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.

March 19, 2020

Drinkin’ Joints 1: A Pack of Two – Review of Raised by Wolves (La Jolla, CA) and The Wolves (Los Angeles, CA)

There is a certain charm to old bars.  Whether they be the Bukowski-esque dive bar with years of alcohol-infused grime, or the classic hotel bar (i.e., Boston’s Fairmont Hotel Oak Room or the Waldorf’s Bull and Bear in NYC) hailing back to a simpler time.  Concept bars with a vintage vibe, attempt to reimage those classic bars with a meld of the modern and the classic. Nattily dressed bartenders, dark woods, marble bars, craft cocktails…you get the gist.  Whether these bars slip into some Disney-like recreation or hit the mark is a matter of detail and execution.

I recently had the chance to check out two such establishments in SoCal, that both for no apparent reason, adopted lupine-based monikers.  

I visited Raised By Wolves on a Friday night.  The speakeasy concept bar is located in La Jolla’s University Town Center (UTC). The surprise of the “speakeasy” hidden inside a liquor store is ruined by the fact you need a reservation to get into this place two weeks in advance. The façade of the building straight out of a Sherlock Holmes movie set with faux stone walls and menacing wolves head statues glaring who, during the day, stare down on the rich girls running between the Keto eatery, Nordstroms, and the waxing spa. 

The Not So Secret Passage in Raised by Wolves, La Jolla, CA.

Once inside, the front room is a modern, bright and airy high-end spirits store.  Bottles of small batch rum, whiskey, gin, bourbon, and vodka are tastefully displayed in locked glass cases and modern looking shelves.  The $2000 bottle of Pappy seems right at home in UTC. The liquor store features a large stone fireplace with two chairs—that looks widely out of place in the modern environment of the liquor store.  Two 20 something hosts with iPads check reservations and, when it’s their turn, sit guests on the chairs next to the Haunted Mansion looking fireplace and spin them through the not so secret passage into the main bar.

The main bar is a reasonable approximation of 1920s era New York City speakeasy.  High ceilings, Tiffany style lights, a lovely main bar and soft lighting.  The bartenders look the part in crisp white shirts and vests. The only out of place décor are the Victorian looking portraits of wolves on the walls. 

Raised by WolvesMain Bar

The cocktail menu is your standard craft cocktail affair—variations of old-fashions, Manhattan’s and less traditional concoctions. The prices are worthy of UTC and the drinks were good.  Granted I’m older than the average Raised by Wolves patron by a long shot, but I found the overall vibe inside a bit trendy and soulless.

In contrast is DTLA’s The Wolves looks and feels like a 1920s establishment you might find in any big city. The space features a large marble bar, a wall of fine spirits, aged dark woods with ornate carvings, a twisted iron stair case, cozy booths, vintage tiles and glass. All of the décor was period correct, and according to the bartender, was carefully selected from a variety of sources.  It looked so original that my companion asked about the history of the building. This place felt and looked like an old bar.

The Wolves, Los Angeles

 The bartenders were dressed in the classic “barman” style—vest, white shirts, ties and the like.  Yes, both bartenders on the Thursday night I visited looked a bit hipster with beards and Peaky Blinders hair styles, but with the exception of an odd affectation of the one black glove they each sported on their left hands, they looked the part.  

The drinks where prepared with flare and exceeded standard craft cocktail standards.  Drinks were presented in classic glassware on pewter trays and tasted excellent.  The prices were typical for DTLA (read: stupidly high).  The small plates were excellent as well, although more a mash-up of new and old recipes. The deviled pesto quail eggs for instance, where excellent but not something one would expect in a classic bar. The vibe was relaxed, urban and not at all trendy. Overall, this wolf, is one I would visit again and can recommend.  

To be fair to both places, the number of truly classic bars in finite, and in SoCal it’s hard to find a drinking hole that has been around more than a couple decades. The desire to recreate the classic, classy drinking place is understandable, and in some ways a nice nod to our drinking past.

March 17, 2020

Drinkin’ Songs 5 (St. Patrick’s Day Edition) : Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced by Dropkick Murphys

There is nothing like a good old Irish drinking song.  Being old school and this being St. Patrick’s Day I was tempted to pick one of The Pouges many great drinkin’ songs (and former Pouges’s front man Shane McGowen is arguably the punk poet laureate of drunken songs), but I decided we will save gems like Fairytale of New York for our Christmas edition. Given our current COVID 19 global funk, something a little more up tempo seemed in order.  The Dropkick Murphys 2003 (on the album Blackout) classic, Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced fits the bill. The band is generously doing a livestreamed show– no audience show for free in response to the COVID 19 crisis.  Checkout the information here: . Pop a Guinness Stout or pour a dram of Ireland’s finest whiskey and forget about the damn plague for a while. Slainte! 

