The New York Review of Magazines

Modern Drunkard

By Fred Dreier

Circulation: 50,000
Date of Birth: 1996
Frequency: Six times a year
Price: $4.50

I first picked up an issue of Modern Drunkard Magazine during a pub crawl in my hometown of Denver back in 2002. The lightweight, staple-bound book sat in a stack, free for anyone requiring some reading material at the bar.

The magazine’s pages were covered with a retro 1950s design built around Americana-style black-and-white illustrations, the kind you might find in an Edsel ad in a Korean War-era issue of Life. It was a style reflected in the retro culture sweeping through the Denver scene at that time. The city’s unending supply of sports bars was slowly yielding to hip drinking establishments with names like Bender’s Tavern, the Old Curtis Street Bar and the Hi-dive, where pompadoured Greasers outnumbered Broncos fans.

Flash forward eight years and Denver’s transition to a retro heaven is nearly complete. The Drunkard, as it is commonly called, has also evolved. The magazine is printed in color now; it has spread from Denver to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia; and its circulation is around 50,000. The magazine’s chief scribe, Frank Kelly Rich, works alongside a co-writer, Richard English. It sells ad space to local bars and liquor companies to pay the bills.

The magazine has kept its retro ’50s image, including the illustrations-only design. It prints six issues a year, and has a comprehensive archive on its website.

The Drunkard has also maintained its focus, which is to glorify drinking, the lifestyle of bars and pubs and the culture of “the functional alcoholic.” It does this with a satirical voice that requires a cocktail or two to fully appreciate.

It’s not that the Drunkard’s stories lack humor — the pieces are extremely funny. But the magazine’s promotion of drinking is so extreme, so against the grain of America’s “only in moderation” stance on booze, that it’s best read with sufficiently loosened morals.

For example, the 2009 feature story “The 10 Best Things About Booze” offers an intellectual justification for alcohol consumption, arguing that it “lends you the energy and excuse to exercise the full gamut of human emotion, from righteous Moses-coming-down-the-mountain rage to deepest, purest romantic love.”

The Drunkard’s format is similar to mainstream magazines, with short news bits from the alcohol world up front (“UK Nixes Scheme to Overcharge Drinkers,” “Oregon Mulls 1900 Percent Tax Hike on Beer”) alongside infographics that review bars and drinks. Each issue includes two or three feature stories (“Barhopping Through History,” “Cold War Cocktails,” “Three Drinks Ahead with Humphrey Bogart”) and then short advice columns, fiction and poetry written by and/or for the inebriated.

Although the Drunkard does not serve up fabricated news, a la the satire publication The Onion, it does walk the blurry line between truth and fiction. Its “Booze News” section includes factual global news stories related to alcohol, such as results from a 2006 Swedish study about alcohol’s preventive powers in treating dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In its profiles, the Drunkard calls special attention to the drinking habits of celebrities, such as Andre the Giant’s daily 7,000-calorie alcohol intake, and his ability to down 119 beers in six hours.

It’s within this potent cocktail of truth and lies that the Drunkard runs the risk of losing its reader. In the story “No Beer, No Peace. When Drunkard’s Revolt: The Chicago Lager Riot of 1855,” the reader is told “…in 1855, prohibitionists went toe-to-toe, both physically and in the courts, with brewers and drunkards, and were thoroughly Whack-A-Moled. We can, and should, learn from this bit of our exciting drunken history.”

It’s an enchanting story, told in brilliant prose, but can the reader trust it as concrete fact? Perhaps — but it might go down easier with a whiskey sour.

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