Jay Patel stands behind the counter at his Discount Liquors store here on Lake Weiss, waiting as a customer tries to decide just how much Jack Daniels he can afford.
“Not that one,” the young man says as Patel reaches for a fifth. “The cheapest one you’ve got.”
Like a lot of other people in this nominally dry county, the unemployed 22-year-old was looking for a belt.
Fifteen percent of people in Cherokee County reported binge drinking within the previous 30 days, according to a survey released last month by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
That means the men consumed at least five drinks, and the women four, in less than two hours, which would typically result in a blood alcohol level of at least 0.8 percent. That rate of consumption places the county, along with several other dry counties, near the top of the rankings for hard drinking in Alabama.
Dale County, a wet county that is home to the Fort Rucker Army base, had the highest binge drinking rate, 20 percent, the survey found. Jefferson County had a binge drinking rate of 15 percent, and Shelby County 11 percent, compared with a statewide rate of 12 percent, according to the survey.
That several dry counties had binge drinking rates higher than the state average came as no surprise to those who monitor the consumption of alcohol in Alabama.
Peggy Batey, executive director of the Alabama chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the odd amalgam of wet, dry and damp counties in Alabama forces some people to drive significant distances to buy liquor or beer. If you drive a long distance, you tend to buy in bulk. And if you buy in bulk, Batey said, you’re more likely to drink the same way.
“On weekends people drive to wet counties, and they stock up,” she said. MADD does not oppose legal drinking, and has no position on the issue of wet versus dry counties, she said.
There also are other circumstances that drive the binge drinking rates in dry counties with high numbers. Cedar Bluff, a wet municipality in the dry Cherokee County, is about 15 miles from liquor stores in Georgia.
That Patel was mostly alone in his store on a recent afternoon is not evidence of Cedar Bluff’s sobriety, he said, but of Alabama’s high liquor taxes and of the county’s proximity to Georgia. The people of Cherokee County can take a short drive and save up to 40 percent by buying in Georgia.
Dale County in southeast Alabama, the hardest-drinking county in the state measured by the binge drinking data, is a wet county, but hardly so, according to Sheriff Wally Olson.
There are three bars in the town of Ozark, and the county’s rate of liquor stores per resident is among the lowest in the state, according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation data. Some legally dry counties with wet municipalities have more liquor stores in them than Dale County.
“That really shocks me,” Olson said of the binge drinking data. “We have our fair share of DUIs,” but not more than other counties.
Some Dale County officials who did not want to be identified for fear of offending the military said the county’s high number is almost certainly a result of Fort Rucker. Military bases are filled with young men, and young men drink, they said.
Despite high numbers in a handful of counties, Alabama is a teetotaler by national standards. The national median in a National Institutes of Health survey last year was a bingeing rate of 16 percent. While the numbers have changed some over time as survey methods have changed, the national pattern has been consistent.
States in the upper Midwest have the highest occurrences of binge drinking –Wisconsin was ranked first with 23 percent reporting bingeing — and Southern states generally have among the lowest.
Utah, where respondents reported a binge drinking rate of 8.2 percent, has the nation’s lowest.