Sunnyside Grabs a Drink with Better Drinking Culture

Author’s note: This blog was originally written for our friends at Sunnyside (formerly known as Cutback Couch). 

In our recent blog, Ditch the Stigma, you got a sneak peak of Jason Ley, CEO of Better Drinking Culture (BDC), who authored the post. We’ve partnered with BDC to invite them to co-produce some content for us. We share much of the same ethos regarding all things mindful drinking, so before went any further, we thought it’d be worth taking the time to sit down over drinks virtually to allow Ley to formally introduce himself. In this casual interview, he pulls back the curtain on his past relationship with alcohol, how it led him to BDC, and how he manages a healthier relationship with alcohol now.

CUTBACK COACH (CBC): How does someone end up leading a grassroots movement like BDC?

LEY: Ironically, by drinking a lot. It sounds antithetical, but if I wouldn’t have taken advantage of alcohol throughout my twenties, I don’t know if I would have the same authentic hindsight that I do now—as it’s applied to the very specific role I’m in now. Sure, it’d be nice if we all learned from our mistakes sooner, before we continued habitually repeating them, I just somehow dodged the bullet barely long enough to come out on the other side with some insight that BDC’s co-founder was looking for. I originally landed on Cam’s radar from a reality TV show I wrote and filmed. He found me online, invited me to lunch, and while I didn’t know it at the time he had been looking for someone to take over leading BDC. After getting pretty emotional sharing some of my story, he offered me the gig. It was a combination of having experience in the alcohol industry, inherently vibing with BDC’s purpose, approach, and tone, and frankly being grateful that my drinking didn’t kill me or someone else. The rest is history.

So you actually didn’t start BDC?

Correct. Camden Brieden, from Holland, MI, did along with a group of friends from Hope College, where he attended. Crazy story, though: the very first time I met Cam—I think it was Cam, because I was drunk—BDC sponsored a beer-and-food-pairing event and I was curious about the bold name on everyone’s shirt. I asked him what it meant even though I had already started to put two and two together, and he gave me BDC’s elevator pitch. I remember tearing up behind my buzz and nodding in total agreement. The next words out of my mouth were, “Where were you when I was in college?”

A lifelong non-drinker, Cam has a gracious heart for people. Since high school, he was always the sober guy at the party. Cool and sociable, he just never drank. As he got older, he watched his peers put themselves at more severe risk with their drinking, trading alcohol for missed experiences and vanished memories. BDC identifies that every negative experience related to alcohol is, at its core, very simply the result of drinking too much of it. The light bulb moment for Cam was the hypothesis, if people learn to drink better and live healthier then all of alcohol’s negative consequences would go away.

That’s a big statement, perhaps too presumptuous.

It is and it isn’t. And that’s part of the challenge of trying to educate our current drinking culture that a better way has actually existed this entire time. “Drinking mindfully” or “in moderation” is just not as flashy or perceived as fun as “partying.” We’re initiated into drinking by the pressure to go hard or go home, and that’s scary as hell. The theory behind building a better drinking culture is as simple as Cam originally proposed, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy problem to solve.

How do you think we solve it? 

It has to start with self-love and self-care. If you would’ve asked me a few years ago, when I came on board with BDC in early 2017, I was full of unbridled enthusiasm and would’ve said that we just have to tell people there’s a better way. But, people need to be shown and they need to feel it for themselves first. So, we’re trying to connect those dots in an effort to demonstrate that mindful drinking can be an aspirational lifestyle. I literally wrote the book on it, which is based on our core beliefs and values. We published The Drinker’s Manifesto in 2019 as an eye-level conversation with drinkers showing that drinking better, which we define in the book, can lead to better health, better relationships, and better communities. And, assuming they’re paying attention to the subtleties, the book is also a challenge to the beverage alcohol industry and higher education to do better, too.  

How does the industry and colleges do that?

First, they have to be willing to have an honest, unedited conversation with those who deserve healthier relationships with alcohol—the consumer and the student, by and large they’re often the same person. The alcohol industry sleeps fine at night because they tell you in fine print on every packaged product to “Drink responsibly.” Colleges think they’re making a dent by exclusively leaning on evidence-based research, which is absolutely valuable, but it often has the tendency to stay barricaded within intellectual circles—rarely do they invite students into those extremely dry conversations (pun intended). And, let’s be honest—no struggling drinker is going to ever read those studies. Or, it’s a well-meaning yet boring coalition telling kids to not drink and drive, or the threat of local law enforcement conducting stings on underage drinking, which we know just makes them find more savvy and stupid ways to get drunk. Neither stakeholder wants to get uncomfortable because calling it out is more of a risk to their bottom line or fundraising than it is to take a real swing at addressing the core issues.

