"I'm never gonna drink again" is probably the most repeated - and the most often broken - resolution ever heard. We all hate alcohol the day after we drink too much, but despite the stomach and headache, it certainly was a good party - and alcohol probably played an important role in it.

Maybe you tasted it for the first time when you were still not legally allowed to, when your grandfather let you sip his champagne on a New Year's Eve. Or perhaps you secretely shared a beer with your friends after school.

In any case, alcohol is around as we grow up and somehow shapes our social relationships. It doesn't matter if you're a teetotaler or someone who can't imagine a party without drinks: alcohol is part of your culture. You don't think so? It's pretty certain that you'll know more about the alcoholic specialities of your country than the lyrics of its folk songs.

Another way to see how socially important alcohol is in Europe is by visiting a different country and realising that one of the things that most shocked you was their drinking patterns. Four of our authors share their impressions on alcohol as foreign visitors and compare them to their own country's drinking culture.

Ketija Riteniece recalls how in Finland alcohol causes a 'Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde' effect in its inhabitants. Christian Diemer explodes the stereotype of Russians only drinking vodka. Boris Ludwig reports how Italians' passion for wine can be as visceral as their love for their soccer team. And Ingvild Lindgren gives us some tips on how to survive the English drinking competition.

tomhenselmini Yukon_White_Lightmini
Double Sided Finns. They tend to be calm and shy, but it all mutates with  alcohol more... Natyurlikh. Alcohol in urban Russia and rural Ukraine. Breaking down some stereotypes - or not more...
slack12mini imaaaginemini
Vino never comes alone. Do it the Italian way: take a glass and join the conversation more... English drinking for foreigners. Brits can drink more beers in one night than other Europeans in their own life more...

Cover photo: fvrt (flickr)

 Double-sided Finns

Ketija Riteniece comes from Latvia and spent time getting to know the drinking culture in Finnland

"Never touch a Finn" was one of the main pieces of advice given during the "Survival Finnish" lesson to exchange students. Later I heard that repeated several times. And keep a distance.

That perfectly hangs together with my conception of a typical Finn. Introverted, shy and gloomy. Not exactly your best friend in five minutes.

Another warning to remember when going to pub was to keep your friendly mouth shut. Talking to strangers is considered flirty in Finland.

It's commonly said that you should warm up a singing voice before coming to traditional student sitz – a sort of "sitting around a table and having dinner" thing. But I wasn't told to prepare for physical activities and switch on a chirpy mood. It was a huge surprise to see those quiet Finns beating the table for another song with quite obscene lyrics, singing hand in hand, jumping on chairs and crawling under the table, shouting and laughing. What was going on?

Photo: Tom Hensel (flickr)
Alcohol makes Finns warm up and break out of their stereotype as a reserved and distant nation.

"It's all about the alcohol,” explains the Finnish girl sitting opposite. Well, I could not exactly grumble about the lack of it. Already my stomach was filled with a mixture of cider, wine, beer, snabs, punch, something black and something green...

A middle-aged man with old-fashioned glasses sits down next to me – not the type I would like to flirt with. Surprisingly he starts a conversation. He is a history teacher, married, no kids. We converse easily about teenagers and medieval history for a while and then say a friendly goodbye. Is another rule broken? Or is it "all about the alcohol" again?

Of course we all have heard the phrase "hard-drinking nation" concerning Finns before, but not many of us are aware of the complex history surrounding drinking in Finland. It's not just that beer is mentioned in the national epic, the Kalevala. In the Middle Ages seamen and soldiers got their wages paid in beer and actually drinking water was seen as wasteful. "Taking a shot of alcohol every morning annihilates all worms," instructs a Finnish medicine book written in the 17th century. They believed that nothing but beer made Finnish women so fertile that they gave birth to twins.

But the fight against alcohol in Finland has a history as well. Lapland was the first territory where prohibition was introduced – already in 1842. For the whole country it came into force in 1919. Prohibition allowed producing alcohol only for medical, technical and scientific aims.

Photo: sokr (flickr)
Finns usually travel to Tallinn to buy cheaper alcohol

Of course it didn't work out so simply. Doctors prescribed champagne and brandy as the best treatment for most illnesses. Smugglers lived like kings and policemen were corrupt.

Although prohibition was cancelled in 1932, the government still tried to control the habits of a hard-drinking nation. Buying drinks in alcohol stores monopolised by the state was quite complicated and the limit per customer was only one litre. After the Second World War there was a rationing system. Finns were introduced to a variety of wines to change their habits. Although wine has been appreciated ever since by Finns, the aim of importing wine-culture was to reduce the consumption of strong alcohol, and that has still not been achieved.

