I think that many startups, especially those founded by young men in their early 20s (or older men who haven’t yet found a reason to leave their mid-20s mindset behind) have a frat-boy culture that they have trouble growing out of. It’s the idea that we need to drink in order to unwind, that getting rowdy is the antidote for a hard week of studying — I mean working — and that everyone else thinks the same way. Whether the founders do this because this is the only successful social approach they’ve known or because it’s the one they always wanted to have in college but missed out on, it seems to have a special hold on their psyche. They seem to idealize this party atmosphere without recognizing that, while it worked in the safe confines of college (to some extent), it has a different impact in the workplace, where non-participation carries an implicit financial threat.
Happy hours are a great social outlet when they’re optional and they stop after the first or second drink. When they lead to heavy drinking or any kind of pressure to drink, though, the company’s leaders have lost the plot. We aren’t in college anymore, and no one should have to do a keg stand to get ahead at their job. The pressure that you faced was unacceptable and, frankly, immature, and as you noted, indicative of deeper problems with the leadership of your company. The proper response to “I don’t drink” is “OK, let’s see what else we have.”
I’ve worked at many companies that held happy hours, wine tastings, and other events that featured alcohol. I think that they offer a great opportunity to mingle as adults. Key word: adults. If you can’t tell the difference between a company’s “culture” and a frat party, move along. Until they grow up, that will be a miserable place to work, despite all the “fun” people claim to be having.