Another day, another flight.
This is the reality of my chosen line of work. It’s a grind and it’s tiring, but I’m rewarded with the chance to see places that I wouldn’t normally get to see on my own dime. Landing in the early evening in a new country where the language is strange and needing to shift to a new cultural routine is the norm. Everything from crossing the street to ordering food in a restaurant can be a completely new, and for lack of a better term, foreign experience.
My ritual is always the same when I land. I get to a hotel, take a quick shower, call home to let everyone know I’m safe, and then set out about town to explore the food and drink scene. Depending on where you are in world this can be a chore or a breeze. Luckily pretty much everywhere around the world has a deep affection for having a drink or three and socializing with others, whether they’re close friends or strangers. Over time I have found places and cultures that I truly look forward to returning to and partaking in their unique social imbibing atmospheres. At least for a little while before I have to head home.
The first time I went to Japan I felt like I was in the not so distant future. Maybe something like 5 to 10 years. Everything made sense, everything was clean and orderly and everyone was so polite. Painfully polite, even. It was to the point that I didn’t think there was going to be much of a drinking culture there at all. I could not have been more wrong.
That first night our contact there took us out to a Japanese style BBQ dinner. We all sat down at a long table with hot coals and grills. Before even explaining to us what we were about to do he had ordered everyone tall bottles of Kirin Ichiban and bottles of sake. Before long we had all types of meat and vegetables on platters coming out for us to grill. There was a sort of party atmosphere in the air. We were all talking and laughing over our drinks and casually grilling our food.
The tricky part here is that in Japan, it is considered courteous to fill your friends’ drinks for them, and not fill your own. So, if you see someone’s glass getting a little low you pour them a little more. The idea is to never let anyone’s glass go empty. It gets a little hard to keep track of your drinks after a few rounds of this. Especially since it’s considered bad form to refuse. At first I thought it was just our tendency as Americans to over-drink. Then I looked around the place and there were tables of Japanese businessmen loudly clinking their glasses together and yelling “KAMPAI!” while another table of full of young women were busy pouring each other yet another round of sake and taking pictures with each other. It dawned on me then that in Japan, their reserved public demeanor and respect for hard work is all released at these types of casual gathering of friends, family, and co-workers. It’s centered around eating and being in a group. Everyone lets loose and the drinks flow all night long, sometimes into the early morning at one of the many after hours private karaoke rooms. It’s nearly impossible to not have a good time in Japan. It’s a culture I very much respect and enjoy.
I had some preconceived notions about beer, wine, and a vast array of spirits before visiting Europe. Back home in America, before I really immersed myself in European culture via a dozen or so trips there, wine was always a thing that I felt was only to be paired with dinner. White with fish and chicken, red with beef. Beer was for after dinner or after mowing the lawn on a hot summer day. Whisky came from Tennessee, was always strictly for getting drunk, and was mixed with cola [...shudder]. And, if you drank any of this in the afternoon you “have a problem”.
I learned a few things visiting Europe, though. Basically you need to throw what you know out the window. Europeans, I have found embrace the idea that you can drink socially or even alone without it being problematic. There’s a far more relaxed take on what’s acceptable. The mere fact that people start legally consuming alcohol at a much younger age – 16 in some places – I believe leads to the view that it’s just another part of life, and one that everyone should enjoy, albeit responsibly. People can often be seen enjoying a beer or a glass of wine on their lunch break without fearing repercussion or judgment. They take great pleasure and pride in their local tipple of choice. Spain, Italy, and France are particularly proud of their wines, and rightfully so. Germany and Belgium have a strong and storied history of beer brewing. and Scotland produces, arguably, the finest whiskies worldwide.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about sitting outside in a town square or plaza, with a friend, or just a book, slowly sipping an excellent local beer in the sunshine. The pace is slower and more thoughtful. As an American, this pace is the hardest part to get used to, but when you stop thinking of drinking beer, whisky, or wine as a means to an end, that’s when a true appreciation of the art form of brewing or distilling starts to begin. Even if you’re headed out to a bar in Spain to tie one on, the norm is to get a little bite to eat (tapas) along with your drinks. The combination of a plate of manchego cheese, Iberico jamón, and a pint of crisp and cold European lager is pretty magical and will make you wonder why we’d do it any other way around the world.
