A Non-Drinker Puts a Pocket Breathalyzer to Great Use

Tech Features

For most, a general rule holds true at boozy events: The longer the party persists, the more enjoyable it becomes. Intoxication increases steadily, and by night’s end every joke is amusing, every stranger a confidant.

But when you’re sober, the inverse is true. Festivities gradually become louder, more grating, less pleasant. A chasm develops between the dry and the drunk. And as a longtime teetotaler, I’ve become an expert in this divide.

Games can sometimes offer a welcome respite for the sober, but they too fall prey to the tipsy masses—a board game is shoved aside, its pieces scattered; a deck of cards is commandeered for a round of Kings. There is one toy, though, that thrives as the night goes on: A breathalyzer. For the teetotaler, it’s the ultimate prize. Suddenly, every drunk friend is transformed into a quantifiable number. It can prove wrong the pal who insists, “I’m not that drunk.” And, above all else, it’s fun.

What follows is a log of a breathalyzer field tested at the bars and restaurants of Boston on a recent Saturday night. The machine, to be precise, was an AlcoMate AL2500. The cast of characters fluctuated throughout the evening, so I focus on the five mainstays: Barry, Dan, Charles, Colin and Jack.* Here are the results, divided into three acts:


4:45 p.m. – 5:27 p.m. Ending average BAC: n/a

The evening begins in a hotel room, the group eager to experiment with our new device. It’s deceptively simple looking: A gleaming silver rectangle, about the third the size of a smartphone, with a single button and small screen. It could be mistaken for a garage door opener or tape recorder.

Impatient, we toss aside the instructions without sparing even a perfunctory glance. Surely, we assume, this machine will require no great knowledge to operate. My friends make their way through a pack of 16 oz Narragansett beers and, half a can deep, Dan is the first to exhale heartily into the receptor. An alarmingly high number displays: 0.08. There seems to be three possible explanations: Dan is a lightweight; Dan has been sneaking shots all afternoon; or, the most likely, we’ve overestimated our grasp of breathalyzers.

Indeed, it’s the third explanation. We took for granted the AlcoMate’s amazing alchemy, that seemingly preternatural ability to transform a burst of hot air into a handful of digits. I root around for the instructions and sheepishly dig in.

Act I, consisting chiefly of beers (and the odd drag from a flask), was a learning experience. With breathalyzers, as any other device, instructions are best read beforehand. But now we know the rules: Wait 20 minutes after eating or drinking to test your BAC. Otherwise, beer breath might deceive the machine—and mistakenly embarrass a friend.


5:37 p.m. – 7:38 p.m. Ending average BAC: 0.07

Act II takes our party out of the cramped hotel room and into the wild (specifically, a Yard House). Here, the drinks become more plentiful and frequent: A round of house whiskey, several yards of ale, a series of pints, and other various brews.

The Alcomate, though inert on the table now and into the near future, exerts a certain gravitational pull. Scant attention is paid to the college basketball game on the surrounding screens, or to the bar’s din. We discuss the power this magical device holds: It can keep track of beers consumed when a drinker’s mind becomes fuzzy. Or, it can expose the liar who embellishes how many shots he’s taken.

As the group downs more spirits, a few familiar habits emerge. There’s the toast where more than a splash of beer is cast onto the table; there are playful, bawdy insult wars; and the steady increase of the drinkers’ voice volumes, decibel by decibel.

Before Act II concludes, we veer into that philosophical territory often broached when a few beers deep. Jack delivers a heartfelt speech on the difference between “films” (Birdman) and “movies” (Transformers). Colin—brow furrowed, eyes pensive—proposes a yet-uninvented Tinder-like app that might make us rich.

This may also be the BAC where drinkers become overly emboldened. Barry types a work email, confident in his ability to craft professional messages while tipsy. But, moments later, he knocks over a beer. (Barry maintains it was Colin, not he, who spilled the drink.)

The 0.07 mark is when revelers begin to crave cigarettes, too. “I think smoking is stupid, I hate smoking, but I would have a cigarette right now,” Barry says.


8:02 p.m. – 9:48 p.m. Ending average BAC: 0.11

Act III takes us away from Yardhouse and to a nearby pub, where more rounds are served alongside dinner (family-style pork, carrots, salad and seafood). Shortly after settling into a booth, the five drinkers agree they’re in no state to drive, no matter the machine’s reading.

It’s at this BAC that drinkers become more gregarious and experimental. “I could eat oysters right now,” Charles says. Minutes later, a platter of seafood arrives for the table. The group is also less concerned about germs than earlier, and now blows without the urge to wipe down the machine’s face. (This raises an interesting question: Can you clean a breathalyzer with alcohol wipes?)

The group’s tipsiness is masked in part by our surroundings. Nearby are other groups, equally drunk and boisterous. In here, we’re camouflaged. But outside, our shouts and laughs might draw attention. I mull asking a stranger to lend their breath for the sake of comparison, but decide against it. My waving about a breathalyzer would be suspect at best, and might attract a bouncer.

As we finish dinner, we discuss the next-day utility of the device. No one is so drunk that they’ll spend the a.m. intoxicated, but that might be the case some other day. “Ugh, I think I’m still drunk” is a common refrain for those battling a brutal hangover. And if your pocket breathalyzer survived the night prior, you can even test whether there’s any truth behind the claim.

*Names have been changed.

Kevin Zawacki is a New York-based writer and editor. You can reach him on Twitter here.

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