It’s been a while since we spoke of tinto—in vino veritas, so let’s enjoy a little truth.
Churchill once remarked “When I was younger I made it a rule never to take strong drink before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.”
The great man’s love of alcohol was well known, but I’ve always marveled, in a perplexed way, at the Saxon approach to booze.
I chose Saxon in the hope of congregating Northern Europe and North America, but really I’m looking for a word that also represents Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia… most of the NW quarter-sphere of the globe, in fact.
The odd man out is Southern Europe, from Greece to Portugal, where alcohol is generally consumed in a gentler fashion than in other nations.
These southern countries share certain characteristics in the way they drink:
- Heavy drinking is frowned upon, even by drinkers
- There is no religious onus about drinking
- Strong drink (often called ‘white drink’, or bebidas brancas, in Portugal), is uncommon. If anything, it’s associated with digestion
- You drink when you eat
- Drunkenness is not glorified or celebrated the following day
Together, these features mean that a drink is an act of friendship and social interaction, usually in a broader context such as family. It cuts across age groups, and integrates rather than dividing, because it’s not central to the occasion—whereas food usually is.
If you visit in Portugal, it’s not particularly common to be offered a drink, certainly not on arrival. When I was growing up, alcohol was never in evidence—my mother used to drink half a glass of Port on New Year’s Eve and get tipsy, and I never met anyone who had a hangover.
It’s still pretty common in Southern Europe to see men drinking a glass of wine with their meal, but women drinking water or soda—this is not a social pressure, there’s no censure, it’s just a fact.
When I lived in England, three things immediately struck me about the drinking culture. No food, no children, and ‘the round’. All of these factors acted to get people drunk.
The last one, in particular, was a game-changer. In the south, it’s not unusual to see a couple of people buy each other a drink. But in the UK, perhaps also because drinks had to be paid upfront, a party of six would by definition have at least six drinks. If they embarked on a second round, that’s a dozen.
A fairly obvious consequence of this was that large parties got more drunk than small parties, and a proximal effect tended to be loudness and violence.
The other extraordinary thing was the race against time: because of the licensing laws, last order bells, and the like, consumers were hellbent on downing as much booze as possible in the time available.
Alcohol statistics make for interesting reading. Because of the diversity of booze, the common denominator is liters of pure ethanol (ethyl alcohol) per capita. As an aside, I was amazed to discover you couldn’t buy ethanol in the UK because people drank it neat—you can still buy it over the counter at supermarkets and pharmacies in Portugal—why on earth would you want to drink that when you can get a nice bottle of wine?
One example of these cultural differences and their consequences was the death of dozens of people in Irkutsk, just before Christmas—they were drinking bath oil purportedly containing ethanol, but in fact it was anti-freeze and meths. I don’t want to get completely sidetracked, but it says something about Siberian weather that you need anti-freeze in your bath oil.
So… fake news—oops, stats. Now, we all know stats are like men—properly manipulated, you can get them to do anything you want, so let’s engage in a little dissection. My source is Wikipedia, that well-known purveyor of alternative facts.
Belarus tops the table, with 15.5 liters of pure alcohol per year—if you think in US gallons, divide by 4. Now, a bottle of wine is about 12% alcohol, so that’s over 150 bottles of wine a year, half a bottle per day, for all people over the age of 15. If you think in beer, it’s two pints a day, everyone, every day.
At the bottom of the list are the hard-line Islamic countries. You can stone your wife, but you can’t have a drink. Pakistan comes in at 0.1 liters, less than I spill on a daily basis.
Some of the hard-liners come in with interesting numbers. Unreported consumption in Moldova is 80% higher than recorded numbers, a pattern visible also in sub-Saharan Africa. In Mozambique, a firm favorite is tou tonto, literally ‘I’m dizzy’.
Where do spirits make up over 30% of consumption? Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and… The United States. China comes in at 70%, that would be the mao tai.
I have a long experience with mao tai, a sorghum-based beverage that tastes similar to paint stripper—like the Chinese Central Committee, it must be handled with extreme care.
My deep statistical conclusion is that countries that come in above 30% have a serious alcohol problem—to use a technical term, they like to get shit-faced. I suspect that countries with a lower per capita consumption, but a high proportion of spirit drinking, do not spread that intake across the population—it’s confined to the devoted boozers.
What about Southern Europe? Greece and Spain drink a surprising volume of spirits, and Italy is missing from the group.
Portugal is very moderate in its spirits intake, which is a mere 11% of the total. It is also number 11 in the world rankings, right behind the bath oil brigade of Eastern Europe. As you’d expect, wine is the beverage of choice, and makes up 55% of the alcohol consumed.
If you compare that with the production figures (700 million liters), Portugal drinks 70% of its production.
But if you move from the big numbers to the sheer pleasure of drinking the tinto, then you must understand that you’ll rarely find the good stuff abroad.
It’s a very sticky market, to use the economic term, so purchasing is either close to source, or driven by word of mouth. Production is often from smallholdings, and supply is highly variable.
I’ve recently been discovering some Douro wines that few people know, but they come and go, which to me, is part of the fun.
The other day I came across a particularly nice one called Bafarela—it’s a lousy name, but produced by a family with a posh name: Brites & Aguiar, could be something out of The India Road.
They have a slick website, but when you start looking at their wines, there’s a link called Download technical specifications.
It’s a wine, for heaven’s sake, not a vibrator!