Whether it's a few mugs of mulled wine at Christmas or a couple of bottles of Champagne at New Year's or some wine in between, the holidays aren't known as a time of alcoholic restraint.
A recent Harris Interactive survey showed that a whopping 96 percent of respondents went to work hung over after a holiday party or knew someone who did, and 40 percent of people said they, their friends and their family use the holidays as an excuse to drink.
But even with this kind of bingeing, a new study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 90 percent of these kinds of drinkers aren't alcoholics and aren't alcohol-dependent.
Nevertheless, men who have 15 or more drinks weekly and women who have eight or more drinks per week are considered heavy drinkers, and that still isn't healthy even without dependency, as pointed out by the authors of the study. They recommend cutting back.
"There's a huge upswing in binge drinking, and it's a problem," said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "With the holidays, we often take drinks in things like eggnog, so you don't notice the alcohol. You need to be aware of the alcohol quantity."
That's not to say that everyone needs to become a teetotaler.
"If you're doing quarter pints and someone else is doing full pints, then that's fine," Koob said of those who are trying to cut down on their alcohol intake.
The key is learning how to stop and when to stop — and knowing how to ease up on drinking so you still can have a great time without overdoing it.
"We do not want to recognize that we have lost control. At the same time, we are facing a massive cultural distortion that tells us we don't have limits," said Stephanie Brown, founder and director of The Addictions Institute in California. "We are in a wild, out-of-control era in which we tell ourselves we are entitled to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, without any consequences."
Brown suggests drinking water or nonalcoholic beverages along with alcoholic drinks, though she also said that if you want to drink less — or if someone else is concerned about the amount you're drinking — this may be a red flag, even if you're taking steps to control it.
If you're planning on sticking with the same drinks or cocktails that you always drink, you could try drinking them later in the day or wait until later at the party to start, Brown said.
It's all about reducing the maximum breath-alcohol level one gets to, said Damaris Rohsenow, professor and associate director at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University.
"The problems — social, behavioral, health — tend to arise from quantity of drinking rather than frequency," Rohsenow said. "A person can have one or two drinks a day every day and be unlikely to experience problems."
So, Rohsenow said, after a few drinks, you could switch to soda to keep that blood alcohol level down.
But really, anything that keeps blood alcohol to a point where you're not impaired is a good idea.
"It doesn't matter how you mix it up," Koob said.
One way to figure out if you have a problem with alcohol is to see if, at any one time, you drink more than you plan to drink. So if you had planned to have two drinks, then to switch to something with less alcohol or no alcohol, but instead continued drinking the same drinks, you may have a problem, Rohsenow said.
In addition to drinking more than you had planned, Rohsenow said, these are the red flags for diagnosing a problem. Do you:
■Have a strong desire to cut down or quit but can't?
■Spend a lot of time recovering from drinking?
■Let alcohol use interfere with obligations at home, work or school?
■Experience a harmful effect on home life because of your alcohol use?
■Repeatedly have problems with friends or family because of alcohol and continue to drink anyway?
Remember that even a little alcohol can impair driving. Let you holidays be merry, not scary, and let the nondrinkers drive.
Cut beer alcohol in half
In a few decades of drinking, I had managed to never taste nonalcoholic beer — until now. I wanted to determine if I could be satisfied with mixing a real beer half in half with the nonalcoholic variety. The answer: surprisingly, yes.
I did use a premium nonalcoholic beer, Buckler, though I found out after the fact that there are a few others that do better in taste tests. It was, however, painful to spend $7 for something without alcohol. To mix, I used an ale I like but don't often drink, so I wouldn't be so aware of the taste difference between the straight ale and my low-alcohol mixture.
Bottom line: You can cut your alcohol in half this way, so two beers become one beer, and your palate won't protest. At a party, you could do this with pitchers.
Bartenders' tricks for cutting alcohol
Stephen Varela, a certified mixologist and general manager at Villa Berulia restaurant in New York, said he likes to slow down drinkers by serving them a vermouth cassis. It's 3 ounces of French vermouth, half an ounce of creme de cassis, topped with 2 ounces of club soda. By adding the club soda instead of serving the drink straight, Varela reduces the alcohol in the drink from 17 percent by volume to 8 percent.
Another option is the wine spritzer or Bellini, said Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr. Lyan), owner of White Lyan, a London bar. He was named UK bartender of the year twice and has won several other national competitions.
To make a spritzer, Chetiyawardana said to build the following over ice in a wine glass: 1.7 ounces of liquor, 1.7 ounces of prosecco or white wine and 1.7 ounces of soda. While it's not the lowest-alcohol drink out there, Chetiyawardana said, the spritzer has less alcohol than a small glass of wine. For a Bellini, he said, stir 1.7 ounces of peach puree and 3.4 ounces of prosecco gently in a mixing glass, then pour into a chilled flute.
Matt Durbin, former World Bartender Champion and vice president of beverage and bar innovation at TGI Fridays, serves a low-alcohol holiday drink called a Poinsettia, which is two parts Champagne/prosecco and one part cranberry juice.