Don’t let the common language fool you, when it comes to drinking culture, an ocean of difference separates the UK from the US. Some of the contrast is widely reported; American beer lovers are unapologetic hopheads, Englanders are much more about the malt. We love our draft a few degrees above freezing, Londoners take their cask ale closer to room temperature.
But these rigid stereotypes barely pierce past the foam. Beyond mere style preferences, our cross-pond counterparts approach alcohol in a fashion you might find altogether unfamiliar. What does it mean to ‘drink like a Brit’, exactly? It’s best to ask them directly.
Work Hard, Play Hard
“One thing I have noticed is the British resolve to pile in as many drinks as possible just before closing time, which in most pubs is 11 p.m.,” observes London-based author Neil Ridley. “The British culture of going out earlier and peaking quickly often amuses me.”
It’s a nightly ritual where beer is typically the weapon of choice. And it’s not uncommon to see a slew of suited businessmen and women letting loose after a long day at the office.
“We typically drink loads after work,” admits Alistair McLaren, a young professional in London’s financial district. “I work in banking so it’s basically networking and to let off steam after a very intense day or week.”
Unlike in American cities, where pubs and offices don’t often occupy the same neighborhoods, in the UK, they might exist in the same building. “But you’re surrounded by co-workers,” adds McLaren, highlighting an underlying air of responsibility. “So you won’t see people falling over drunk that much.”
Low ABV beers and ales prove to be a popular choice. They can be enjoyed over a few hours with family and friends.”
A Pint of Ale Shall Never Fail
Even in London, where cocktail culture is internationally renowned, most high-end mixology is confined to hotel bars—meaning it appeals more to visitors than locals. “Classic gin and tonic are very popular drinks in England,” admits bar manager David Sanchez Iravedra, from Bar 190 in the Gore hotel. “But a ‘pint of beer' will always be the classic in the U.K.” Iravedra uses the phrase quite literally, because even when gathering in groups, English drinkers don’t tend to attack their beer in larger formats.
“People still enjoy a pint or two in their local pub, rather than pitchers of lager [like] in the States,” notes Phil Douglas, head brewer at Black Sheep Brewery in Yorkshire, which reveals equally as much about the Brit's perception of American drinkers.
And whereas session beers have only caught fire recently within American craft, in Great Britain beers hovering at 3.5 to 4% ABV have long been the norm. “Low ABV beers and ales prove to be a popular choice,” adds Douglas. “[They] can be enjoyed over a few hours with family and friends.”
But whether its session beer or something far stronger, Brits always seem to be more playful with consumption than their American counterparts, particularly as you venture further to the north. “We approach our drinks more casually,” claims Andrew Weir, a native Scotsman who moved to the US as Brand Leader for Aberlour single malt whisky. “In the States, [they] tend to overcomplicate spirits with intricate tasting notes, special glassware and other things. Brits don’t do that; we like to let the spirit speak for itself. If you’re open to trying new things and exploring different styles your way, you’ll soon be enjoying scotch just like a Brit.”
You have chat and banter—bartenders that’ll break out stories, or bagpipes at a moment’s notice. You have character you won’t find anywhere else.”
A Thirsty Space; A Sense of Place
UK-inspired bars can be found in every corner of the globe. Yet no matter how hard they work to re-create stylings, fixtures, and taplists, they fail to completely capture the island’s ineffable essence. The English coined the term ‘pub’— short for public house. As such they are among the original social gathering spaces. Despite an increasingly interconnected world where trends migrate across continents with the ease of a hashtag, British drinking culture holds true to an enviable sense of place. It’s in a quiet country inn, sipping ale in front of the fire, or with a group of Londoners unapologetically enjoying shots of Jaeger and Red Bull before last call.
“Traditional, ordinary pubs are institutions around here,” says Patricia Stewart Smith, a Scottish tour guide with Brendan Vacations. “You have chat and banter—bartenders that’ll break out stories, or bagpipes at a moment’s notice. You have character you won’t find anywhere else.”
Button up all you want, garnish your gin cocktail with a garden’s worth of fresh veggies, if you must. When you’re ready to drink like a Brit, it won’t require a menu so much as it will a plane ticket.