Present efforts don't have much effect either. Although the age and hours of purchasing drinks are limited and prices are inflated, Finns - with their pure ten litres a year - are still the hardest drinkers in the Nordic countries. As they did during the Dry Law period, Finns find ways to buy alcohol. Nowadays, for example, ferry trips between Tallinn and Helsinki or Stockholm-Helsinki are a popular way to import a large amount of cheaper drink.


Kippis – believe it – while being in Finalnd you will learn how to say "cheers" faster than "excuse me"… because you'll have to repeat it before every single shot of snabs. This traditional Finnish spirit tastes only a little bit better than pure vodka.

"Alko" – if you are under 18, you're not even allowed to step into Finland's (state run) alcohol stores without your parents.

A Finn is not at work because of a hangover," says a girl who has been living in Finland for six years. She says that no one is supposed to talk about feeling bad the next day or talk about drinking at all. Do they still have some fear left from the twenties? Or maybe they get back into their "cultural shape" next morning – not talking about their emotions, keeping their distance, although last night they were dancing together? Do Finns have two faces – the drunk and the sober one?

It seems as if Jim Jarmusch captured this double-sided nature in his movie "Night on Earth". A lonely, gloomy and not very kind Finnish taxi driver picks up three other drunk Finns in the middle of the night. Not too friendly and chatty at first, they pour their hearts out later on. Such a warm- and open-hearted people! Was that only about the alcohol? 


Christian Diemer comes from Germany and spent time in Russia and Ukraine

I spent half a year in Saint Petersburg and everyone, from my mum to my fellow German bar hoppers, was unshakeably convinced I must have become addicted to vodka there. The truth is that I maybe never drank as little vodka in my life as in Saint Petersburg. I hate vodka and usually never drink it deliberately, either in Russia or at home.

Photo: Yukon White Light (flickr)
In Saint Petersburg, beer is the new vodka

I drank beer. Russian beer culture is an unknown realm to most Western Europeans, leading far beyond the Gorbachev and Yelzin bottles crowding our supermarket shelves. Imagine a country where lugging a crate of beer, which carves itself in the flesh of your hand, is banned from mankind's daily sorrows --as crates of beer don't exist. A country where rushing for the only petrol station in a night-time deserted industrial estate to find their last can of beer sold out is a growth of nightmarish fantasy – because here, you find that on every corner, on every street, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you can grab a divinely cooled can-to-go… A country where beer is set free from the shackles of merciless 0.5 litre glass or aluminium containers, where it spreads itself out without hindrance, gently held together only by a smooth and volatile plastic wallet of 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 and even 5.0 litres!

It was not easy for me to get used to my life in Saint Petersburg, and – with almost no Russian knowledge at the beginning, ghettoised in an eerie dorm for foreigners – it was especially hard to get into contact with Russians. So I have to admit that Russian beer was in my life already before I could say that any Russians imposed it on me. Though, even later, when I drank together with Russians, it stayed beer, not vodka.

One exception: my first date with my Russian friend, in a bar on Nevsky, the chic luxury boulevard. I ordered a Mojito, having in mind Pierce Brosnan's come-on to Hale Berry: "Magnificent view – Mojito?" I vaguely remembered that someone had told me that a man drinking cocktails in Russia could be considered "goluboy" (gay). But she was a cosmopolitan, iPhone-equipped young go-getter, so I rather expected her to join in. No, she said, I don't drink, I've never drunk before, I don't understand people drinking. You only live twice: hot chocolate for the two of us from then on.

My next Russian acquaintances, living in a cheap flat in a god-forsaken village near Saint-Petersburg, were more or less drunk whenever I met them, and maybe came closer to what a typical Russian should be like. Still it was only once that Pasha had to go to his brother, who was in a bad way for some reason, to drink a bottle of vodka with him, to be fine again. In fact, whenever I was with him and his friends: beer. Beer from bottles, beer from cans, beer from plastic canisters. Beer for at home, beer for the street, beer for the lake. Beer for the afternoon, beer for the night, beer for breakfast.

My start in Russia was weird, I felt distant to Russians, and it seemed to me that Russians felt distant to me, an unhappy intercultural perception. Maybe Bagbier became my favourite Russian beer exactly for that reason: because it seemed to me exactly what Russians deem German, without evidently having a clue.

