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Dreaming of a dry Christmas - Mary Killen

Blog | By Mary Killen | Dec 22, 2023

No thanks, Bacchus

Do you remember the days when people would chuckle about how much alcohol they were buying in for Christmas and how legless they’d get over the festive period?

No longer. These days, many drinkers are drinking ‘Christmas amounts’ every day of the year in the same way they’re stuffing in Christmas Day feasts of treat food every day.

But I’ll no longer be tipping back my usual nine units of champagne and wine per day this Christmas. I don’t drink any more – on any day of the year.

I’m not in recovery from alcoholism. Nor will I be exerting willpower to resist the blissful nectar of dull opiates. In fact, almost like magic, I simply went off alcohol three years ago.

It happened after a dose of Campylobacter and a course of antibiotics. Could that antibiotic have triggered some sort of hormonal aversion to alcohol? Or did the Campylobacter just knock so much stuffing out of me that I could no longer process the toxins?

All I know – and many women who have had the same feeling while pregnant will remember this – is that my body instinctively just does not want alcohol any more. It recoils, even at the idea and at the most fragrant of bouquets.

I’m a born drinker – I’m Irish and a writer. Eighty per cent of my friends still drink at least six units a day. How can my social life continue?

So much of social bonding centres around meeting up with thirsty others and then travelling together into Drunkland – where I once rejoiced in the agreeable taste, the coolness of the glass, the salt-based snacks and the olives. The anaesthetic slowly used to steal up on me. The inhibitions fell away as indiscretions were exchanged. Then there was the surge in self-confidence, the BC (Before Covid) hugging and the pure pleasure of swallowing.

Drink is bonding in the way that sharing a glorious holiday location can be bonding. In both cases you ‘go’ to another land where things are pleasant, and you conflate the joy of that place with the joy of the other person present.

This is my second incarnation as a non-drinker. I was off it between 1999 and 2009 following a bout of a Legionnaires’-type atypical pneumonia and, again, a course of antibiotics.

While I traded my sense of euphoria at 6pm each evening for a clear head the next morning, I noticed friends didn’t like it at all if I sat there with a glass of Perrier. It made them feel like alcoholics.

As long as I was drinking something that looked like alcohol, my friends were happy. I discovered Cobra alcohol-free beer and Waitrose one-per-cent cider. I didn’t drink for ten years during one of the most social decades of my life. I was working on the Sunday Telegraph, House & Garden and the Spectator. I also led parties of alcoholic journalists on fact-finding missions to the Caribbean, under the aegis of Jamaican philanthropist Butch Stewart who wanted to trigger more Anglo-Caribbean business.

All that sobriety came to an end in 2009 when, by chance, I discovered I was no longer repelled by alcohol.

It was on a 90-minute tour of the Krug vineyard in Rheims, given by Olivier Krug. With graphic sensuality, he described to our gang of four journalists (including the late Sir Peregrine Worsthorne) the journey of one of his most prized grapes from vineyard to bottle.

The grapes were grown in small quantities on the rarest, most perfect slope for sunlight, drainage and soil consistency. They were hand-harvested with nail scissors, squashed, riddled and stored for six years. Then there was the sound of a cork being withdrawn and he poured us each a glass.

I drank it, thinking, this will probably kill me – but I felt I could hardly refuse as for the last hour I had been nodding with fake interest. There were no ill effects. That night, I went back on alcohol.

Then in 2017 I went off it again, and I am off it again.

Do I find the company of drunks tiresome? No. I have an insatiable appetite for socialising. Obviously my enthusiasm wanes at the end of the evening when others stop making sense but no, I still prefer the company of drunks. And I suppose I find my husband, The Oldie’s Giles Wood, who hardly drinks anyway, slightly less annoying than when I drank alcohol.

And now there’s been a huge breakthrough. Anyone with a palate knows that food is best with wine. Alcohol-free beers and ciders are great with olives and crisps, but not with food. And although I have tried more than 30 de-natured wines, none has given me that compatibility with food.

Until now. I have been introduced to something called Jukes Cordialities, made by wine-writer Matthew Jukes. It isn’t de-alcoholised wine, but a cordial based on organic apple cider vinegar. You pour 125ml of chilled water into a wine glass – you can use sparkling water if you want a champagne effect – and then 15ml of cordial. It is something that looks, tastes and even smells slightly like wine.

At last, I’ve found my Christmas tipple. Cheers!