Knowledge is Power: who's who in the booze zoo
Booze is something you’re unlikely to be able to avoid when you go to university – whether you are drinking it or not. Drinking in halls, the union and the local pubs and clubs is a way of life for a large majority of students.
Ways people drink
There are three main types of drinking establishments: bars, and clubs. Many people of course also drink at home, buying alcohol from off-licences, supermarkets or specialised beer/wine/spirit shops.
Some bars specialise in cocktails, others in wine, and recently many now specialise in craft beers. The lights will tend to be slightly dimmed towards the end of the evening, and the music turned up. Bars are often the best place to go in order to look at and hopefully interact with potential partners, although (unlike in some countries) it is of course still common to go with a group of friends with no intention of finding anyone else. Some larger noisier bars will have a small dance floor and hence act as an alternative to a club.
Clubs typically open at about the time the pubs are shutting and stay open until the small hours, and are large areas focused on music and dancing. The music a club plays may vary from night to night, often on the weekend it will be more “mainstream” to attract a larger audience. Other specialist clubs play specific genres of music such as RnB, Metal, or Drum and Bass. Prices for drinks will be high, although it’s often worth asking what is on special offer. Although some people go to a club simply to dance with their friends, the more likely reason will be to “pull” (kiss/go home with; meaning can vary) a fellow nightclub attendee. This is considerably easier if you go with a prospective partner or have arranged to meet one there (perhaps someone you met in a pub or bar that same evening).
How drinks are served
Pints. Beer is served by the pint or half-pint. You’ll normally drink pints in pubs, or sometimes in restaurants or bars. Head to a club and you’re more likely to be drinking beer by the bottle – avoiding any pint spillages as you weave through the dancefloor is a difficult skill to master. Some fancier beer bars will offer taster trays with three glasses each containing third of a pint. Even if you’re not in a fancy beer bar, if you see a beer you don’t recognise you are allowed to ask for a taste of it before you buy a pint. Some pubs and bars will be more accomodating than others in this regard.
Wine glasses. Wine is generally served in either a small glass (175ml) or a large glass (250ml).
Shots. A small measure (around 25ml) of a strong spirit by itself. These are drunk in one go, mostly before or during a night out. ‘Shooters’ are the shot equivalent of cocktails, usually made with brightly coloured liqueurs layered to look pretty.
Straight spirit. Whisky, rum, brandy or the like, served in a larger glass than a shot and meant to be sipped rather than downed. People will often add ice (also known as ‘on the rocks’, though expect to get a snarky look if you use that phrase at the bar) which cools and slightly dilutes the spirit.
Spirit/mixer. Also known as a ‘long drink’, these consist of one or two measures (a single or double) of a spirit or in some places three measures (a treble or ‘treb’), topped up with a non-alcoholic drink, usually either fruit juice or a soft drink, with ice. Some long drinks come with a slice of lemon or lime (lemon with coke, ginger beer, lemonade; lime with cranberry, diet coke; there are battles fought about what goes best with tonic water).
Bomb. Most commonly seen as a Jägerbomb (Jägermeister and Red Bull), this is a shot dropped into a non-alcoholic drink, but short enough that it can be downed in one. Not exactly one for the connoisseurs and some are even of the opinion that alcohol (a depressant) and caffeine (a stimulant) can be a dangerous mix. Still, the proportion of the student population that is still alive suggests you won’t be in any immediate danger.
Cocktail. A whole world that can’t be summarised easily. Cocktails include pretty much everything with more than one spirit in it, and a few that are really just long drinks. As a rule of thumb, drinks in Y-shaped martini glasses are very strong, drinks in tumblers are a bit less strong, drinks in tall glasses (including the funky ‘hurricane’ glasses) are less strong than that. A cocktail menu should list the ingredients of each drink, so pick things that sound tasty, and aim to try new things. Cocktails are generally fairly expensive, but cocktail bars may have a happy hour period with substantial reductions.
Notes on ordering
Most pubs/bars/clubs will have house spirits and wines, so rather than asking for a specific brand you can just say ‘a single vodka’ or ‘a large white wine’ and get their cheapest. If you want a higher-end spirit or a different wine from the list name it (‘Grey Goose’ or ‘the Sauvignon Blanc’). If you’re ordering beer or cider you’ll be expected to name the type; you’ll generally be able to see what they have on the taps at the bar or in the bottle fridge behind it.
A second tip on bar ettiquette: you do not queue at a bar the same way you queue at the post office or McDonalds. If there is space at the counter, simply go straight up to it: hanging back a few yards from the bar is an indication to bar staff and fellow customers that you are not yet ready to order. This does not mean that there is no order in serving; it is the bar staff’s job to serve people in the order they arrived at the bar. However they do occasionally make mistakes: if you are served in front of someone who arrived at the bar ahead of you, it is polite to say “oh this gentleman/lady was here before me”; the barman will then serve you after them. Please always make sure you know what you order before approaching a bar when it is busy, there is nothing more frustrating than waiting behind someone who can’t decide what to have; and make sure to pay attention, if you are not concentrating when the bar staff ask for your order they will simply move on to the next punter. There may be staff behind the bar who are not serving but help with glasswashing and bringing stock to the bar; don’t be offended when they ignore you since they are probably not allowed to serve customers.