The placards in the metro: „Achtung!“ (attention), „Verboten!“ (forbidden), with a huge 5 litres Bagbier canister smashing the prohibiting signs. In the background a traditional German town square with half-timbered gable houses, a Franconian idyll. Especially the „Verboten!“ was a bit odd to me, as my basic experience as a newcomer to Russia was that nearly everything allowed in Germany was „zapreshchenno“ (forbidden) in Russia.

Or the labels on the PET bottles: „Bagbier!“ „Das Qualitätsbier!“ (the quality beer), „Jaja, natürlich!“ (yes, yes, of course). „Natyurlikh!“ on some placards or labels even exists in cyrillic letters. But everything is topped by the backside of the 5 litres canister. A German hodgepodge in several columns that seems to tell the very, very weird version of the tale of the kings’ children separated by a river, ending with a cryptic conclusion indicating that where there are a lot of people, a lot of beer is needed and where is a lot of Bagbier there must be – jaja, natürlich – a lot of good people.

It was much later that I found out that Bagbier is one brand of InBev, since 2004 the world’s largest brewing company with headquarter in Löwen, Belgium. It also owns the epitomes of German beer culture: Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, Spaten, Diebel’s, Beck’s

Russian beer culture is an unknown realm to most Western Europeans, leading far beyond the Gorbachev and Yelzin bottles crowding our supermarket shelves

Change of scene. I am in Sakhnovschyna, a tiny village near Kharkiv, east Ukraine. Goose, goats, pigs all around, drowsy nature in green-gilded sunshine, and somehow this golden, dazzling, almost bilious green seems to seep into the overgrown gardens with the battered Ladas on the lawn, through the cottages and little houses, over the pitted roads or field paths, thus quietly turning the settlement into a scene of nature itself.

I have been drinking vodka for all the past days. With pot-bellied mayors, with moustache-sporting headmasters, with daring army activists, with puffy, garlic-smelling babushki (grandmothers). No, not everyone drinks vodka. The young guys and especially the girls often neither smoke nor drink, for the sake of their health, beauty, future children. The elder ones do. Some offer samogon (self-destilled vodka) for breakfast at 6 a.m., before setting off into the countryside for a couple of shots with a rifle.

Photo: Christian Diemer
Some Ukrainians drink vodka at all hours, even at 6 a.m.

Sakhnovschyna, evening, I'm on my way home, passing by a nightly illuminated little supermarket, men smoking outside, voices, laughter, singing from the inside. The village musicians, I am told. Big hello inside. Middle-aged men and women, eating, drinking, faces each with distinctive features, looking older and more furrowed than they might actually be. When I'm introduced to them, one claims to have German roots, shows me his blue eyes, shouts the few German and English words he knows, "all gut" mainly, with radiant eyes, and for the rest of the evening doesn't stop anymore running around wildly, bringing me vegetables, bacon fat, omelette… And vodka. One after the other. "Ne mozhno, nuzhno!!" ("not just possible, compulsory!") They play music for me, an old accordion, a guitar out of tune, and their rough voices are fuelled with emotion and passion. They phone my host mother, who is waiting for me at home, of course they know her. She'll come and join us, they shout, and she brings her own samogon with her!


Pivo: beer. Pivnyy Bar: beer bar. Pivnyy Dom: beer house. Zhivoe Pivo: Living beer (without preservative, a speciality in Russia and Ukraine). Kuda idyote? – Za pivo idyom!: Where do you go? – For a beer we go!

Jorsh: The perfect synthesis of this article: a half-litre suicide bomb, consisting of equal parts of vodka and beer. Ice cold, please, because it is disgusting anyway.

Bukhat’: to drink excessively. When a Ukrainian mayor's first question was, where we would "bukhat’", I was discreetly told that he must have contacts to the criminal milieu, because otherwise he wouldn't use that word…

She comes, she sits down, looking a bit shy, while the fat woman and the gaunt Armenian on the other side of the table start a somewhat obscene hugging session, screeching and roaring with laughter. She smiles a bit sadly when I tell her that I like her samogon, I like it a lot more than vodka, I still hate vodka, but I made friends with this samogon. It's basically bread, sugar and water, she tells me, that she puts together in a vacuum canister, and after a couple of weeks behind the cottage there's samogon inside. It's strong, about 50% alcohol, but the taste is rather mild, a bit like Raki (the Turkish schnapps flavoured with aniseed). The Armenian shows his golden teeth, the fat woman shouts with joy, the sturdy accordion player raises his powerful, dark voice for another song, everyone wants to join in, and my German bloodbrother is hopping up and down around the table with excitement, the samogon in his hand…

