Juliet Dunlop: Booze culture enters a new chapter

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Cream with spirit is how Baileys describes itself these days. Everyone’s favourite pseudo-Irish tipple has long since ditched the harp and the tiny, liqueur-glass image.

This is stuff to bathe in, to sink a few cubes of ice in, and knock back in large, luxurious measure. The current television advert is a work of art: a swirling army of women sway rhythmically in trance-like adoration to Blondie singing Rapture before plunging into a vat of perfectly thick, creamy alcohol. The advert, just like the drink, is non-threatening, sweet enough to make your molars ache, and unashamedly targeted at women.

It should come as no surprise then that the drinks company Diageo, which also owns the far more macho Johnnie Walker label, has decided that a competition, open only to women writers, is a perfect fit for its female-friendly liqueur. From next year, the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

And who could possibly object to the association? The rapport is obvious: women like to drink and the drinks industry likes women who like to drink. Just look at the way rosé wine has replaced shampoo at the ad breaks. Drink anyone? But should a prize which is supposed to encourage and empower women really be propping up the bar with a major drinks company? It certainly feels wrong-headed and inappropriate.

But it’s a sign of the times. Alcohol is everywhere. We’re knocking it back like never before – women in particular. It’s more available, more acceptable and cheaper than ever. Only this week new research highlighted our increasingly unhealthy relationship with booze and it’s certainly no longer the scourge of the poor. Women who live in exclusive enclaves like Esher in Surrey, Knightsbridge in London, and yes, Merchiston in Edinburgh, are twice as likely to have an alcohol problem. (They’re also more likely to suffer from anxiety and nerves, but that’s another story.)

The study, by the University of Sunderland, found that “ladies who lunch” are far more likely to enjoy a liquid lunch, knocking back more than the recommended three units of alcohol a day. It also underscores the common perception that regularly drinking at home, particularly wine, is somehow safe and sensible. It would seem that alcohol has become so central to women’s lives, that a bottle of Blossom Hill is just as likely to go into the trolley as a bottle of Herbal Essences shampoo. (Remember those adverts?) Both are pink and inexpensive, so what’s the difference?

But the sobering fact is that alcohol-related deaths among women – particularly high-flying career women – have soared over the past few years. And although drink-related deaths in Scotland have fallen, the rate for adults remains one of the highest in Europe. According to an NHS Scotland report published last year, mortality rates are still nearly twice as high as in England and Wales.

It’s certainly not all down to the women of Merchiston. Scotland has a long and troubled history with booze. Yet look at the difficult journey minimum pricing for alcohol has had. Only last month the Scotch Whisky Association said it would go on fighting the proposal after losing its legal challenge at the Court of Session. The evidence suggests minimum pricing should reduce consumption and in turn, alcohol-related illnesses and deaths, but the drinks industry certainly doesn’t see it that way, and most moderate drinkers probably feel the same. Alcohol has become a right, not a treat. And just like the women in the Baileys advert, we’re swimming in the stuff.

In another sign of the unhealthy grip that alcohol has on every aspect of our lives, this week the pub chain JD Wetherspoon announced it was opening its first motorway bar. Astonishingly, there were no objections to the application and Wetherspoons have said it hopes its service station venture – due to open in the alcohol-fuelled run up to Christmas – will be the first of many. It of course denies it’s putting temptation in front of drivers, but should that annoyingly catchy Blondie song pop into your head while hurtling along the M40, you’ll soon be able to enjoy a small liqueur at Beaconsfield, Junction 2, between the hours of 0800 and 0100. Where that road might take us is anyone’s guess.