Don’t be afraid to mix a little afternoon cocktail at the office
At my very first adult job, we drank. Granted, it was an unusual situation: In 1997, I was an editor at the Ho Chi Minh City bureau of the Viet Nam News, the state-owned, English-language newspaper. Around 2 p.m., five or six days a week, I would arrive at the boxy, air-conditioned office in central District 1, and sit down at a PC. There I’d wait for a Vietnamese colleague to hand me a filename on a slip of paper. I’d pull up the file and find a news story, originally written in Vietnamese and then translated into English. I’d proofread the story, fact-check it as best I could, and spruce up the headline (how to improve on “Oysters Die a Lot”?), then hand back the slip of paper and await the next one.
Only sometimes, instead of a slip of paper I was handed a cold can of beer. It might have been Saigon beer, or 333, or BGI—all these lagers tasted pretty much the same, thin and a little sour, but who cared? I had a job, and drinking beer was part of that job.
And not only beer. As the day wound down, at about five o’clock, Mr. Le, the mustachioed bureau chief, would gather his editors and reporters for shots… of snake wine. Yes, on a shelf in the newsroom was a roughly five-gallon glass container of rice wine in which curled numerous venomous snakes and various invigorating herbs. We’d all dip tiny teacups in, knock back a fiery shot or two, then finish up our work and head home.
This was the best job I ever had. It set a high bar, not only for ease and weirdness but for the naturalness and sophistication with which drinking was integrated into the work culture. The idea that one can both consume alcohol and get a job done, and done well, is an ideal I’ve aspired to at nearly every job I’ve had in the two decades since I left Vietnam.
On the copy desk at a weekly magazine in New York, I kept a bottle of good Scotch stashed in my desk drawer. On closing nights, when the top editors would rip up features and put them back together again for us to re-proofread, my fellow copy editors and I would pull out the whiskey—usually an Islay heavy on smoke and peat—and pour drams that would soak through our paper cups. The point was not to get drunk, but to create for ourselves an indulgence we could look forward to, a treat that would get us through the long red-pencil night. Some have Oreos. We had Talisker.
When I went to work at a food magazine, drinking was commonplace. In the afternoon, one editor would dole out pours from his rare bottles of bourbon; when we got nominated for awards, we sabered Champagne bottles. I soon acquired—through giveaways and the freebie table—enough random liquors to stock a bar cart in my little office. On Fridays, I’d typically invite a friend from outside the company to join my co-workers and me for an impromptu cocktail party. I’d mix what became the house special, the Slideshow: two and a half parts Highland Park single malt, one part Averna amaro, and whatever bitters my hand happened to land on first.
While these cocktail hours took place at the end of the week, long after we’d completed our duties, they still carried a frisson of rebellion. We were at work—and we were drinking! We were, in a way, getting paid to drink!
For me, though, this presented a conundrum. As much as I enjoyed the taboo atmosphere, I also wanted to normalize workplace drinking. We shouldn’t be outliers, and this shouldn’t be a rare indulgence. We are grownups, after all! The way I saw it, the world of work and the world of drinking both existed within the universe of adulthood—they should not be mutually exclusive.
Americans used to drink at work all the time. I’m not just talking about the glamorous Mad Men era of three-martini lunches and afternoon Scotches. From the Colonial era on, rum, whiskey, and beer were consumed throughout the day, according to this BBC article that put the average annual per-capita consumption at 5.8 gallons of pure alcohol:
By 1830, though, with consumption hitting 7.1 gallons per year, drinking came under fire. Alcoholism began to be recognized as a public-health hazard for men, women, and children, and temperance movements were launched, leading to Prohibition in 1919. That didn’t last long, and within a few decades Don Draper and his ilk were ascendant. But (or perhaps because of Madison Avenue) the moral stigma persisted.
Today workplace drinking is far from becoming normalized. At one job I held, the office was in a WeWork, with good beer on tap in the common kitchen; I almost never saw anyone take advantage of it. At another job, I learned that the only people allowed to pour alcohol in the office were licensed bartenders, generally hired for events; there went my plans for a new bar cart.
This is, I have to say, weird. The modern workplace is increasingly supposed to feel like home—casual, homey, welcoming. If you want to relax, there are yoga studios and massage therapists, wooded trails and nap rooms. But somehow the quickest route to untensed muscles and easy breathing has barriers around it. If I open a beer at work, will I look like an alcoholic? If I pour a glass of wine, will I seem like a snob? What will my boss think? My direct reports? Wait, do I have a problem?
No! If we are to be encouraged to think of our offices as extensions of our homes, and to consider our work lives as fundamental to living our best lives, then we need to feel free to mix a gin and tonic at 2 p.m. simply because. Because we are adults, because we want to, because drinking responsibly is the ultimate assertion that pleasure and duty can co-exist amicably and that neither can survive without the other in close proximity.
All of which is to say: Whoever you are, wherever you work, I hope that after reading this you’ll open that bottom desk drawer and, without shame or secrecy, pull out that bottle you’re hiding and pour yourself a little drink—a bit more than a shot, a bit less than a knockout. Enough to sip for a while. And then sip it. Savor it. Write an email, pivot a spreadsheet, cancel that meeting no one wants to go to anyway. Have another sip. Then pick up that bottle and visit your co-workers and pour them the drinks they need but are probably too shy to ask for. Tell them it’s OK. Show them it’s OK. We’re all adults here. Raise your glass—you don’t even need to say cheers. It’s understood.