The United Kingdom and Ireland
This is pub land. Sure, the U.K. has its share of nightclubs and student-centric £1 shot nights, but to truly understand the beer, wine and whisky experience you need to spend some time in a proper pub. With buildings that claim to have been serving up alcohol since as early as the late 1100s there is a massive amount of history there. When you enter a pub and stand at it’s wooden countertop to order your drink you may very well have been standing in the same spot where George Orwell or Charles Dickens may have stood. You are basically inside of history. You may even be drinking the same exact brew that they once drank, as many pubs have been tied in to specific brewers for years. It may be a John Smith’s pub, or a Fuller’s pub, or one of the chain Wetherspoon’s pubs that have popped up all over the place.
Walking in you’ll notice something – at least in the more traditional places anyway. Handle after handle of tap beers, ales, stouts, porters, and hand drawn casks line the bar. There’s no over the top loud music. You’re greeted by the murmur of actual conversation. Then there’s the food. Any real pub worth mentioning will offer food. You know the staples: Shephard’s Pie, Scotch egg, fish ‘n’ chips. The pub is less of a place to throw down and party and more of a place to wind down and grab a bite after work, or a meeting point for a drink and some conversation before going out as most of them close at hours that are considered early in most parts of the world. Sometimes you’ll see families there having a meal together, or someone alone, reading or doing some work on a laptop, enjoying a quiet pint of ale. It’s this sort of warm, inviting atmosphere that makes drinking at pubs more like drinking in your own living room. And, to some long time locals in small town pubs they serve as just that. It’s the meeting place and gathering spot for the town. It’s where everyone congregates to catch up on the day over a few pints.
It’s hard for me to explain what still draws me back in to American drinking culture, but having grown up in it there’s parts that I like and parts that I don’t like. Still, nothing beats the feel of a good old fashioned American bar to me. There are so many varieties from gastropubs to dive bars to sports bars and weird niche theme places. Whisky bars next door to wine and tapas bars. Places all across the board to help visitors from abroad feel at home and fulfill our need to socialize, fill our stomachs, and indulge in our favorite drinks.
We’ve gotten a bad reputation as the home of watered down low quality beer, loud and obnoxious, over the top patrons, and a more uptight and uninformed attitude towards drinking alcohol in general. We’re the McDonald’s culture of the world. It’s no surprise that when I travel the world people assume that I’d feel more comfortable with a cheeseburger, fries, and a Budweiser than trying the local offerings.
It’s very likely that it’s a well deserved reputation, as our mega corporate brew exports tend to lean toward the crap end of the scale, and college frat culture has probably solely sustained those companies through binge drinking. It doesn’t help that one of the biggest things that America has given the world is fast food.
But, there exists a susbet of people in the United States who actually enjoy and are enthusiasts of craft and microbrew beers. Local distilleries are popping up everywhere as an alternative to the Jack and Jim whiskies that get so readily mixed with Coke. Americans everywhere are starting to learn about subtle tastes in beers and spirits. We’re learning how to pair our foods and we’re trying new cuisines from all over the globe. There’s been a new awakening in the culture of bars, pubs, food, and drinking in America. At this point American craft beers are starting to give some of the European powerhouses a run for their money and there are whiskies being made here that rival some of the Scotch and Irish classics.
I feel like I’m living in the perfect moment for this thing I feel so passionately about. I’ve always traveled the world and wanted to bring back the experience to my friends and family at home. Now, with little effort one can find these same experiences, flavors, and cultures right in their backyards. To that, I raise my glass.
Cheers…or Kampai or Prost or Sláinte or Na Zdrowie or Salute!