April 28, 2023

How Has Chicago’s Drinking Culture Been Changing?

By Mary Clare Cheski and Aylin Arredondo

Chicago Bar Scene photo

Saturday night at The Long Room. (Photo/Mary Clare Cheski)

Jason Burrell, co-owner of The Long Room bar, describes Chicago as a historically “boozy town,” but adds that he sees the city’s drinking trends are changing. 

After 23 years of operating The Long Room, a relaxed Lakeview community pub, Burrell has witnessed a recent shift within the age-old drinking culture in the Windy City.

“I think younger people are drinking in different ways than they were up to two years ago,” Burrell said. “So I’ve been in this business a long time. So even in the service culture, service industry, people are not going out until four in the morning, like we would, we’d literally leave work and go out until four o’clock in the morning, four or five times a week. 

“People are doing a lot less of that. And I think part of it is we’re finding that, you know, they may love the drinking culture, but they also want to have balance and they don’t want to sleep until two o’clock in the afternoon.”

Not only are Chicagoans seeking better balance in their lives, but “financially, it’s different too,” Burrell said. “When people are making the same money now than they were making in the ‘90s, and let’s say you’re making $300 in one night, well then, your rent was $500, $400 in 1995-2000 and now it’s $1,500. Well, then you’re not gonna go out and spend all your money after your shift.”

The Chicago Department of Public Health’s 2019 Alcohol Use and Outcomes in Chicago Report lists the highest instances of drinking in the city occur among those who make an income of over 400% more than the federal poverty level.  This population, according to the report, were almost twice as likely to report recent alcohol use than those who make an income below the federal poverty level. 

The study also found that the highest instances of binge drinking – defined by the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08,” – in the city occur among residents of North Center (46.9%), Riverdale (45.2%), West Town (43.7%) and Lakeview (42.8%). And the lowest instances of binge drinking occurred among residents of Hyde Park (9.0%), Jefferson Park (10.3%), South Deering (10.5%) and Englewood (10.9%).

Not only are the median household incomes in the neighborhoods that reported higher binge drinking rates much higher than neighborhoods with lower rates of binge drinking, but there is also a much higher concentration of active Liquor and Public Places of Amusement Licenses in these areas, the study found. 

“A higher percentage of adults in Chicago report any alcohol use compared to adults nationally,” according to the public health department. 

Why Are Chicagoans Drinking So Much?

Mike Miller, owner of Delilah’s, a punk bar that boasts a whiskey list of over 300 varieties along with a 30-year tenure on the Chicago bar scene, said, “There’s way more to drinking culture for a lot of people than just the drinking in and of itself. So a lot of people … are interested in the cultural significance internationally, historical context.

“It comes down to how do those people interact in their society. And how much of it is a cultural aspect, even, you know, even if you’re getting together with your friends, and everybody’s into some college sports team, some basketball team, and they’re all getting together in a place and all watching the game together, they’re sharing something. They’re sharing a moment, or sharing experience better than if they’re staying at home and their drinking experience is by themselves at home watching that game.”

Miller added: “Is it about the having of the drink? Or is it about being in a social environment that allows you to have conversation with people who have all kinds of different ideas? I think that’s really relevant.”

Drinking culture and Chicago’s social culture go hand-in-hand. Often, it can be remarkably difficult to find social activities that don’t involve or include access to alcohol. However, “drinking culture,” Miller said, “isn’t necessarily about consumption culture.”

Miller said that people often go out simply to engage in the social environment. “Maybe you get to meet the DJ or the people who are hanging out, and immediately you’re in a community of people who have like interests.” 

Chicago Bar scene photo

Saturday night at the upstairs bar at Delilah’s. (Photo/Mary Clare Cheski)
There has been a shift in how people participate in drinking culture, especially after the pandemic, experts say. Drinking in a social setting isn’t necessarily about the drinking, but about the environment, people are immersing themselves. 

Once the pandemic began, the limitations placed on social environments meant that people had to isolate and learn to enjoy their own company. Thus, many people turned to drinking in isolation, which has led to increasing health issues. 

Dr. Subhash Pandey, a neuroscientist conducting research on alcohol addiction at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School Department of Psychiatry, said COVID-19 drove up binge drinking as well as impacting other habits.

“The report in the field,” Pandey said, “what it’s suggesting is that the binge drinking or drinking in general has gone up, because of the COVID-19 and one of the phenomena wakes up because first thing is social, kind of, social isolation.

“Some people may be suffering with depression, and maybe these psychiatric disorders, they were probed further by the social isolation. And the people drink alcohol to self-medicate.”

Read more: Chicago sees surge in North Side liquor license requests

People have dealt with high amounts of stress during the pandemic whilst living in a moment of uncertainty, sickness and social isolation. For many people, drinking helped to ease the stress, which has led to higher levels of binge drinking. 

“Because either people feel anxious,” Pandey said, “suffering with anxiety disorder, people are stressed or depressed, there [are] some times they drink to self medicate. And when they drink, they feel relaxed. And because alcohol itself is an anti-anxiety compound, like it has in genetic effects, as people drink they feel relaxed and anxiety goes away. So kind of a self-medication phenomenon.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found in a study on the pandemic’s effects on drinking that “in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, sales of alcohol increased by 2.9%, the largest annual increase in over 50 years.”

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Additionally, the study showed that “deaths involving alcohol jumped 25.5% between 2019 to 2020, totaling 99,107 deaths.”

Chicagoans are not immune to the observed increases in drinking nor the consequences. In 2020, 254 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in Illinois, approximately 21% of the 1,195 total crash fatalities. 

Following the release of the COVID vaccine and relaxation of quarantine limitations, Chicagoans, along with the rest of the world, have resumed their social activities in full swing. However, as stated by Burrell, many people are looking for a healthier balance in their lives and practicing better drinking habits. 

Miller said that the majority of his customers drink responsibly, or simply come to enjoy the atmosphere at Delilah’s and don’t drink at all. 

“Let’s say you got two total rock-and-roll guys to drive motorcycles,” Miller said, “And they’re here to check out the DJ, but they’re on their bikes. So they might have a drink, or maybe they are drinking nonalcoholic drinks.

“And they might be sitting next to a couple of people who are in from out of town, and they’re sampling the whiskey menu. They’re both choosing to come here for different reasons, but within the context of what we create. And they’re drinking, but these people are sampling fancy whiskies and these people are here to rock out to the DJ, then they’re gonna get back on their motorcycles. So they’re not going to be partying really hard.”


How to Help

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse, visit the Rosecrance website to locate the nearest alcohol addiction treatment center in Chicago, or call the American Addiction Center Hotline at (866) 800-0170. 

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