Which are?

Stigmatized mental health, and a culture that promotes and tolerates ridiculous behaviors with alcohol. People unfortunately find themselves in cyclical unhealthy relationships with alcohol—whether to cope or due to a dependency that often evolves due to drinking to cope. That vicious cycle is exacerbated by a general lack of empathy and grace by the rest of us, and blown out of proportion by pop culture norms that say you’re cool only if you drink. Watch any party comedy, follow any college-centric Instagram profile, or just go to your local neighborhood dive bar. We are inundated with messages that reinforce that alcohol always equates to good times and hilarity. So what if it does cause a little harm? We had a blast last night, right?! Then, we swear we’re never drinking tequila again while we’re laughing off our hangover with a Bloody Mary. It’s a perpetual face-palm. 

You drink, right?

Why, do I sound like a grumpy old man? [laughing] I do, but thankfully much better than I used to. I was the classic cliché of a guy who became a different, uglier guy when he drank a lot. The latter version thought he was a lot more suave, clever, and indestructible than the sober me would’ve given him credit for. Looking that realization in the mirror the morning after on a regular basis was a tough pill to swallow. It ended up solidifying into a pretty nasty bout with shame, which, as you can imagine, didn’t help my drinking. I’ve destroyed friendships, relationships, jobs, put myself in the hospital—lots of regrets that always started with having one more than I should’ve. 

What’s your relationship with alcohol like now?

Night and day. Fortunately, just as Cam found me I was already starting to do some work on myself and cutting ties with a career path that wasn’t helping my drinking. Concurrently, in a very ironic turn of events, I was also developing a true passion and curiosity for craft beer. I realized very quickly that if I wanted to protect and prolong that enjoyment that I better get my shit together and fast. So, while I drank it, I educated myself about it. Eventually, after two years of studying for it, I became a Certified Cicerone®. Following closely behind, while doing work across the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on behalf of BDC, I became an Executive Bourbon Steward, and then wrote The Drinker’s Manifesto. But, it was not without a misstep or two along the way. Developing a healthier relationship with alcohol, if you still want one, is a marathon not a sprint. Kind of analogous to how we might be better off approaching a night out drinking, right?

How has Cutback Coach played a role in your current habits? 

You know, when we [CBC and BDC] were first introduced and it felt like there was some synergy to our philosophies and a potential to collaborate, the first thing I did was sign up for CBC. To test drive it, to see if it really worked. And holy shit, it did! Keep in mind, I had already been moderating my drinking with intentionality for a few years, but I wasn’t keeping track of it. It was more ethereal—it just kind of felt like I was drinking better, but I didn’t have the metrics to back it up. 

I started customizing my personal drinking plan with CBC in February 2021, and I’m proud—and pleasantly surprised—that I’ve tracked my drinking almost every single day since. I think there was a glitch in the matrix, probably user-error, around the end of June where I was either on vacation or babysitting my niece and nephew for a week, and I must not have logged a day, which broke my streak. I don’t sweat it because I know it wasn’t because I went on some anonymous bender in Vegas. But, if I am counting, at the time of this interview, here’s how all of my weekly summaries add up:

  • Weeks active: 44
  • Days tracked in a row: 126, 183 
  • Drinks I’ve cut out: 208
  • Dry days added: 72

Then, what’s pretty badass, for anyone who isn’t aware, the summaries that CBC also provides—that show how the small changes (above) translate into tangible, big impact—have further put into perspective how me drinking mindfully has, in fact, lead to a healthier life:

  • Better nights of sleep: 72
  • Calories cut from my diet: 26,000
  • Money saved from buying less alcohol: $1,700

That’s impressive! Good work. So, last question—do you have any personal pro tips for drinking mindfully?

For sure. First, as simple as it sounds, I abstain if I have something important that demands my attention that evening or in the morning that would impede my ability to get up as early as needed to be effective. Unless I’m out for a planned special occasion, drinking after dinner has become a rarity. Even then, I’m factoring what I’m consuming when I’m out based on those same demands that night or next day. Either way, one less will never hurt me. And, if it’s an all-day affair or I’m still thirsty, especially at night—and this is not a paid plug—Athletic Brewing Company’s Run Wild IPA has become probably my favorite, go-to beer this year. It’s saved my ass more times than I can count. 

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