Sober Strategies for Whiskey Camp

Big Fat Cocktails - Sobriety Strategies For Whiskey Camp

I’m not much of a drinker. I was for many years, and I won’t go into great detail here about why I made the change. Suffice it to say, I’ve woken up enough times in enough stupid places to know that it isn’t for me. To be clear, I still drink, just in great moderation. I’ll have a glass of wine with a nice dinner, or maybe a digestif after, but rarely both. I enjoy a cocktail on occasion if I’m visiting a friend’s bar. The other night at an awards gala I cut loose: I had two sips of Viognier, two sips of Cava, most of an excellent glass of Priorat, and a few sips of a coffee and amaro cocktail. It was a big night for me.

This transition has been easier than I worried it would be. In this industry a light drinker is a rare breed, so in an ironic twist being a bartender who doesn’t drink much makes me a rebel who plays by his own rules, at least in my own imagining. The change has been sustainable in part because the rewards were tangible and quick to appear: not consuming a thousand empty calories a day helped me lose a bunch of weight almost overnight, and since it’s easier to stick to an exercise routine when I’m not hung over three times a week, I’ve been able to keep it off. I started saving a surprising amount of money, too, and watching my waistline shrink while my stacks grow is more than enough reward to justify my choice. Perhaps more importantly, my wife doesn’t worry that I’ve died if I’m out past three o’clock in the morning, and there is great truth to the adage that a happy wife means a happy life.

Conversely, while the pros are multitudinous, there have been hardly any cons. Early on I worried that I wasn’t going to like some of my favorite pastimes as much without a good buzz, but it turns out dancing, watching football, and spending time with family are all still highly enjoyable.

That isn’t to say that it’s without its difficulties. One unexpected challenge has been trying to identify the proper language to describe my restrained rate of alcohol consumption. I’m not sober, by any means, I just stopped abusing that particular drug. Usually I use “not much of a drinker”, but that wording is cumbersome and vague. Recently a friend suggested the word “temperate”, that I’m a temperate drinker, and I like that quite a bit. Temperance is a synonym for moderation and self-control, and it has obvious historic associations, but for me it evokes physical geography. I no longer drink with the heated fervor of the tropics, but I haven’t adopted a frigid, polar level of abstinence, either. Instead, I’m living comfortably in a temperate zone, perhaps closer to the poles than most, and life here is pretty good.

While it’s easier than I thought it would be, I won’t pretend that’s always the case. Every now and then I look at a bottle and think, what’s the harm? We can be friends again, right? But we can’t. I might have a taste, but we can never be as tight as before, because ours was an abusive relationship, and I know the harm all too well. Costuming can lead to more specific longing - when it’s forty degrees and I’m wearing hot pants I long for the thick liquid blanket of a strong drink.

I’ve also reached a point in my career where I attend two to four cocktail conferences a year, and these have their own unique pitfalls. The abundance of options, the professional obligation to try as many of them as possible, and the general expectation of constant intoxication create an environment where poor decision making is all but encouraged. My new normal rate of consumption probably sits around a drink or two a week, but during Tales on Tour in Mexico City last year, my first cocktail fandango since cutting back, I decided to loosen the reins a bit. Now, when attending a cocktail conference, I allow myself one whole drink a day and adopt a liberal policy towards sipping. It works. At least, it worked well enough until whiskey camp.

Five days of intensive whiskey education during the day and uber-intense partying at night - it promised all of the pitfalls of a cocktail conference dialed up to eleven. I only knew a couple of people that were going, and none of them were in my cabin, so I was isolated from my usual support network. I was nervous - I didn’t want it to be too obvious that I wasn’t keeping up. I was afraid that all my new camp friends might think I was lame. I also didn’t want to deal with the inevitable question: if you’re not getting drunk, why are you even here? Aren’t you selfishly taking a spot from someone who would actually make the most of this? I was already asking that of myself, and I didn’t really have a good answer. So I hid it, the dirty little secret of my relative sobriety, and in the process developed some great strategies for keeping one’s wits in a cyclone of inebriation.

First, let’s start with a few tips for avoidance.

Just say no. It seems obvious, but it really doesn’t occur to people that this is an option. You don’t have to drink every drink that someone offers. You are an adult, and you have every right to politely decline. If you feel the need to explain, you can say, “Not right now, I need to slow down.” It’s true, and you don’t have to tell them that you’re slowing down for life. As an alternative, …

Bring or find non-alcoholic drinks. I meant to stop on the way to camp and grab a case of Diet Coke (because I’m watching my figure) and a case of soda water, but I after driving through most of the night I wound up sleeping for the final leg of the trip and missing my chance. Still, non-alcoholic drinks are around if you take the time to look for them. There were cans of fruit-flavored sparkling water at most camp events. We were also given sodas with lunch most days - I would usually drink water instead, and squirrel away my soda for later so I could have something soft to enjoy when everyone else was getting down with the hard stuff. When I did, I was sure to …

