May 12, 2020

Drinking in the Times of COVID 19

As we all know now, the COVID 19 pandemic has radically altered most facets of our daily lives.  Social and physical distancing has changed the way we drink alcohol as well.  Next to that failed experiment we called “prohibition,” COVID 19 represents the biggest natural experiment related to drinking in modern times.

How has drinking changed?  As the press has widely reported alcohol sales have increased by as much as 55% since the lockdowns began. That alcohol consumption has ostensibly increased is hardly surprising given that two of the main motives people commonly cite for drinking are stress reduction and to offset boredom. COVID 19 and our responses to mitigate it created “ideal” conditions for a spike in drinking.

With social distancing, meeting peers at bars for happy hour, hosting wine-soaked dinner parties, or enjoying a few cold brews at a picnic, was replaced by drinking at home.  Virtual happy hours became a “thing” overnight.  Parents who otherwise wouldn’t socialize over drinks with their college-aged kids, began to have family cocktail hours. Social media blew up with memes depicting morning coffee morphing into midday cocktail hours.  

As we begin to ease social distancing with the prospect of at least another round of the virus and mitigation efforts next fall or winter, what does this all mean for the future of social drinking?  Based on existing science, we can make some educated guesses on the COVID 19 impacts on the trajectory of drinking. 

First, as we return to the new normal, it is likely drinking levels will return back to pre-lockdown levels. Research shows that environmental conditions and opportunity are drivers of drinking behavior.  For instance, once heavy drinking college students enter the work world, their drinking becomes less frequent and heavy. In normal times the responsibilities of daily life will preclude those daily COVID 19 happy hours for most people.

From a health and well-being standpoint, it would be easy to argue that virtual happy hours are a largely positive development in drinking behavior. For many people, the need to connect with others during a common and stressful experience coupled with the fact geographic proximity was no longer a barrier, virtual happy hours provided an opportunity to reconnect with old friends or relatives living elsewhere and bond over a much-needed drink. Beyond social bonding, these happy hours encouraged “tippling” (the art of alcohol fueled conversation), as the mechanics of Zoom both force active listening and time-limited drinking.  Of course, the risk of drinking in one’s own home also reduces the risks of drunk driving and other acute alcohol problems.  Whether virtual happy hours will continue is unknown, but they can teach us a less drunken and more social way to enjoy alcohol.

While COVID 19 will continue to alter much public behavior, it is not clear how drinking in bars will change or whether bars and clubs, as we know them, will survive.  On the one hand, bars can be the source of alcohol-related problems like fights, noise, drunk driving and the like.  On the other hand, bars, pubs, and tap houses—especially smaller independent venues—serve important social functions beyond providing entertainment and contributing to the economy. Such places, as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg argues, are important “third places” (home and work being the first two) that enhance a sense of social connection and community. While many of my colleagues in public health might argue the loss of all bars would be a good thing, I maintain that on the whole, losing smaller community waterholes would be a net loss for society. How public drinking evolves in the age of pandemics remains to be determined, but the shift to smaller bars and pubs with less crowd capacity might be a good thing to emerge from the pandemic.

In the end, COVID 19 illustrates that alcohol and drinking is still deeply ingrained and important in our culture. While its excessive use contributes to myriad health and social problems, lighter drinking can provide social cohesion, comfort and joy for large portions of adults.  My guess is when historians finally get around to looking at everything that happened in the pandemic years from now, a small footnote will mention virtual happy hours and how we drank away the time in the days of COVID 19.

March 19, 2020

Drinking in the Footsteps of Bukowski: One Hazy Night in LA

“And I knew there was a whole civilization of lost souls that lived in and off bars, daily, nightly and forever, until they died.” Charles Bukowski

I like bars. I like going to them, drinking in them, observing how others drink in them. Bars represent the good and the bad things about drinking, culture, and alcohol.  They are the yin and yang—a paradoxical melding of social, physical, and personal space that both stay the same and change over time. In my mind, they are the perfect place to observe social physics in action. A bar can be damned fun, scary, boring, soulless, full of life, happy, and depressing—all in the same night. The breadth of drinking establishments in a given community on a given night radiates a vibrant, albeit tipsy reflection of the times. Bars do not represent the entirety of society, but they do capture a damn big percentage of it. Bars, therefore, are important. As a social scientist/field alcohologist who has studied drinking as in naturally occurs for over two decades, they are always interesting to me. 

Charles Bukowski (source:

Last spring, I was living in downtown Los Angeles and working as a dean at USC.  Being a dean at USC last year, at least in my department, was akin to trying to put a dumpster fire out with a squirt gun filled with jet fuel.  It was a shitty year professionally and I missed research. So, on the night I made my official announcement that I would be stepping down as dean to return to science and fun little distractions like starting a podcast (The Field Alcohologist), I gathered my two young protégé and did the only sensible thing one can do in such situations—I took us on a Bukoswki bar crawl.

