Drinkers don't want one more for the road


You know the caricature of the New Year's reveler, the half-zonked party animal in the funny hat swigging sloppily from a foaming bottle of champagne. Turns out he may be the symbol of times gone by.

Researchers, liquor dealers and caterers all say that Americans are drinking less, drinking lighter and drinking more responsibly.

"When I first started this business, the last hour was the busiest hour at the bar," said Jerry Edwards, owner of Chef's Expressions catering. "You know: 'One more for the road.' You don't see that anymore."

At the Classic Catering People, Ansela Dopkin said her clients want more wine, more champagne, less hard liquor. "And people are not ashamed to say, 'I just want a sparkling water.'

"It's very chic not to drink these days," she said.

At Wells Discount Liquors on York Road, "It's not just on New Year's Eve. You see less hard liquor and more wine," said Lee Grandes, the manager.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that per capita alcohol consumption has dropped gradually but steadily through the 1980s and into the '90s.

Dr. Michael Fingerhood, medical director of the Francis Scott Key Medical Center's inpatient chemical dependency unit, said national studies show Americans moving away from hard liquor and toward light beers and wine coolers. Drunken driving is down as well, he said.

All those public awareness campaigns lecturing Americans about alcohol abuse and drunken driving seem to have worked.

"Believe me," said Stan Bliden, who owns Midway Liquors in Joppa, "there's a lot less drinking and driving than there was 10 years ago."

The police are serious about pulling the intoxicated driver off the road. And customers are heeding the advice of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Bar owners, and even hosts of private parties, also are mindful that lawsuits have been lodged against the person who served the drunken driver that last scotch.

Gil Osenburg, co-owner of the Harford Beverage Co. in Parkville, said the bar attached to his store began closing at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve about four years ago, to lessen the chances that a patron would drive drunk.

"Most people today who have nice jobs and nice homes and perhaps nice relationships want to protect them, and they're more reluctant to drink and drive," he added. "Why take everything you've worked so hard for and end up with a DWI and attorneys' bills?"

Another factor in the decline of alcohol consumption is Americans' growing health consciousness, said Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.

His center's surveys over the last 15 years have shown that between 28 percent and 31 percent of Americans say they never drink.

"Increasingly, there's social pressure to do the right thing, not to drink and drive," Mr. Smith said.

Or, you can attend a nonalcoholic celebration. Baltimore's promotion department is encouraging party-goers to attend five nonalcoholic celebrations downtown, while First Night Annapolis notes that its celebration of the arts include nonalcoholic refreshments.

For those who like to sip alcohol, "people are really looking for something that tastes good," said Mr. Bliden at Midway Liquors. "They're not looking for the kick. That's why they like wines, the zinfandels and chardonnays."

And shoppers are looking for microbrewed beers, new tastes from small, regional breweries. "That's the fastest-growing area," said.

There's still an audience for the dark, heavy drinks, but it's shrinking. "Once somebody dies who drank Seagram's 7, there's nobody replacing him. It's generally an older crowd that drinks that," Mr. Bliden said.

"Out where my store is, I see more and more people switching to beers," Mr. Osenburg said.

"There's still party people out there who like to put it away," Mr. Edwards, the caterer, said. "But people are regulating themselves. Champagne at bars has become very popular. It's a nice drink to start with, and people usually don't drink too much of it."

Even the style of celebrating New Year's Eve is changing, the liquor store managers and caterers said. Those giant open houses -- "where you'd get crazy and have 50 people over" -- aren't so common anymore, Mr. Grandes said.

Parties are smaller and quieter. "Five, six, seven years ago, we'd have a bunch of deliveries on these two days. We've got scarcely any deliveries for tomorrow," Mr. Grandes added.

"Everybody stays home. They don't buy mass quantities. Maybe it's just the husband and wife getting one bottle of bubbly," he said.

"What I see is people still having get-togethers but just having wine," Mr. Osenburg said, "or some microbrewed beer."

So what about that New Year's Eve caricature, the drunk in the party hat?

He may well still be out there, Mr. Bliden said. "But hopefully he's got a designated driver to take him home."

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