Drinking Alcohol

Find out about the types of alcoholic drinks popular in the UK...

Know Your Ales

  • Bitter: The most common ale type is highly hopped and of variable strength (from light "session" beers below 4% abv to strong beers over 5% abv).
  • Mild: Less hoppy than bitter, mild is rarely poured in modern British pubs
  • Porter: A dark, slightly sweet hoppy ale. Again, not much found in pubs today
  • Stout: The dark strong version of the porter, with a thick creamy head and a grainy taste

Cider and Perry

England, notably its southern, East Anglian and West Country patches, has been making cider since Roman times. Medieval monasteries kept their coffers stocked by selling spiced cider to a thirsty public and by the mid 17th century almost every farm had its own orchard and cider press. Farm labourers would even receive part of their wages in cider. In the later 20th century cider production became a more industrial affair, generating the gassy, clear, concentrate version sold in pubs around Britain. However, traditional cider - the flat, cloudy sort to which varying apple varieties and blends bring subtly different flavours - is enjoying a revival. Today, no one drinks more cider per head than the British. Perry is the pale gold coloured pear cousin of cider, made in the South West for centuries using a similar method to cider, albeit with the addition of a secondary fermentation.

The Brits and Their Wine

Wine drinking has been part of British culture for centuries. Romans and monks maintained a homegrown industry but the good stuff was always imported from France. Henry II's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 established a trade route from Bordeaux that saw Britain become the main beneficiary of claret for the next 300 years. When the Hundred Years War and high taxes severed relations, taste buds were retrained toward Iberian sherry, Madeira and port. The taste for European wines re-emerged in the 19th century but was confined predominantly to the middle or upper classes until the later 20th century when French, German, Italian and, in the 1990s, unpretentious New World wines found their way into bars, pubs and supermarkets. Britain's similarly long relationship with champagne is also in rude health; more is imported today (about 40 million bottles a year) than ever before. Only the French drink more.

On the home front, English and Welsh wine (Scotland and Northern Ireland don't get involved) was something of a joke 20 years ago. However, while the climate remains a shade too damp and cold to have a sizeable wine industry, the native talent for producing light, aromatic whites has improved significantly. Vineyards are scattered throughout southern England, with the highest concentration in Kent and Sussex. There are more than 350 making saleable wine: the largest, Denbies Wine Estate on the Surrey Downs, has over 250 acres under vine but most average a couple of acres at most. In common they tend to grow M??ller-Thurgau, Seyval Blanc, Bacchus or Reichensteiner grapes. English Wine Week at the end of May celebrates the growing tradition.

Wine stats

  • Less than one per cent of all wine sold in Britain is made on home turf
  • The largest exporter of wine to Britain is Australia, followed by France and the USA
  • Around 15 per cent of all English and Welsh wine is sparkling

Defining quality

In 1992 the Quality Wine Scheme, creating a strict criteria for cultivation, region, yield and taste, was set up as an English and Welsh equivalent to the AOC system in France. There are three labels: English (or Welsh) Vineyard Quality Wine, produced in a specific region, English (or Welsh) Regional Wine and UK Table Wine.


Uisge beatha, the "water of life" as the Gaels call it, has been made in the Scottish Highlands and Ulster since at least the 15th century. These days sales at home and abroad are huge, with Scotch whisky contributing some £100 million to the Exchequer each year. Of the two main varieties, single malts come from a specific distillery and are made solely with malted barley, while blended whisky is created from a mixture of single malt and grain whisky (produced using malted and unmalted cereals) and may come from more than one distillery. Various factors determine a whisky's character: the quality of the water, type of malted barley, amount of peat used in drying the grain, type of wooden barrel used for maturation, length of maturation - all will affect the taste and 'nose', which can range from deep, pungent and smoky to light, gentle and sweet. Scotland harbours over a hundred distilleries, almost half secreted in the Speyside whisky heartland of the north east. Elsewhere in Scotland Islay, Orkney and the Campbeltown peninsula also produce distinguished malts. Northern Ireland retains only one distillery, Bushmills, but it does claim to be the oldest in the world, having received its licence from King James I in 1608.


A taste for gin British troops fell for a juniper-flavoured spirit while fighting in the Netherlands in the 1580s and brought 'Dutch courage' back to England where it was put on sale in chemists. By 1720 a quarter of households in London were distilling their own gin and drunkenness, particularly amongst the poor, had become a serious problem.

Gin's reputation climbed in the mid 1800s with the introduction of a less rough version, dry gin. It later became known as London Dry, named by association with the capital. British gin tends to be higher proof than European or American versions and has the distinction of dried lemon and citrus peel in its mix of botanicals.

Extract from Speak the Culture Britain, a Thorogood publication, supported by the British Council Speak the Culture series website / Buy online Copyright ® 2009 Thorogood Publishing