I have to leave for a minute. Too much emotion, too much hospitality. Not even too much samogon, it goes fine together with the bacon fat they provide me with. On the lonely road outside, behind the chestnut trees, in the moonlight, I see the silver double crosses on top of the village church. My guest mother's husband made them himself, they told me before. He died because of the Chernobyl catastrophe. I think of the house I will soon return to with my guest mother, the house she lives in with her small boy and his toys. The house is cosy, but still seems as if there should have been space for the happiness of more than just two people.

I stand on the lonely street, the stars in the clear summer sky above me, the taste of samagon in my mouth, for a while I cry.

Vino never comes alone

Boris Ludwig comes from Germany and lives in Italy

You love the taste of good food and wine, have a soft spot for partying outside and drinking under a sky full of bright stars? Then you might like the Italian drinking culture, too.

"Andiamo in città" – "Let’s go into the city", is a common phrase that fulfills three main purposes: making an appointment, having a drink and sharing your time together. From spring to autumn, Italian nightlife takes place outdoors.

It's always a great experience sitting down somewhere in the tiny streets of a town centre. It's impossible to count those nights when an ordinary bar became the origin of new friendships, simply because someone asked for a light for his cigarette, simultaneously starting a conversation.

And last but not least, the open sky, bars and drinks are also a traditional dating agency, a successful business since time immemorial.

Photo: slack12 (flickr)
Wine is an essential element of Italian culture

In general, Italian drinking habits correspond to the image of "dolce vita", which attracts tourists from all over the world. Well, the country offers far more than sunbathing, Ferraris and all the rest that films and travel adverts want to make us believe, but one stereotype is really based on reality: wine flows like water. No matter where you go and what you want to celebrate, you can count on a vast amount of grape-based beverages.

And that's no surprise, as Italy is the biggest wine producing country in the world.* Roundabout 5 billion litres leave Italian vineyards from Sicily to the Dolomites in a year. They are made from more than 300 sorts of grapes, many with great traditions, and bottled as Secco, Prosecco, Spumante, Frizzante, Riserva, Dolce, Amabile, Battezzato, Vino da Tavola, Vino Primitivo, Vino Biancho, Vino Rosso, Vino Tinto. Many are used for cocktail-like drinks such as Spritz (herb liqueur with white and sparkling wine).

To try to find my way in this strange culture I decided to ask a patient Italian friend for a short explanation of basic rules in this liquid minefield before drinking the first cup. Still, one mistake was inevitable - I ordered pizza with wine. That's a no-go, as pizza is a simple food which requires beer as a drink.

In any case: Wine is not just booze but also a demonstration of skill and personality. Commenting on a wine's taste is quite common here, maybe because it makes drinking more profound and gives a reasonable justification to try another bottle.

But by drinking wine you show much more than knowledge - you also demonstrate patriotism. For many, choice of wine is like the choice of your favourite football club. You choose the one you grew up with, maybe one that your whole family likes. Of course you support a regional product. And once the decision is made, it counts for a lifetime – or almost.

In Italy, the choice of wine is like the choice of your favourite football club

But whatever you drink and for whatever reason you prefer it: make sure you don't forget the food. Eating and drinking go together here in Italy. It's funny how much I improved my cooking skills although I was rarely invited to real "dinners". People never drink on an empty stomach and so they almost expect a party or a get-together to be accompanied by a plate of food that is often home made.

For a German, all these habits seem rather strange at first glance. As beer has a great tradition in Germany, it's brewed in large amounts, it's cheap but still tasty and you wouldn't try a wine instead. When there is a party going on, all the edible things you expect are crisps and peanuts, and when you drink you do it inside. In Italy, this is all completely turned upside down.


Stravecchio - very old wine. If someone offers you a glass of this, accept immediately because it's quite expensive.

Battezzato - watery wine (could only be a circumscription for something cheap and cheesy)

But I think I'll miss the Italian way of celebrating when I return to Germany. And I'll definitely export as much as I can when I return. Except for the drinking-outside-thing. Because from October until May, Germany is just too cold.

By the way: in comparison with Greece (only 30 litres of wine a year per person) or Spain (33 litres a year) Italians drink around 45 litres of wine a year. Multiplied by 60 million inhabitants, they drink 2.7 billion litres all together, that's 50 million litres in one single weekend!

