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On How Not to Get Drunk

Timeless drinking advice from (and an homage to) one of the greatest drink writers, and drinkers, of all time.

Shutterstock/Carlos Caetano

Over the course of Cocktail Week, Eater has featured advice from writers, readers, and professionals on both what to drink and where to drink in Boston. But on the subject of how to drink, in general, we must defer to one of the subject's recognized past masters.

Though certainly not the first to achieve double billing as both legendary writer and legendary drinker, Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) was one of the few who managed to combine the two major themes of his life in a productive, and for our purposes instructive, manner, by writing about drinking. Not only in his novels, where alcohol tends to play a memorable role (such as the hangover scene in Lucky Jim, which according to Christopher Hitchens is "not equaled for alcoholic comedy in our literature even by Shakespeare's night porter or portly knight") but also in a series of columns and later books on the subject, the best of which have been neatly repackaged into the volume Everyday Drinking, a must for anyone who either drinks, or enjoys reading incredibly funny writing, or both.

And so, in order to do the responsible thing after a week spent offering up all kinds of appetizing cocktails that will make you want to go out and drink, we now include a few words of advice from none other than Kingsley Amis on how to drink.

In order to make the whole thing a bit more social and fun, we will present those words in the form of a conversation. Thereby interviewing, such as it were, the late author of what is still the best guide to curing a hangover ever written, on the subject of how to avoid getting drunk in the first place. All questions below are therefore wholly imagined (by me); all answers are direct quotes from the chapter How Not to Get Drunk, by Kingsley Amis, as found in Everyday Drinking (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).

First off, how's your drink? Good. Alright, let's start. What is the first advice most people give on how to avoid getting overly drunk?

Staying away altogether is a stratagem sometimes facetiously put forward at the outset of such discussions as these.

[Momentary shared silence.]

To move at once to the realm of the practical, eating has much to be said for it. As well as retarding (though not preventing) the absorption of alcohol, food will slow up your drinking rate, not just because most people put their glasses down while actually chewing, but because you are now satisfying your appetite by eating rather than drinking: hunger makes you drink more than you would otherwise.

I have a friend who is convinced that adding more tonic to her gin & tonic helps keep her sober. A theory I have strong anecdotal evidence against. Could you settle this for us?

Diluting your drinks sounds a good idea to many, and will help reverse the dehydration that all alcohol brings, so that you will be better off the next day. But, again, the alcohol itself will get to you in full. Nor is it true (in my experience, at least) that a double Scotch, say, diluted with lots of soda takes longer to put down than the same with a little, so reducing your effective intake.

Do you buy into the idea that mood has anything to do with it?

Not being tired, not being depressed, not being specially elatedthese and other negative states will also stiffen your resistance to alcohol, but I know they do not descend at will. It can be said, not very cheeringly, that you should watch your drinking rate when you are tired, depressed, etc.

What if someone were, say, sort of introverted but upon drinking became an enthusiastic and I might add above-average dancer. Will the physical excursion of such athleticism help counterbalance the effects of his drinks? I'm wondering about champagne, specifically.

Fatigue is an important element in the hangover, too. Alcohol gives you energy, or, what is hard to distinguish from it, the illusion of energy, and under its influence you will stand for hours at a stretch, throw yourself about, do exhausting imitations, perhaps fight for a bit, even, God help you, dance.

But

This will burn up a little alcohol, true, but you will pay for it next morning.

Given that you were drinking in mid-century London, you must have had some pretty late nights. Any advantage to Boston's notoriously early last call?

An equally unsurprising way of avoiding fatigue is going to bed in reasonable time, easily said, I know, but more easily done, too, if you allow the soporific effects of drink to run their natural course. This means staying away from stimulants, and that means avoiding coffee, both on its own and with liquor poured into it: the latter, by holding you up with one hand while it pastes you at leisure with the other, is the most solidly dependable way I know of ensuring a fearful tomorrow.

So, what I'm hearing is, just stick to the hard stuff?

Avoiding very strong drinks is more than the piece of padding it may seem. The alcoholic strength or proof of a wine, spirit, etc., is not a straightforward index of its power to intoxicate. The relationship is non-linear, or, if you must have everything spelt out, the graph plotting proof against kick is not straight.

Could you give an example?

I once shared a half-liter bottle of Polish Plain Spirit (140 proof) with two chums. I only spoke twice, first to say, "Cut out that laughing—it can't have got to you yet," and not all that much later to say, "I think I'll go to bed now."

Anything else to avoid?

Hand in hand with this warning comes one about avoiding sweet drinks. These play hell with you next day; I forget why, but I remember how.

A lot of what you'll see on Boston bars will look familiar to you but is actually fairly new to our drinking culture. Any advice to those venturing into the land of Chartreuse and Fernet for the first time?

Avoiding unfamiliar drinks is my final interdiction. Here again, I mean more than just steering clear of Malagasy malaga, St. Peter Port port-type and such, at any rate when you are not in a mood of pure curiosity and cold sober...It is as if—and in the always subjective, idiosyncratic context of drink it need only be as if—body and mind together develop a tolerance to your usual potation, a kind of self-conferred immunity. Do not test this hypothesis too rigorously.

What about the old adage about mixing up your type of drinks? There's a kind of limerick that goes with it, at least around here, beer before liquor makes you something-something. Do you agree that one should stick to the same type of drink throughout the night?

I am nearly (yes, nearly) sure that mixing your drinks neither makes you drunker nor gives you a worse time the following day than if you had taken the equivalent dosage in some single form of alcohol. After three martinis and two sherries and two glasses of hock and four of burgundy and one of Sauternes and two of claret and three of port and two brandies and three whiskies-and-sodas and a beer, most men will be very drunk and will have a very bad hangover. But might not the quantity be at work here? An evening when you drink a great deal will also be one when you mix them.

But [signaling for another round] you should always try and drink more water, right?

I suppose I cannot leave this topic without reciting the old one about drinking lots of water and taking aspirin and/or stomach powders before you finally retire. It is a pretty useless one as well as an old one because, although the advice is perfectly sound, you will find next morning that you have not followed it. Alternatively, anyone who can summon the will and the energy and the powers of reflection called for has not reached the state in which he really needs the treatment.

Anything else? I mean, isn't there some magical way to absolutely guarantee not being drunk or hungover? The drinkers of Boston want to know.

Well—if you want to behave better and feel better, the only absolutely certain method is drinking less. But to find out how to do that, you will have to find a more expert expert than I shall ever be.

That's just it, Mr. Amis. We've looked. There isn't one.

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