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The Third Rail: The New York Times Stages an Intervention

Earlier this month, the New York Times went on a bender. White Russians, bartending philosophy, Scotch, cocktail nerds (Can you use the word “tipple” in a sentence? Drink up, nerd). It was like the Dining and Wine section forgot to preheat the oven and just made do with drinks and a few cocktail peanuts.

The NYT seemed to have gotten a taste for the hard stuff, because they also put together a lot of fun-sounding authors, artists, and cartoonists to form a blog called Proof: Alcohol and American Life. What cocktail nerd wouldn’t want to read that? And things started out well, with a great piece about the “End of an Error” in honor of the anniversary of the end of Prohibition.

Then suddenly, things turned ugly. You thought Proof would be about new drinks and recommendations for affordable liquor? Sorry, no. The NYT had actually staged an intervention.

The Wall Street Journal has the admirable “How’s Your Drink” column from Eric Felten, Esquire has Imbibe! scribe David Wondrich, and even NYT-subsidiary Boston Globe has the unfortunately-named Barcode. And yet apparently the Old Grey Lady disapproves of tippling (yes, we’re nerds).

So far, Proof has sounded like a High School PSA about the dangers of alcohol. Hangovers, alcoholism, loneliness, more alcoholism. The clear sign that Proof was headed in the wrong direction came last week when the blog featured an article written by Susan Cheever, who wrote a biography of the founder of AA.

There are plenty reasons for the standard caveat “drink responsibly” that appears in every liquor ad (though we do wish more companies would use Anheuser-Busch’s “Beer Responsible” slogan). Alcoholism is a real issue. But most readers don’t check into cocktail columns looking for bad news. No one reading the Automobiles section wants to read about the fiery car crashes. They save their blood-lust for watching NASCAR. And drinkers don’t want to read about intemperance in the Style section. When they want drunken dissipation they rent the films of Mickey Rourke.

What makes this teetotalism so surprising is that the newspaper has always had some terrific drink writing. The mixologists just never seem to stumble onto Proof’s turf. Today, for instance, readers could read about how to make a great mulled wine (perfect for a city where the temperature outside is 13 degrees) in the Fashion section. But those who turn to Proof will only find a cautionary tale about barfights.

There are a few easy fixes for the NYT, of course. Proof should stick to the entries of Iain Gately. Any bon vivant who opens a piece with the line “A few years ago, I was bringing a racing boat back to England after Antigua Sailing week and we made a pit stop in Horta, in the Azores Islands” clearly knows how to live well. Or better yet, Proof should bring in the longtime Times writer William Grimes, author of Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail. The fact that the paper’s resident cocktail historian is currently toiling away in Obituaries about sums up the problems with Proof — a blog that seems determined to either bore us or scare us to death.

Perhaps the editors are just worried about the Paper of Record forgetting what happened last night. But until Proof catches on to the positive sides of spirits, there are plenty of other blogs for those of us trying to plan how to spend today’s happy hour. Like this one, right here.

And now a drink to meet deadline:

The Grey Lady
(adapted from here)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon Earl Grey syrup (dissolve 2 parts sugar in 1 part water over low heat, with a few teabags to taste)
2 or 3 oz gin (depending on how slow the news day is)

Shake ingredients with ice and strain. Garnish with twist of lemon peel.