twentieth Century’s latter half has also brought beer to our doorsteps from around the planet.

Likewise, the number and variety of liquors has grown, due largely to infusion technology unimaginable fifty years ago.  Vodkas now come in any number of flavors, and many are infused with foodstuffs such as coffee beans.  Tequilas come in fruit flavors as well – agave, for instance – especially those prevalently found in South and Central America.  Production techniques have been further refined, resulting in spirits that are distilled multiple times for increased purity and clarity.  Thanks to electronic machinery and an integrated international marketplace – technological and economic progress – the number and quality of drink choices has expanded astronomically.

In addition, progressive health consciousness has led to – for many – a more sociable drinking culture and more enjoyable drinking experience.  Smoking bans, once considered laughable, have taken root in many states and cities.  Although many bar owners feared that such bans would be tantamount to Prohibition, they did not destroy bar culture or diminish bar receipts.  Instead, it is now more acceptable to drink than smoke, an interesting inversion from the Temperance Movement and moon shining common during the 1920s and 30s.

Has progress truly diminished the culture of drink?  Or am I nostalgic for a time period I’ll never be able to experience first-hand?  Can I look at post-World War II popular culture without a sense of loss, without wishing to witness the refinement and civility I consider so lacking in today’s bars?  Perhaps I am dramatic in my rose-colored reflections, my desire for the period so aptly painted by authors like Bernard DeVoto and Barbara Holland.  But I can still remain stalwart in my convictions to preserve drinking culture’s past customs and traditions.  Even if it means occassionally shunning today’s bars and opting for a drink at home after work.  Before I take off my suit, of course.

Published on February 9, 2011 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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