Man drinking traditional pint of real ale beer.
Artillery Row

The virtues of vice

There is always risk with reward

A few weeks ago, there appeared on my Facebook feed an advertisement for something called SENTIA — a non-alcoholic drink promising the light buzz of a few tipples. I was intrigued enough to visit SENTIA’s website. Here is how they describe the product: 

SENTIA, a new generation of mood enhancing Spirits. With complex botanicals and a rich sensory experience, it is the perfect serve for sophisticated hedonists.

The cutting-edge science behind every bottle means discerning drinkers can discover a ‘third way’ beyond ‘alcohol’ and ‘not alcohol’ – to get what we want from drinking (connection and harmony), without the downsides. 

Because of its unique blend of active botanicals that naturally enhance the mood, raising a glass of SENTIA hits your sweet spot, without hitting you with a hangover. 

Annoying, isn’t it? That smarmy invocation of a third way — which only made me think of it as the Bill Clinton of drinks. Yes, the supercilious centrist of beverages, that sounded about right. It also evoked for me an image of a limp agnostic — tut-tutting at the follies of both atheists and the believers. Both sides, you see, are as bad as each other, but we quavering agnostics are above all that.  

Now, I can respect the teetotallers — but a “third way” represents an attempt to have it both ways. I despise the very idea of it. What is alcohol without the risk of ending up stumbling down a street at 4am unable to find your way home, stuffing a half-cold kebab into your mouth? These non-alcoholic drinks seem to stem from a fear of risk — of the real.

Of course, alcoholism is also an attempt to flee from reality. But to drink of alcohol in general, in abundance or otherwise, is to accept some amount of risk in pursuit of pleasure. Used properly, it can enliven the real and provide creative inspiration. “Bill Clinton” drinks want to do away with this bargain by replicating some of the effects of booze without its dangers and pleasures.

And yes, I tried the stuff, and it was awful. It smelled like a particularly pungent bowl of potpourri and tasted how I imagine liquefied potpourri would taste. 

Yet there is, it seems, a market for stuff like this. I’ve noticed more and more ads for similar products lately. Going beyond alcohol, I also recently tried a nicotine product which promised to replicate the experience of a cigarette while being better for your health and lacking the stink. It, too, was rubbish — stale and pointless.  

I wondered, then, why these Clintonian concoctions are so popular. And then I remembered that Gen Z is drinking less. The youngsters are growing more prudish in just about everything, from alcohol and tobacco to sex. At the grand old age of 27 and as a good old-fashioned millennial, I find this shift concerning. 

In The Guardian, Maddie Thomas explains her generation’s aversion to alcohol thus: 

[It is] chalked up to things that weren’t top of mind for previous generations: the fear of drunken moments being documented and posted on social media for all (including future employers) to see. The need to save money to combat the financial doom Gen Z is inheriting. The job market. The uptick in health consciousness, also resulting in nonalcoholic wine and beer coming to the fore. Mental health also plays a part, with studies pre- and post-lockdown reporting high levels of psychological distress among young people. 

What a wailing litany of self-pity! It gets worse towards the end: 

Some in my generation may guffaw at this, but it feels as though most people my age see drinking as a nice “grown-up” thing to do. There seem to be more celebratory roast dinners being washed down with a glass of wine than a night’s worth of shots being finished off at 1am with a kebab in a gutter. 

My friends who dabble in online dating also don’t exclusively meet for a drink. They go for walks, ice-skating, dinners on the beach or they meet for coffee. There seems to be less the need [sic] for a confidence blanket of alcohol, and with that comes the confidence that won’t embarrass yourself if you become incoherent. 


[N]ow we are “adulting” and while we snap and post all the moments we raise a glass to, we can also remember them. Cheers to that. 

“Adulting.” Good grief — what a strange combination of childishness and faux-maturity Ms Thomas displays. Note that she has also moved from generational self-pity to a feeling of generational superiority. Well, what the hell is wrong with a drunken late-night kebab, eh? Just who do you think you are to look down on us while we flail and gurn and slur our words in the gutter? (1am is a bit early for such merriment, though. Ms Thomas clearly does not know whereof she speaks.)  

Does the rise of pseudo-booze and pseudo-fags suggest that Gen Z is suffering, at a deeper level, from a fear of the real? After all, Ms Thomas’s litany is not just self-pitying, but fearful. Fearful of what? The world, and especially the world to come. There is more than just “the financial doom Gen Z is inheriting.” There is climate change, and AI, and a greater risk of nuclear war than we have seen in a long time. (Incidentally, a wonderful term has been coined by the novelist Ewan Morrison to describe the nihilistic media diet Gen Z has grown up imbibing: “Ambient Adolescent Apocalypticism”.) 

If they are going to try to escape from reality, it will be by embracing the virtual. Alcohol can be embraced as an escape from the real world but there is, in the end, nothing more real than a bad hangover. Overdoing the booze gives one a bit of perspective, a bit of worldly experience. Will the kids never know the delights of alcohol-induced euphoria and despair? What will become of them if they don’t even just once wake up on a Sunday afternoon next to a basin full of their own vomit? How will the kids ever learn?

We cannot get the same life-affirming qualities from simulations of real things. In the most pessimistic scenario, we will have everyone hooked up to perfect VR machines, IV lines nourishing them constantly, living in a world where there is no risk of danger or death, a world where you can drink as much virtual whisky as you like and feel precisely…nothing. Outside, meanwhile, the (real) world burns.  

I do rather feel like a curmudgeon now. Perhaps it is the fate of all generations to sneer at those who come after (as well as those who come before). We millennials are famously entitled, ungrateful whiners, after all. I feel a bit like Swede Levov, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral — a man utterly bewildered by the mentality of the youth, utterly alien to them.

But, dammit, as far as I’m concerned, there really is something unsavoury in all this artificiality and sheer boring bloody safety. Down with the young prudes, and the nanny state, and all the other enemies of pleasure. In a rebuke to the puritans, allow me to share a stave of Robert Burns celebrating the delights of whisky

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink! 

Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink, 

Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink, 

In glorious faem, 

Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink, 

To sing thy name! 

To Ms Thomas and her cohort, I recommend lightening up and taking a dram or four — there really is no substitute for the real thing. Here I stumble, I can do no other.   

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