Being a spirits writer isn’t the most healthy profession. A fair part of my job involves travel, which often includes a lot of unhealthy food, too little sleep, too many cocktails, and very little exercise. This doesn’t even take into account that, as a writer, I spend many of my hours sitting at a desk, something that by itself is horribly unhealthy. Balancing what I do professionally and what I need to do personally to be healthy is a constant struggle. When Belvedere Vodka invited me to be involved with their health-based initiative Drink, Eat Live, I jumped at the opportunity.
I was frankly surprised to see a spirits company tackle the issue of health and alcohol so head on. The issue of alcohol consumption and health is a sticky one. Alcohol consumption isn’t generally considered to be part of a healthy lifestyle, and yet there are people who strive for balance and wellness who drink. Most spirits brands simply use the “Drink Responsibly” moniker and leave it at that.
I was equally surprised that Belvedere had chosen Ibiza as the location for their Industry health and wellness bootcamp. Ibiza. REALLY?! IBIZA?! Isn’t Ibiza the greatest personification of excess, over indulgence, and unhealthiness?
As it turns out, while Ibiza is indeed one of the party capitals of the world, there is also a very different side to the island. In mid-October, most of the mega-clubs close and Ibiza transforms from one non-stop party into a charming, quiet, and remote Mediterranean island, an ironically ideal place for a health-focused retreat. This dichotomy between the non-stop party and the remote retreat in Ibiza is a very fitting metaphor for the challenge of balancing alcohol and a healthy lifestyle.
The Drink, Eat, Live program was created by Claire Smith, Head of Spirit Creation at Belvedere, along with fitness pro Georgia Van Tiel. Both Claire and Georgia are married to prominent spirits ambassadors and have experienced first hand the challenges of trying to be healthy in an industry that tends to promote overconsumption over moderation.
The premise of Belvedere’s Drink, Eat, Live program is a fairly straightforward one: bring a group of influential bartenders and media together for a four-day retreat to discuss and promote a “more mindful way of drinking,” along with “techniques and strategies to help minimize the effect of a spirited lifestyle on your health,” with the only caveat being that the participants commit to pay it forward and help others.
The retreat was a combination of lecture, whole foods, meditation, exercise, and yes, drinking. One of the big “aha!” moments for me came from a lecture that Claire Smith presented about sugar and its impact on the body. It turns out that when you consume cocktails with a lot of sugar (a classic daiquiri has at least 11 grams of sugar per serving), especially fructose, the body gives that sugar an express trip right to the liver. Drinking something “healthy” sounding like a Screwdriver (vodka and orange juice), Greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice) or a Sea Breeze (vodka, cranberry, and grapefruit juice) actually aren’t all that healthy. Instead, these cocktails are little perfect storms of liver irritation and can make a night of drinking even more difficult on the body (especially the next day).
So how exactly can you drink mindfully and avoid this perfect storm of liver angst?
Claire Smith along with mixologists Liam Cotter and Joe Stokoe (from Head Hearts and Tails) helped answer this question with a collection of cocktails that are lower in alcohol, use non-fructose based sweeteners, and contain ingredients which help support good liver health, including drinks like Matcha Milkshake, Thyme for Change, and the Pina Kale-Ada.
Of course there’s a brand message that goes along with this, and that’s a reminder that Belvedere Vodka is governed in Poland by an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) prohibiting them from adding any additives to their spirit (including sugar).
In addition to reducing the amount of sugar that you consume along with your alcohol, there are a number of fairly simple things you can do to help support “mindful drinking,” like:
- Take a 2-3 day break a week from all alcohol. This gives your liver an opportunity to detox and regenerate.
- Eat before you drink.
- When you do drink, match every alcoholic drink with a glass of water.
- Start late – hold off on drinking a few hours into your night if you can.
- Finish your night with lemon and lime juice in lukewarm water; it will stimulate your liver and help the morning after.
- Re-hydrate and replace lost electrolytes with coconut water and sugar-free electrolyte tablets like Nuun.
Of course mindful drinking isn’t enough to really foster a healthy and balanced lifestyle. To do that, you also need to pay attention to diet and integrate in exercise.
Throughout the week, we mountain biked, hiked, walked, swam, did yoga, and did some martial arts. The point was pretty clear: there’s a wide range of options to get up and get moving, and it’s important to pick one that fits.
On the diet front, Drink, Eat, Live emphasized the importance of eating whole foods, including consuming foods high in chlorophyll, mainly green leafy vegetables which help rebuild and replenish red blood cells, boost energy and increase overall wellbeing.
Key foods recommended to help overall wellness include beans/legumes, eggs, nuts, garlic, onions, grapefruit, green leafy veggies, avocados, apples, and pears. Claire made a special point to emphasize the importance of eating fruits whole and skipping fruit juices and dried fruit, which are extremely high in concentrated sugars / fructose that can tax the liver. Apparently when you juice fruits, you break down and remove the associate fiber which helps the body buffer the fructose better. Juicing fruits also helps concentrate the fructose and makes it even easier for your body to express it right to your liver.
The final part of the whole wellness equation involved managing stress, getting a break, relaxing, and getting good sleep. The importance of good sleep, something that can be extremely challenging to get when working in the spirits industry, can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, consuming alcohol, especially over consuming, can negatively impact sleep. This is one of the many reasons why having a few nights a week completely free from alcohol can greatly help your overall wellness.
A key tool in relaxing, managing stress, and getting a break is meditation. Meditation can seem a little intimidating until you realize that it’s essentially sitting and deeply breathing. During the course of the Drink, Eat, Live program we were introduced to a number of different styles of meditation, from the Tibetan 5 Rites to guided meditations (which requires very little knowledge or experience). Meditation is something I’ve done in the past and has always been helpful, but when things get crazy and hectic, it seems to be the first thing to go. The Drink, Eat, Live program was a nice reminder of just how simple taking a breath and getting a moment can be.
The Drink, Eat, Live program features a lot of common sense, but it’s the kind of common sense that the drinks industry sorely needs. If bartenders, and journalists like myself, aren’t able to figure out how to create balance around alcohol, how can we expect to help our customers and readers to?
With the cocktail revolution and now the whiskey boom, the spirits industry has unprecedented influence on our society. The opportunity for the spirits industry, and those of us who work in it, to productively use that influence and be leaders is vast.
By providing a wider range of options to consumers, including lower proof and lower sugar options, as well as providing solid education and guidance, we can help people have a better and more healthy relationship with something that is intrinsically unhealthy.
“Drink Responsibly” shouldn’t just be a platitude slapped on labels and printed in small type at the end of alcohol ads; it’s more than just responsibility, it’s mindfulness and balance. It’s possible for alcohol to be part of a happy and healthy life. Happy and healthy customers are good for business, and at least one brand, Belvedere, understands that.