I'm sure they have a glass left over for you, too...


English drinking for foreigners

Ingvild Lindgren Skarpeid comes from Norway and went to university in the UK

Coming from the cold and windy Oslo, I arrived in the UK as an 18-year-old inexperienced geek. Ready for my studies, ready for knowledge and ready for new experiences, I was keen on integrating as much as possible in the English community. I could however not have been prepared for the street knowledge awaiting me outside working hours…

For me, as for many other foreigners, partying in the UK for the first time was a bit of a shock. The history, tradition and rituals connected to drinking in the UK appeared quite particular. I found that drinks came in 0.56 and not in the usual 0.5 litres. At the same time a beer was suddenly not just a beer but a lager, ale or bitter. Several other measures posed difficulties for me: I quickly gathered that the number of 'units' of alcohol one is recommended to drink in one night is essential in British drinking culture. But I quickly found it vital to distinguish between the recommended number and the expected number of units you are supposed to consume. Whereas the advised amount for a girl is 3 units (about three small glasses of wine), it became quite clear to me after having arrived on the island that it would be difficult to integrate without at least pretending to consume 10 -15 'units'. This was, I admit, my greatest failure in the integration process. Still, according to my Irish friend I should be thanking God I was not on an exchange in Ireland.

Photo: imaaagine (youthmedia.eu)
Partying in the UK means a looot of alcohol

I also found the 'drinking calendar' interesting. Arriving the UK in September, I was greeted with a Stella, and the first months passed with light beers and happy warm evenings. Mulled wine and lager had their peak in mid-December, with the making of traditional roast dinners and general British cosiness which I found that no-one else can imitate. In early January, champagne was introduced to us for about 30 minutes, but quickly replaced by cheap 3-litre boxes of wine as the household adapted to our over-stretched budgets.

As spring approached, the drinking games took over our Saturday evenings and the classical 'binge-drinking' was fully introduced. This I unfortunately knew from Scandinavia, but it was clear that the English had practised it to perfection. In addition to the unreasonable levels of drunkenness, binge drinking was here closely associated with a certain expected attire, behaviour and language use. It was not only the volume of alcohol consumed that posed problems for the many international students. In the UK, showing skin is not only appropriate; it is a necessity and a cultural code on a night out. Semi-nakedness is completely endorsed, and if the dress code is not followed – if you put on jeans and a t-shirt instead of the traditional mini dress you will inevitably end up feeling like your mum. Warm clothes are, apparently, for the weak.


Pubcrawl: To walk from pub to pub, having one or more drinks in each pub. The aim is to pass by as many pubs as possible in one night, hence the term pub 'crawl'.

Pubgolf: 18 bars, 18 drinks. For novices, the mini-pubgolf is possible with only 12 bars and 12 drinks. The one who wins at pubgolf often requires some help to get home. Before leaving, you should at least make sure he/(or occasionally she) has the number of a taxi company stored on his/her phone. Be nice!

Being pissed vs being pissed off: a mistake made by many foreigners. In the UK, being pissed means to be drunk (see 'off your face') whereas if you are 'pissed off' you are angry or irritated. You don't want to be both at the same time.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Booze. Important to write in birthday party invitations unless you want to spend all your money on Tesco Value drink for the guests.

The traditional British evening ended, according to my observations, at three in the morning, with the night spent in your flatmate's friend's bed. Not unlike most European countries, I imagine. But in the UK you must at the very least remember to say 'sorry', or at least 'pleased to meet you' before you awkwardly leave the next morning: I have found, after all, that there do exist some drinking faux-pas in the UK. You are expected to be respectful and polite even when in a vertically drunken state: even when drunk, you must stay in your place in the queue. And you must remember to mumble 'sorry babe, really sorry like' before turning your back to your newfound love of the evening and throw up on the kebab you've just bought.

But you do not have to stay in some randomer's bed to end the evening, and you do not have to eat kebabs. You can, as I did, prefer the continental drinking style and there is no pressure to drink beer instead of orange juice (unless you're watching football. Obviously.) This is after all optional. If the British drinking style sounds tempting to you however, you might appreciate this piece of advice: after the club closes at one (maybe two if you're particularly lucky), make sure you go and buy yet another bottle of Tesco Value vodka from the 24h shop. In Great Britain, I learned that the party's not over before the fat lady neighbour screams in frustration.

IN -935 DAYS