The bartenders embracing abstinence

25th October, 2019 by Owen Bellwood

Working with alcohol every day can have dangerous consequences for people in the industry. SB speaks to bartenders who are embracing the teetotal lifestyle, and the organisations facilitating it.

The Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry: “I didn’t realise there were that many people in the industry that were sober”

“I think I would be dead if I hadn’t stopped drinking,” says Jack McGarry, co‐founder and managing partner of New York’s The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail.

Having given up alcohol in March 2016, the Irish bartender is one of an increasing number of industry experts who have stepped away from alcohol because of its detrimental impact on their wellbeing.

“Drinking had become unmanageable,” he explains. “Alcohol became a crutch and was the only way that I thought I could turn off. I began to realise there was an issue, so I went to the doctor’s and was given Diazepam and all that sort of stuff. So then I was drinking and taking medication and it led to a breakdown of cataclysmic proportions. The following morning when I woke up I realised that I was an alcoholic.”

After McGarry stopped drinking, his position at Dead Rabbit immediately changed and he took on greater operational responsibilities, rather than developing cocktail menus and working behind the bar. Outside of work, he began exercising when he would have been drinking. These changes allowed him to rebuild relationships and, he says, transform his life in more ways than he could have expected. “Everything changed,” says McGarry. “I started going to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings and developed a sober network. Exercise became a huge part of my life. I’m a marathon runner now, I cycle a lot and I work out a lot. I started developing these coping methods to help me through.”

The ensuing weeks and months were a struggle for McGarry as he adapted to his new life, but he says friends, family and colleagues supported him.

He says: “I got a lot of support, and I think I was supported a lot more because of my stature in the industry. Other people have faced difficulties. The support I had was positive, but there were some negative kickbacks: there were friends that I would have hung out with that, once I got sober, I realised were not quite proper friends – so I started making changes there.”

As he recovered, McGarry heard from other bartenders and drinks professionals who had also given up alcohol. “I didn’t realise there were that many people in the industry that were sober,” he says. “I heard from a lot of people who were in recovery and who were in AA and had turned their lives around.”

For other bartenders who may be going through similar experiences, charities and organisations offer help and support. La Maison Wellness, created by former St‐ Germain global brand ambassador Camille Vidal, teaches bartenders how to improve their wellbeing, and Healthy Hospo, founded by former Bulleit Bourbon global brand ambassador Tim Etherington‐Judge, has been praised for its support of the on‐trade.

Etherington‐Judge says: “There are organisations like The Benevolent, Mind and Hospitality Action that are there to catch people who fall off a cliff. They are equipped to deal with vulnerable people. Healthy Hospo is here to try to stop people from falling off the cliff in the first place.”

Etherington‐Judge started Healthy Hospo in 2016, when lack of sleep, poor nutrition, excessive drinking and feelings of social isolation lead to “a pretty severe breakdown”. He recalls: “I wrote a big post on Facebook detailing my struggles with mental health and with the industry, hoping that getting lots of positive messages from people would pick me up from rock bottom. The messages I got were wonderful, but there were also messages from people telling me their stories and the struggles they faced. I realised there were so many people struggling in the industry but nobody was talking about it.”

Etherington‐Judge and the Healthy Hospo team don’t focus on abstinence; they ask for moderation from members of the on‐trade, and encourage bartenders to find hobbies and interests that don’t involve drinking. “Finding other interests gives you motivation, and it’s about making your own choices – you are choosing not to drink because you have something else to do,” he adds.

Alcohol-free apéritif brand Everleaf

As well as searching for hobbies, San Francisco bartender Mark Goodwin took to drawing a symbol on his arm to encourage his responsible drinking. The simple design of a circle with a line through has since grown into a sober movement of its own, with the symbol being turned into pin badges.

“I started drawing this symbol on my arm before my shifts to let my co‐workers know that I wasn’t drinking and to try and let them help me get to where I wanted to be,” says Goodwin, co‐founder of The Pin Project, who has been sober for 14 months.

“The drive to get help and give up drinking came out of a couple of years of choosing to not be sober very much,” he adds. The symbol was slowly adopted by other bartenders in San Francisco, and during last year’s Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) festival in New Orleans the project was awarded a grant from the TOTC Foundation, which Goodwin hopes will help his non‐profit organisation connect bartenders in need with counsellors and other support workers.

“I knew there were more people out there that didn’t drink, but I maybe wasn’t expecting the number the pin resonated with,” says Goodwin. “Some people have worn the pin for two months and it’s been the longest period of sobriety they’ve ever had, and that is really overwhelming to hear.”

But what about continuing to work with alcohol? “I get asked about straw tasting and my answer is that you wouldn’t straw taste a drink you were allergic to, so if straw tasting is going to trigger alcoholic tendencies then absolutely don’t do that. But, it’s about finding your relationship with alcohol.”

OVERCOME DRINKING RITUALS

Goodwin says the biggest challenge for some bartenders to overcome is the ritual of drinking. He stresses the importance of an after‐work drink with colleagues in building relationships, but says that without alcohol‐ free options this can lead to more late nights and hangovers.

The rise in alcohol‐free options has aided bartenders’ attempts to go sober, with brands like Seedlip and Aecorn offering “grown‐up” alternatives. Paul Mathew is founder of London bar The Hide, and alcohol‐ free apéritif brand Everleaf. “If you’re in a bar that has embraced non‐alcoholic options it’s easy to have a drink, and nobody can tell if it has alcohol in it or not. It’s about embracing being in a bar to have a great time and that doesn’t always have to include alcohol.”

Healthy Hospo, The Pin Project and alcohol‐ free brands are striving to make abstinence more accessible. And in reducing or cutting out alcohol consumption, a growing number of bartenders are feeling the benefit in more than just a physical sense.

“Deciding to give up drinking changed my life,” says McGarry. “I became a happy person, and I have a healthy focus in terms of work and the things I love to do outside of work. I’m still the same intense, driven and ambitious person, but I now have my running, hiking, cycling, my dogs and my girlfriend.”

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