To see the band perform the song check out this YouTube video or many of the other posted versions:

Here are the lyrics:

I play in a band, we’re the best in the land 
We’re big in both Chelsea and France 
I play one mean guitar and then score at the bar 
There’s a line of chicks waiting for their chance 
So come on now honey, I’ll make you feel pretty 
These other gals mean nothing to me 
Let’s finish these drinks and be gone for the night 
‘Cause I’m more than a handful, you’ll see 

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

I can bench-press a car, I’m an ex-football star 
With degrees from both Harvard and Yale
Girls just can’t keep up, I’m a real love machine 
I’ve had far better sex while in jail 
I’ve designed the Sears Tower, I make two grand an hour 
I cook the world’s best duck flambé 
I’ll take the pick of the litter, girls jockey for me 
I don’t need these lines to get laid 

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

I’m a man of the night, a real ladies’ delight 
See my figure was chiseled from stone 
One more for the gal, then I’ll escort her home 
Come last call, I’m never alone
I’ve a house on the hill with a red water bed 
That puts Hugh Hefner’s mansion to shame 
With girls by the pool and Italian sports cars 
I’m just here in this dump for the game

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

Ahh, fuck it
Who am I shitting? 

I’m a pitiful sight, and I ain’t all that bright 
I’m definitely not chiseled from stone 
I’m a cheat and a liar, no woman’s desire 
I’ll probably die cold and alone 

But just give me a chance, ’cause deep down inside 
I swear I got a big heart of gold 
I’m a monogamous man, no more one-night stands 
Come on, honey, let me take you home 

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers (It was tiny!)
And I only bought her one round

One road!

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

So kiss me, I’m shitfaced
I’m soaked, I’m soiled and brown 
In the trousers, she kissed me
And I only bought her one round

February 26, 2020

Drinkin’ Songs 4: Thrash Unreal by Against Me

For anybody who is a little bit older than 30, you can probably think back drinking in a college bar or young adult and seeing someone that long overstayed his or her stay.  Ben Fold’s song Silver Street is a nice example of the male version of this person who can’t seem to transition into adulthood.  While that song is mildly depressing, Thrash Unreal by Against Me is a darker version of this phenomena with a female taking on the “over the hill” role. Sure, the heroine of the song is probably on now on heroin, but at it’s a heart I think the song is about the dark side of the bar and party scene that starts with drinking. It’s a drinkin’ song in spirit. It also feature a lyric that I often find best describes what I’ve found repeatedly I my research : “Sometimes the party takes you places you never really planned on going.” 

I was lucky enough to see Against Me singer and guitarist, Laura Jane Grace (at the time still Tom Gable) perform this song solo at the Casbah, San Diego’s landmark alt music watering hole.  Laura was part of the Revival Tour and the alt-star lineup featured Ben Nichols (Lucero), Tim Barry,  and Chuck Ragan. This song was the highlight of the night.  You can hear it here:

Here are the lyrics:

If she wants to dance and drink all night
Well, there’s no one that can stop her
She’s going till the house lights come up or her stomach spills onto the floor
This night is gonna end when we’re damn well ready for it to be over
Worked all week long, now the music is playing on our time
Yeah, we do what we do to get by, and then we need a release

You get mixed up with the wrong guys
You get messed up on the wrong drugs
Sometimes the party takes you places that you didn’t really plan on going
When people see the track marks on her arm, she knows what they’re thinking
She keeps on working for that minimum
As if a high school education gave you any other options, you know

They don’t know nothing about redemption
They don’t know nothing about recovery
Some people just aren’t the type for marriage and family

No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to sleep alone
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to sleep alone

She’s out of step with the style
She don’t know where the action’s happening
You know the downtown club scene ain’t nothing like it used to be
You reach a point where there’s not a lie in the world
That you could use to make the boys believe you’re still in your twenties
But they keep getting younger, don’t they, baby?

She’s not waiting for someone to come over and ask for the privilege
She can still here that rebel yell just as loud as it was in 1983, you know
There ain’t no Johnny coming home to share a bed with her, and she doesn’t care

No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to sleep alone
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to sleep alone
No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie
And if she had to live it all over again, you know she wouldn’t change anything for the world

Scroll to top