SCOTLAND’S DRINKING CULTURE is broken and someone has to do something about it. I don’t mean we drink too much or behave appallingly when we’re drunk, although there is that, but much of Scottish booze life has gone wrong and while over-consumption, alcoholism, and anti-social behaviour are complex problems requiring expensive and intricate solutions, the issues I have in mind are simple, easy, and would require only a set of behavioural tweaks to put right. They would also yield significant results that I’m sure we could all enjoy.
Now that our pubs and clubs are approaching some kind of normality and we can get back to drinking, vertically, horizontally, or at whatever odd angle we choose, now is the time for us to fix many of these outstanding niggles and glitches in our liquor lives. We should at least do it now before the double-vision sets in and we get that bewitching first scent of kebab in our nostrils.
By way of a preface, I think alcohol is wonderful stuff. Writers, artists, musicians, and other creatives have embraced it to help unleash their ideas, it’s the best social lubricant around, and there’s nothing quite like it to make food taste like food rather than mere sustenance. From getting through boring conversations to getting laid, it’s an essential part of the socialising we’ve all missed and deserves recognition for that. If your religion, social attitude, or other set of principles are against a snifter then, while I wish you no harm personally, I sincerely hope your point of view doesn’t catch on and commiserate you on missing out on that first gulp of beer from a freshly poured pint, the aroma dancing out of a dram of whisky on a cold night, and the exquisite pop of a cork as it slips coquettishly out of a bottle of good red wine. While it’s important to remember that it’s an excellent servant but a heinous master, alcohol, like its stout comrades butter, salt, and fat, is one of those things that just makes life better.
But, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with the way we drink in Scotland so… allow me to make some suggestions.
First, and this might as well go for the whole of the UK, stop it with the warm beer! I don’t care what sense of rustic, ‘down on the farm’ charm you’re trying to imbue into your pub, serving warm beer is gross and calling it “cellar cool” or “cask temperature” or whatever two word excuse you’ve come up with is just insulting and adds a needless pretentiousness to an industry that certainly doesn’t require any more of that. By encouraging the sale of this brown dishwater liquid, without even so much as a bubble in it, you’re fuelling that infuriating hipster tendency of taking something bad and pretending that it’s good. I’ve seen it in person; I order an ice cold, refreshing, fizzy lager and some poor sap at the party has ordered a pint of Aphrodite’s Pubes or whatever and our eyes meet, mine full of fizz and tang, theirs full of sadness, disappointment, and the crushing realisation that they still have most of a pint of this awful experience to endure. For their sake, just stop… oh, and while we’re on beer, ordering a Guinness should come with either a short custodial sentence or a programme of mandatory rehabilitation. I’m not normally prone to this kind of authoritarianism, but on this subject, just call me Pilsner Pot.
Point two on the roadmap to making our drinking culture better is related to the first; stop with the stingy attitude towards ice. If a customer orders a gin and tonic, rum and coke, or if they have sustained a brutal head injury and insist on ordering a vodka and something, there’s a very simple set of steps. First, fill the glass with ice… I’ll say that again so I can be sure it’s been understood, fill it, to the top, to the very top. Then, pour the booze over it, then the mixer, and finally whatever do stirring and garnishing is necessary. There, you’re done… see how easy that was? As someone who enjoys a mixed drink from time to time, there’s nothing more depressing than having it handed to you with two sad, lonely, distressed ice cubes fighting the Alamo as the glass gets gradually warmer in my hand. It should be cold, start to finish, and this goes double for anyone ordering a soft-drink at a bar, those poor sober souls have suffered enough already and deserve at least that much joy in their lives.
The third point I have in mind takes us out of the bar and into the home, or maybe someone else’s, and it is that everyone should be obliged to have a drink they like, learn how to make it properly, and always have the ingredients on hand. Imagine, it’s late in the evening and the thought of a nightcap dances through your head – what do you do? If you’re me, you’ll combine a decent bourbon, a few dashes of bitters, a bit of sugar, enough ice to build an igloo, and the gentlest touch of orange zest into something that is far more than the sum of its simple parts – the Old Fashioned. Having a trademark drink is not only a sign of a sophistication that we appear to have long-since lost as a society but it also prevents the needless opening of bottles of wine, which are never as good the next day, or the slumping on the couch with a bottle of beer in hand. If aesthetics are to be as valued as they ought to be, having as many of our fellow Scots embrace the creativity, art, and science of a decent cocktail (a martini, Rob Roy, Manhattan, sidecar, or anything of their fine brothers and sisters are more than welcome) and sit with it perched in their hand as they contemplate life, will certainly help.
Point four takes us back to the bar and this time it’s about the choice of bar. While I understand that Wetherspoons, or any of the other big chains for that matter, is incredibly accessible and affordable, now is the time to find your local, independent, ideally family-owned pub or bar and give them your patronage. The big lads will manage to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic with only a few superficial scars but that wonderfully little quirky tavern in your town or neighbourhood absolutely needs your support or may well vanish, and you’ll be sad if it does. For instance, I studied in Stirling which now has a Wetherspoons pub in it – perfectly inoffensive in itself – but just along the road from the two floor palace of mediocre food sits The Curly Coo. The Coo is a wonderful little whisky pub, helmed by a charming, forthright, and no-nonsense landlady who will never tire of talking with you about what you’re drinking or of leaving you alone to enjoy it. There will doubtlessly be similar pubs in nestled away in your part of the country but if you’re in Stirling, get yourself to the Coo and give it the money it will need to survive.
The final way in which our drinking culture could be, in my very subjective opinion, improved is to remember the value of one day of the week, Sunday. While Fridays and Saturdays are both wonderful days to head to your favourite boozer for a snootful, sometimes accompanied by a bite to eat, there is nothing quite like Sunday pints. As we head into Autumn and Winter (not that a Summer day precludes the possibility), the prospect of rising from bed in the late morning or the early afternoon, depending often on where the company you wake up with has or does not have to go, taking a stroll in the chilly, clear, fresh climate that blesses Scotland at that time of year and ending up at a charming little pub should be cherished. Sunday drinking, certainly for those of us with 9-5 jobs, has a tendency of imposing just enough restraint as is needed to ensure that a good time does not have a bad ending. Toddle to your preferred boozer early in the afternoon and leave just in time for dinner and a few ports at night and you’ll be tucked up in bed at a reasonable hour and you will find yourself replenished, relaxed, and ready to face the week ahead. Also, if you’ve religious friends, they can join you after the service and join in the fun as you all get on with the important work of turning wine back into water.
So, get the beer cold, ditto with the mixed and soft drinks, learn what your favourite cocktail is and how to make it, appreciate and support our independent hostelries, and remember that while Saturdays may be ‘for the boys’ Sundays are for the sedate and joyful pint, and we can just about consider our drinking culture fixed.
Oh… and never start cooking while the wine is still closed, whatever you make will end up tasting far, far better when you’re done either way.
Photos of The Curly Coo, Stirling, courtesy of http://curlycoobar.com/home