Finally, be aware that unlike in some countries, in the UK it is not expected that you tip bartenders; if you do want to the common way to do this is to say “and get one for yourself”; the bartender will add the price of a drink to your bill, and either have it themselves or take the cash. This is still seen as relatively unusual in the UK unless you personally know the bartender, if perhaps its Christmas and you’re feeling especially generous, or if you intend to stay for the long haul.
Types of drink
The following is a very brief overview of different drinks and what to expect from them.
Beer is far and away the most popular alcoholic drink in the world and the UK’s traditional drink of choice. Beer is traditionally made from only four ingredients: water, malted grain (typically barley, although both wheat, oats and rye are also occasionally used), yeast (which converts the sugars in the malt into alcohol) and hops (which act as both a natural preservative and add flavour to the beer). There are three main types of beer: ale, which is warm fermented using a specific ale yeast; lager, which is fermented using a lager yeast and then cold conditioned; and lambic, which is spontaneously fermented by wild yeasts. Amongst these there are such endless varieties of beer that there should be a beer for every taste. See below for details on each country’s traditional beers.
There are also many popular brands brewed for pennies on an industrial scale by large multinational corporations, many even substitute a measure of rice in the beer in the place of barley in order to cut costs at expense of quality; these beers range from bland and watery to downright unpleasant, often using a wedge of lime or lemon in the beer to mask the poor quality of the product. These are often termed convenience beers and are generally best avoided if possible. Many will even claim to be sophisticated foreign beers from places as diverse as Belgium or Australia, but are actually brewed on an industrial estate in the UK. Lager or bitter with lemonade in equal proportions is called a shandy, lager or bitter with a splash of lemonade is called a lager ( or bitter) top.
Famous for its West Country connotations, cider is made from fermented apples, often available on tap in pubs. Sometimes seen as a more ‘user-friendly’ flavour than beer, and around the same strength (but strong ciders can be up to almost 8%). Ciders range from sweet cider through medium cider to “dry” cider (can be quite tart). Whichever you prefer is a matter of personal taste, but bad cider can be mouth puckeringly sour and reminiscent of paint stripper. There are a variety of extremely cheap ‘ciders’ available in huge bottles that, by and large, taste horrible. There are also much more expensive quality ciders, as well as a variety of flavoured ciders.
Wine and relatives
Wine. Comes in red, white and rosé (pink). Red should be drunk around room temperature, the others should be chilled (but not too much, or you won’t taste them). Reds vary between light and full-bodied – this typically describes both the depth of colour and alcohol content. Whites and Roses can be dry, sweet, or somewhere in the middle (known generally as ‘medium’). In a pub there might not be a choice of wines, whereas in a restaurant there probably will be. If you want to sound like you know wine when talking about it, there are three important bits of information about a given bottle: grape, country and year. You might not know anything about it at all, but telling people “it’s a 2009 Spanish Tempranillo” will give the required impression. It is also considered “correct” to pair red meat with red wine, and fish with white wine. White meat can acceptably be paired with either colour. The alcohol content of wine tends to range from 11-16% ABV. White wine with an equal part of sparkling water (or sometimes lemonade) is called a spritzer.
Sparkling wine. Almost always white or rosé wine, but sparkling. If it’s made in a specific region of France it’s called champagne, in a specific region of Italy it’s prosecco, in a specific region of Spain it’s cava, but they’re all sparkling wine. Prosecco is generally a little sweeter than champagne, although any sparkling wine can range from sweet (demisec) through to dry (brut). Similar strength to wine, although some people say the bubbles will make you feel the alcohol faster.
Dessert wine. Usually white, this is sweet and towards the top end of the alcohol range for wine. Drunk in minature wine glasses. If you already have a set of those, you probably know more about booze than this article can possibly tell you.
Fortified wine. This includes sherry (usually white), port (usually red) and a few others. They’re sweet wines that have been made stronger (around 20%) by the addition of a spirit, usually brandy. They’re quite traditional, although port has found its way into various weird cocktails more recently. As a general rule, sherry comes before the meal and port afterwards. In a formal meal the port comes in decanters which are passed strictly to the left, and there are all sorts of rules which will vary depending on the dinner in question. Vermouth is an aromatised fortified wine, which means it has a variety of herbs added to it to produce a unique flavour. It’s traditionally an aperitif (before the meal), but is now more commonly found in cocktails. Also drunk in minature wine glasses.
