In 1996, upon realizing that alcohol was being unfairly demonized by society, former Army Ranger Frank Kelly Rich decided to fight back against the overly-prohibitionist sentiment of the American mainstream. Seeking to give a voice to alcohol enthusiasts everywhere, Rich founded Modern Drunkard, a magazine dedicated to the vibrant culture of drinking.
As the owner and editor of the magazine, Rich helped the magazine grow to a circulation of more than 50,000, with articles ranging from “The 86 Rules of Boozing” and “Seven Habits of Effective Drunks” to biographical features on the lives of drinking luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Gleason and Andre the Giant.
In 2005, Riverhead Books published Modern Drunkard: A Handbook for Drinking in the 21st Century, a comprehensive guide to drinking and drinking etiquette.
For more information, visit Modern Drunkard online at www.drunkard.com.
Joining the Rangers was a sea change for me. I transformed from a shy 140 lb. bookworm into a hulking 200 lb. devil-may-care adventurer. They gave me the kind of self-confidence I can’t imagine getting anywhere else. They also taught me a few things about drinking.
What inspired you to create Modern Drunkard? Was there a particular “last straw” that made you decide to give a voice to the pro-drinking side?
A perfect storm of outrages goaded me into action. I was living in Austin at the time, and TABC officers were marching into bars and giving people Breathalyzer tests, looking for public intoxication. This was also when the brewers and distillers were looking for cover from the MADD onslaught and were starting that whole “Drink responsibly” thing. When the fact of the matter is, if all their customers took their advice and started drinking just one or two at time, their profits would drop like an anvil down a well.
This was also when the nanny staters were getting their footing. Alcohol has always been under siege from the Christian Right, but suddenly there were organized attacks on sweet mother booze from the Big Gov progressives on the left. The last time those two groups united we ended up with National Prohibition. It was too much. It was like glancing out a window and seeing your favorite aunt getting stomped in the street by a large hooting crowd.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the early days of the magazine?
Everything was a problem. I knew nothing about producing a magazine. I didn’t know how to deal with printers. I knew nothing about layouts or design or typography. Almost no one wanted to advertise. Most of the ads in our first issues were made up. We just bumbled about. What I did have going for me was boundless optimism. Those early zines look like hell now, but back then they seemed a handful of sparkling gems.
Modern Drunkard has a wonderful art style that harkens back to a simpler time. How did that style come about?
I suffer from a condition called Golden Age Thinking — I have a powerful nostalgia for eras I’ve never lived in. I was definitely born out of my time. I would have liked to have been born around 1899.
As you look back over the articles that Modern Drunkard has published over the years, are there any that you’re particularly proud of?
“The Zen of Drinking Alone.” “Ten Best Things about Booze” sums up much of my philosophy about the subject. The continuing “Clash of the Tightest” series is the most fun to write because I get to impersonate people I always wanted to drink with.
In 2002, Jackie Gleason won Modern Drunkard’s inaugural Clash of the Tightest tournament. If you could spend an evening drinking with anyone from history, would he be your choice? If not, who would you go with?
I’d have loved to go on a bender with Gleason. But it would be a toss-up between him, Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Dorothy Parker.
Do you feel that the sentiment towards alcohol in America has changed at all in the years since you first created Modern Drunkard?
If what’s on television is a gauge, then definitely. In the ’80s and ’90s, MADD had everyone in Hollywood terrified. If alcohol was used on a TV show, or even in a movie, it quickly turned into an after-school special where something awful had to happen to the drinker. The character couldn’t get loaded without some terrible consequence. Now, not so much. Especially when you consider the popularity of shows like Mad Men and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
What authors have had the biggest influence on your career?
Many, but the big three would be Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. My first four books were heavily under the influence of Dashiell Hammett.
Any plans to return to the Jake Strait character?
Sooner or later. Maybe as a graphic novel. That’s what the kids are into these days, am I right?
What’s the best thing about living in Denver? How about the worst?
Denver has a fine drinking tradition dating back to the frontier days. It’s unpretentious and still holds on to a fine streak of libertarianism. And it’s still possible to find a quiet dive that hasn’t been “discovered” by hipsters.
There aren’t many downsides. I’m still pissed about the smoking ban. The tobacco smoking ban, I mean.
What is your drink of choice these days?
I’m an omnivore when it comes to booze, but more and more it’s a tall glass of bourbon on the rocks. Not too particular about the brand, but I prefer those with a proof north of 80.