Features 2 minutes 24 January 2024

11 Tips for Cutting Back on Alcohol According to a Sommelier Who Did It

Dry January doesn't have to be that dry.

January is a notorious month for rethinking your relationship with bad habits. In recent years, limiting alcohol consumption has emerged as one of the most popular resolutions, perpetuated by Dry January – giving up alcohol for a month – that’s given way to other sober months throughout the year like Dry July and Sober October.

But cutting back on alcohol consumption doesn’t necessarily have to start on January 1 or in January at all. Maybe you’re thinking about it and don’t know where to begin, to which Abe Zarate, sommelier at The Modern in New York, advises to figure out the “why” you want to drink less alcohol, which will help you decide on whether you’re cutting back or giving up drinking altogether.

Zarate, himself, found reprise in becoming sober and, below, gives his input on the best tips to cut back on alcohol – whether a New Year’s resolution or a short-term commitment to Dry January to reset after the holiday indulgence. 

Ask yourself why you want to cut back

Drinking alcohol is often tied to emotional experiences. I used to drink when I was happy, when I was angry, when I was sad – eventually I drank just to exist. While not everyone lives on that extreme, it’s easy to land there and having an answer to that “why” becomes more and more important. 

Figure out a reward

I knew my finances would recover if I stopped drinking, so I created a plan with my sister to visually track short-term progress, which worked as a reward. 

Remove yourself from environments that are not conducive to cutting back

It’s the hardest one, but something that worked in the beginning to avoid the feeling of missing out was ensuring I did something extra nice for myself: an extra long shower, a face mask, fancier take-out, watching a movie I've been meaning to watch, writing a song. Soon enough, I noticed that by attending these mostly forgettable hang outs, I was missing out on myself.

Reevaluate and remove unserving friendships

Sometimes alcohol abuse is tied to a person. In a perpetually hazy state, it’s easy to confuse love and friendship with convenience. This creates a stronger link to dependency. Removing yourself from a person is even more difficult. Necessary, but the most difficult.

Start with a short-term solution like Dry January

The notion of permanence is scary. Committing to something as a temporary starting place is a great way to allow yourself to notice a different day-to-day you might enjoy more. If anything, that month will offer the clarity necessary to make more long-term changes. 

Identify triggers and plan an exit strategy around them

Family is a bigger trigger even than meeting up with friends at a bar. Those dynamics require a little extra preparation. From the beginning I’ve always had an exit strategy. No one likes the feeling of being trapped, so going into a situation knowing you have a way out, makes it much easier to put your best foot forward. Outside of family, I graciously decline invitations without giving much of an explanation – not many people require one. I find that connecting through one-on-one interactions is more meaningful. 

Don’t give power to cravings

I used to have a mental list of all the things that would go dark within weeks if I had just two drinks. Now, I have a growing list of everything I’ve gained because I don’t drink – that’s an even more powerful way to make any craving disappear.

Replace the cocktail

Behaviors easily become habits, and those can only be replaced. I realized I'd found comfort in holding a beverage in my hand in all situations, so I made sure to treat even a lemonade as I would a cocktail.

Don’t shy away from the bartender

If you're not ready to end your night or there are no NA offerings, tonic and bitters with a lemon wedge is delicious. There are lots of favorites I have out there (Ritual Zero Gin, Athletic Brewing, Thomson & Scott Noughty, Surely Sparkling) but you'd be surprised at how many bartenders are open to making something up. Have a couple of flavors you like and ask if they're able to create something.

Find support in external resources

I'd heard a few people online talk about "The Easy Way To Control Alcohol" by Allen Carr helping them. The title seemed too self-help-y, but the author does an amazing job at debunking myths we tell ourselves about what alcohol does for us. Though I don't agree with 100% of the content, it was the starting point for a change in perspective. It's largely why I'm able to still work with wine. Except now, instead of spitting sometimes, I spit every time.

Don't change your lifestyle. 

What I mean is, have that escape plan, but don't stop social activities, change the crowd; don't stop going out dancing, change the beverage you're holding. You are changing a behavior, do not associate it with a feeling of sacrificing or giving something up. And don’t try to start a new diet, work out regimen, or earlier wake up time alongside cutting back on alcohol. This is where most of us fail. Change one behavior at a time. 

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