There is a huge variety of spirits, so the following is far from exhaustive. Still, it should include the most common types you will come across.
Vodka. A neutral-tasting spirit originating in Russia and Eastern Europe, used either for shots or in mixed drinks. There are premium brands such as Grey Goose that can be very expensive, but anything that’s not too cheap will be palatable. Typical mixers include coke, fruit juice, lemonade or soda and lime. Around 40%.
Gin. Clear spirit with the flavour of juniper berries and herbs, arguably an acquired taste. Some brands are more strongly flavoured than others, ask the barman for advice. Most commonly drunk with tonic water or in cocktails such as a Bramble, it’s also not bad with cranberry juice (providing you like it to begin with). A gin and tonic (“G ‘n’ T”) is a classic summer drink enjoyed by both sexes. Around 40%.
Rum. A spirit distilled from sugarcane, comes in four main varieties: light (clear), gold, dark and spiced. Most light rums come from Puerto Rico and have a mild flavour making them most suitable in mixed drinks and cocktails. Gold or amber rums gain their colour from aging in wooden barrels. Dark rums tend to be more flavoursome and sophisticated than light rums. Spiced rums e.g. Captain Morgan’s are often the sweetest variety and may include vanilla or caramel flavours in addition to traditional spices. Rum is the base of many tropical cocktails, from a piña colada or daiquiri to the ubiquitous rum punch. A rum and coke with lime is called a “Cuba Libre”, a dark rum and ginger beer is called a “Dark and Stormy”. In addition to the main varieties, flavoured rums such as Malibu, which is flavoured with coconut, are also available and may have a lower ABV. Most good rum originates in the Caribbean. Around 40-50% (some very high strength rums are produced, but generally intended for setting on fire on top of a drink rather than direct consumption).
Tequila. A Mexican spirit made from blue agave (similar to a cactus), it has a very distinctive flavour. It’s found in some cocktails, most notably a Margarita, but is most commonly taken as shots, which for those in a theatrical mood also involves salt and a slice of lemon/lime. You lick the salt, drink the shot, suck the slice of lemon/lime. There’s a variant that involves snorting and damaging your eyes, but we won’t go into that here. Around 38-40%.
Whisk(e)y. A spirit distilled from grains e.g. barley, wheat, corn, there are a few main varieties. Scotch whisky (no ‘e’) is made in Scotland, and will either be a blend (made from the products of many stills and mixed to produce a certain variety) or a single malt. Single malts have strange Scottish names, and connoisseurs can taste what the area was like from the whisky. Drink good whisky straight, or with a few drops of spring water; asking for a single malt with coke might offend the bartenders. There are also Irish whiskeys, which people tend to be less snobbish about. From outside the British Isles the most popular type of whiskeys are Bourbon, distilled from corn and made in Kentucky, and the closely related Tennessee whiskey, which includes Jack Daniel’s. Canadian whiskies, sometimes called rye whiskies even if they do not contain rye, feature in quite a few cocktails, and Japanese whiskies, which are most similar to Scotch whiskies, are beginning to gain a good reputation in the industry. The rule of thumb is not to risk anything too expensive if you want to drink it with a mixer. Good mixers are coke or ginger ale. Around 40%.
Brandy. A spirit distilled from wine, traditionally drunk in a balloon-shaped glass to warm the spirit and catch the smell. It is typically an after-dinner drink, popular at Christmas time. Brandy made in a certain region of France is called cognac. There are a variety of spirits made from fruits other than grapes that are sometimes still called brandy, the most prominent being Calvados, which is made from apples. If you’re going to have brandy with a mixer, pick a cheap brand; high quality cognac can be extremely expensive. Varies between 35 and 60%.
Liqueurs. A liqueur (not to be confused with ‘liquor’, which is an American term for spirits) is a drink made from alcohol, a flavouring, and sugar. Examples include amaretto (almond, although usually made from apricot pits), sambuca (aniseed), limoncello (lemon), Chambord (black raspberry), crème de menthe (mint, and if you know French there are ‘crèmes de’ for pretty much anything, even chocolate), Bailey’s (cream, coffee, chocolate etc.), Jägermeister (herbs and spices) and many, many others. Some are best taken as shots, others might be better in mixed drinks. Alcohol content varies wildly between 15 and 50%.
These are mixed drinks, normally sold in bottles and based on vodka or rum, with strong sweet flavourings. They are stereotyped as being the drink of teenage girls, a stigma with some truth to it. They’re not usually very strong, around 4-5%, but it can be easy to drink more than you intend to since the alcohol is virtually tasteless.
You probably know about most of these already, but do remember that you are still allowed to have non-alcoholic drinks; some of them even taste quite nice. Drinking a pint of water before you go to bed is the best way to avoid getting a hangover after you’ve been drinking. You should always be able to receive free tap water in places that serve alcohol.
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