For those of you who haven’t heard of LA’s eponymous poet laureate of debauchery, Charles Bukowski lived, wrote, and drank heavily in Los Angeles from the 1960s until his death in 1994.   His writing and poems related to alcohol are both art and valid representations of many aspects of drinking documented in the scientific literature. For drinkers and/readers alike, I highly recommend the book Charles Bukowski On Drinking (Abel Debritto, Editor) for some of the best writing on the drinking experience and heavy drinking I’ve ever read.

Coles French Dip

A famous drinker and character who over-indulged at several LA drinking joints, Bukowski was known to have been a regular at several extant LA bars/restaurants including Coles French Dip (DTLA), The Frolic Room (Hollywood), and Musso and Frank (Hollywood).  For his “drink in” needs, Bukowski also shopped at the Pink Elephant Liquor Store (Los Feliz). 

Our night started in Coles French Dip’s backroom (and unmarked) bar.  Being the elder of out troop—my companions were both in their late 20s—I decided my night would feature straight bourbon (although I vaguely remember a beer and a few glasses of cab thrown in there), while my mentee, RUDDDERMAN, opted for trendy craft cocktails and Michelle, my executive assistant and full-time handler at the time, stuck with classic tequila drinks. The drinks and atmosphere at Coles were enticing—a nice booze selection, friendly staff and a wonderful smell of an decades of steamed beef hanging in the air.  The physical environment looked every bit like an old bar and restaurant should: dark woods and burgundy leather booths and décor representing the history of the place.  Resisting wolfing down a French Dip, our crew grabbed an uber and headed west.

The Frolic Room
The Frolic Room

Our next stop was The Frolic Room.  The place looked the part—dark, cheap drinks, lots of old-timers, a bartender who could have passed for Perry Farrell in the Jane’s Addiction heroin days.  The walls had lights that looked a lot something Mike Brady would have designed. Somehow, the place seems to have evolved in the spirit of what it probably always has been—a neighborhood bar. There was a cool mural on one wall with a scene depicting 1930s era (I’m guessing here) Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was playing on the TV next to the bar without the volume on, a drunk women (possibly a sex worker) was crying loudly in the only bathroom, and Jason Isabell and the 400 Unit was blasting from the Juke Box.  Damn near perfect for a Bukowski bar crawl.

Two rounds later, our little troop of urban field alcohologists, happily strolled into the LA night toward the Burgundy Room. To be clear, we could find no evidence Bukowski never drank in the Burgundy Room— but it is storied Hollywood bar with a really cool history (featured in the film Swingers), and it seemed like a good place to grab another and pee on our way to Musso and Frank.  The bar was darkest I’ve ever seen (think a vampire’s lair), had candles burning and had stiff and reasonably priced drinks (see for more information). It was worth the stop.

Burgundy Room

From the Burgundy Room we walked to Musso and Frank, an LA and Hollywood institution.  Musso and Frank has an old school classy charm that reminded of the Oak Room in Boston’s Fairmont Hotel before the hotel remodeled it and ruined the vibe. The waiters sport red dinner jackets, while the bartenders and bar backs sport crisp white coats.  Similar to Cole’s but a little higher end, the décor features dark wood, murals, and plush leather booths. By chance, we sat in the same spot at the bar featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  After our second round, we struck up a conversation the bartender, Sonny Donato.  Turns out that Sonny is a long-time Hollywood resident, poet and was a friend of Bukowski. He told us about him and Buk downing a few and writing poems on bar napkins—he even pointed out Bukowski’s favorite booth.   Sonny was a true gentleman and in between mixing drinks for the patrons, came back to show us photos of the many celebrities he partied with over the years—Tommy Lee, Tom Waits, among a host of others.  (Check out Sonny’s excellent poetry anthology—A Poet’s Guide to the Bars—available on Amazon).

From the “Once Upon a Night in Hollywood” seat at Musso and Frank
The mural outside Pink Elephant Liquor

By now were all both a little tipsy and tired, so we decided to call it a night.  We hailed our Uber for DTLA, but we somehow ended up at Pink Elephant Liquor.  The place has a real cool mural on the outside and is otherwise just a liquor store. Now restocked and in the spirit of Bukowski, we retired for a nightcap at my place.  As we sipped that last round in near silence on my balcony overlooking a pay lot on Olive Street, we watched a homeless dude piss on a parked, Mercedes below us for the perfect ending to the night.

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