My wife and I just got back from a 10-day trip to England and Ireland, primarily in London and Dublin. Besides the obvious differences between there and here, like driving on the opposite side of the road and London being insanely crowded, there are many differences between their culture and ours. Being a Straw Hat Barman, I of course, noticed how their drinking culture differs from here. And granted, this is all based on an enormously tiny sample size, but here are some of the interesting differences that I found:
- Most pubs close at eleven. This has to do with licenses, but when I say they close, they CLOSE! They are putting the chairs on the bar, taking out the garbage, turning out the lights. You are welcome to finish, but it is very clear that they are getting ready to go home.
- Most of the higher end cocktail places take reservations. I know that this is becoming more popular over here in the States, especially with the whole Speakeasy thing, but it was weird to walk into a place and see “Reserved” signs all over the tables.
- We walked into a neighborhood craft beer place and saw not one, not two, but THREE types of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for sale. I have NEVER seen Pappy for sale at a commercial establishment anywhere in the U.S. I commented to the guy behind the bar that he would be better off selling the bottles directly to tourists visiting from the States.
- Most of the neighborhood kind of places would have at most one TV behind the bar, usually turned on to a football (soccer) match, or rugby, since the World Cup of Rugby was going on in London. We went into a couple of places that had no televisions at all! It was quite a refreshing change from the wall of televisions that greets you most places here in the States.
- The music tends to be classic rock and R&B. I heard more Lionel Ritchie in England than I have in a decade. We even heard Lionel at a cool tiki bar that we visited. The music is also played at a volume that makes conversation possible. Beautiful.
- There was also very little brand paraphernalia junking up the place. Just because the brand rep gives it to you for free, that does not mean you need to hang it up in your bar! Of course, since most places seem to be at least 150 years old, the buildings themselves are gorgeous.
- There was much more drinking during lunch than you see over here.
- Smoking is forbidden indoors, so you see bunches of people on the sidewalks wrangling both a cigarette and a pint at the same time.
- There is a distinct lack of wait staff. If you want to order food or a drink, you may have to go up to the bar and order it yourself.
- Many bars feature “snugs”. These are small areas that used to be surrounded by opaque glass so those inside could drink without being seen. The glass is gone, but it’s nice to have a little area where you are free to talk without necessarily sharing with the whole bar.
- There seems to be a real focus on fresh, local ingredients everywhere you go. Even their “take-aways” featured fresh baguettes with good-looking fresh ingredients. Not once did I see a bartender reach behind the bar and pull out the dreaded milk carton of some kind of oddly-flavored and colored mixer.
- This brings me to a welcome difference between the two cultures. Not once did I see the dreaded “wall of flavored vodkas” that is a regular feature of bars in the United States. They usually had one or two bottles of vodka behind the bar and menus usually featured one or two vodka drinks, but I never saw a drink menu full of overly sweet, flavored vodka drinks.
- Along with the brand name vodkas, bars usually featured mostly brand-name liquors that are recognizable to most Americans. You would often find Havana Club behind the bar, which you don’t see in the United States because Havana Club is Cuban rum. Specialty brands were usually limited to gin and whisky — lots of interesting brands of gin as well as Irish and Scotch whiskies. It was interesting to see one pub even feature an entire shelf of a brand of bourbon that is very common in the U.S. Even the smaller places also featured a good variety of Italian bitter liqueurs, like Campari and Fernet Branca. Some of the “gin palaces” that we went to featured shelf after shelf of gins. The bar at the City of London Distillery features more than 200 types of gin!
- And almost every G&T (gin and tonic) that we ordered featured Fever-Tree tonic water; the rest came with Schweppes in the bottle, not the stuff out of the gun.
- The beer selections were good as well. Many places had hand-drawn beers as well as the more traditional carbon-dioxide taps so familiar here. A hand-drawn beer won’t be as carbonated and really lets you taste the flavor of the beer without the carbon dioxide bubbles getting in the way. And while beers weren’t served at the Arctic temperatures seen in most American bars, they were indeed chilled. Guinness recommends a serving temperature of about 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Every bar featured Heineken, “the Budweiser of Europe,” but most had an interesting mix of nice, local beers.
- Ice is still considered optional for most drinks. And like a true cocktail geek, I noticed that most of the cocktail places had amazing ice! I was told that London supports multiple vendors who supply a wide variety of ice.
- The hipster bartender is alive and well over there as well. We saw various forms of facial hair, retro clothes as well as lots of flying ice, spinning tins and even some fire! They were all uniformly friendly and talkative, though.
- And of course, we had to make the pilgrimage to the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin. And despite what you may have heard, the Guinness there and everywhere I went tastes exactly like the Guinness here. Sorry.
- Both London and Dublin are warming to having local distilleries within the city. Of course, both cities have had local breweries for years, but Teeling Distillery is the first new distillery within Dublin city limits for many, many years. London has the City of London Distillery making some great gin and cocktails, just a short walk from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Butler’s Gin is also within the city limits and features “Drunch” aboard a speedboat going up and down the Thames during warmer months.
All in all, it was a great trip, and it was interesting to note all the differences, as well as to enjoy the great dining and drinking opportunities. I certainly have some ideas that I can’t wait to try out behind the home bar or at the next Straw Hat Barmen gig. But it was nice to get home and sit behind the home bar and enjoy a homemade Mai Tai.
– George Jenkins; photos © Chris Kridler