Use a coozie. If you put a coozie on a can of soda, it looks pretty much the same as a beer. Also, as an added bonus, this act of subterfuge doubles as passive advertising for your business. Only once did someone notice and balk at the fact that I was actually holding a can of Diet Coke instead of a beer, but when he grabbed it to smell and confirm his suspicions, it conveniently reeked of booze. That’s because I was using that can to …

Do a Coyote Ugly. In the film, a newly minted bartender asks one of her more seasoned coworkers how to keep from getting wasted when people want to buy them shots all the time. Instead of turning them down, which might come across as standoffish, the veteran suggests pretending to take the shot and then spitting it into an empty bottle of beer. Turns out this works just as well with an empty can of Diet Coke, and it will simultaneously camouflage that Coke as a cocktail. Bonus! One caveat: as per the veteran’s instructions, don’t mix up your spit beer with the beer you’re actually drinking. That’s not a problem for a secret teetotaler like me, but good advice all the same.

Of course, I’m not really a teetotaler at all. I’m just a temperate drinker. So how, in an environment that in many ways actively discourages moderation, can a person still cut a little loose? Here are some tips for drinking lightly while everyone around you is going hard in the paint.

Take a sip or two, and then leave the rest. Just how big is a sip? According to my research, a small sip is approximately one twentieth of an ounce, so basically nothing. So when someone hands you a drink, if you want to, go ahead and have a sip. Maybe even have another. Then, put it down and walk away. There’s a lot of cultural pressure to finish every drink you start, but don’t buy the hype! People refer to half-finished drinks as “wounded soldiers” and abandoning unfinished cocktails as a form of “alcohol abuse”, but ignore the noise. Is it wasteful? Yes, but alcohol at whiskey camp isn’t exactly a scarce resource, and I’d rather be wasteful than wasted.

This works for shots, too. Is your cabin doing a round of shots, and you don’t have your Coyote Ugly spit can handy? When everyone else takes theirs, just take a sip. Nobody will notice - they’re all throwing their heads back, and if you’re quick you can stack all of their empties around your mostly full shot and then dispose of them all together. It also works for drinking straight from a bottle. Someone takes a slug of whiskey, they hand you the bottle, you take a sip, you hand it to the next person, they take a slug. It all looks the same.

It’s okay to ask for a little one. Let’s say you don’t want to waste good liquor - a noble goal. There’s no shame in asking for a small taste of something instead of a full serving. And if you wind up with a full-sized drink anyway - bartenders are often on autopilot - or with a sample that’s larger than you want, you can still just take two sips and leave the rest, or hand it off to a friend. “Hey, want the rest of this? It’s pretty good.” Trust me, the answer to that question is usually yes.

This works with laybacks, too, to a certain extent. A layback is the practice of pouring a drink directly from a bottle into the mouth of the drinker. It looks and feels more decadent than it is - a normal layback is probably about an ounce, which is less than a normal shot, but it has the appearance of wild abandon. It can also be as little or as much as the pourer wants. As a general rule, if you’re trying to avoid intoxication, doing a layback is probably a bad idea, since you have to cede some control over your own consumption. Nonetheless, you may find yourself in a situation where not taking a layback will cost you social and professional currency. When this happens, there’s no shame in asking the pourer to take it easy. They’ll understand, maybe not the full scope of what you’re up to, but at least what it means in that moment.

Stick to one full drink per day. You’ve been so good. You have access to some of the rarest, most exquisite spirits in the world. It’s okay to treat yourself. Once. Per. Day. And only once per day. Be real about this - don’t take the opportunity for a “whole drink” to pour yourself a soup terrine of bourbon. Find something special and unique, or an old favorite, or a drink mixed by someone whose skill is worthy of the honor. Procure a reasonable serving, and savor it. Knowing that it’s the only real drink you’ll have that day can take a beverage that was already great and elevate it to legendary status.

That’s pretty much it. So, how effective were these strategies? Did I get drunk at whiskey camp? No. By the standards of camp I was never drunk. If we’re being perfectly honest, though, it’s hard to tell. I may have been the least drunk person at camp, but that’s a relative measurement. A liberal attitude towards sipping is bound to catch up with a person eventually, and staying up until three in the morning and getting up at eight for a week straight will make even a straight-edge kid feel a little loopy. By the end of the last night it was hard to tell if I had finally gotten a little tipsy or if I was just exhausted. It was probably a little of both.

I remember going to bed every night, though, and I don’t think that would have happened if I had gone to camp the year before. And while I didn’t drink as much liquor as the rest of the camp, I did wind up drinking the proverbial Kool Aid. I didn’t really have a solid reason for going to begin with, just some vague ideas about professional development and building a national network. For the first day or two I felt old, out of place, and as though I had missed my chance to really enjoy the experience. By the end, though, I was having a really good time. I learned a lot, made new friends, and, especially since I wasn’t wasted, left with some really good memories.

There’s really only one thing I would change. If I am fortunate enough to be selected for camp again this year, I’ll be honest and upfront about the fact that, thankfully, I’m still not much of a drinker.






Cole Newton is the owner, general manager, head bartender, and, as necessary, handyman, bouncer, and janitor at Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans. This column was adapted from his advice blog Big Fat Cocktails, which you can follow at

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