I drink too much. I know this. My poor long-suffering liver knows this. Even observers both close and distant have noticed this. It’s the curse of a) being obsessed with wine, b) working in the world of wine and c) living in a country where my obsession is both high quality, readily accessible and cheap. It doesn’t help that I produce drinking videos, write blogs about booze and, clearly, have a podcast/blog dedicated to wine. But I’m no alcoholic.

I have my own rules of drinking:

  1. I never drink at home alone – unless the situation is drastic and for whatever the reason I’m having the worst day imaginable.
  2. I won’t drink for drinking’s sake – there needs to be at least some semblance of a point (and that can be as light as a sunny afternoon on a terrace).
  3. I don’t drink until I’m blind drunk and I regret the rare time’s it has happened.
  4. I try not to mix. If I’m on wine, it’s wine. If gin and tonic, then gin it is.

This got me thinking about the differences between the drinking cultures of my two homes – UK, the home of the past and Spain, the home of the now. I loved my time in Russia, but to start talking about the drinking culture there, well, we’d be here all day. I thought it would be interesting to look at the general ways the two countries drink, gazing through my own very personal and fuzzy lens.

UK

This, logically, was my first exposure to drinking. I shall precede this by saying that I never got drunk until I was 18 years old and in the first year of university.

I was never interested in drinking alcohol – I may have had the odd Bacardi Breezer at my friend Ollie’s house as a teenager – but just looking at the culture around me, what it did to people, was enough to put me off.

In the UK people – and of course I am painting with wildly broad brushstrokes here – seemed to be drinking to escape, forget, release, unleash, as opposed to really enjoying themselves. Every Friday and Saturday night, and nothing has changed, from the largest cities to the smallest towns – in my case Thames town Maidenhead – people could be seen at 1am, blind drunk; shouting, vomiting, fighting, weeping, having their backs rubbed as they sat on the curb, talking to the owners of the kebab shop as they clumsily shovelled low-grade meat and chips into their mouths, hollering at girls, hollering back at the boys.

It seemed, it seems, that a weekend evening is a failure unless you finish wobbling around with your cerebral faculties relegated to being a confused, angry or emotional gloop sloshing around your head.

I drank at university of course, but within a year had found my limits and would rarely return to the point where I wasn’t at least mostly in control of my senses.

In the second year I started to get into Port and crappy off-dry rosés. Classic gateway wines.

In the third year – abroad in Spain and Russia – I had got into beer and spirits and no longer liked sweet drinks.

In the fourth year I found both tea, coffee and wine to my taste. It became more about going to the pubs with friends and drinking local Somerset ales and ciders and being in good company. Very seldom were the times we could be bothered to go to a club or disco: noise, drunk people and dancing. The opposite of a good time.

Regarding wine, often the problem with the UK is two-fold:

  1. The way we drink – getting blitzed at the weekend. The idea of having a relaxed glass of wine for lunch is almost unimaginable.
  2. The price – the simple fact is that a lot of alcohol, especially wine, is quite expensive. So Mon-Thurs you take your foot off the gas, and then slam it down hard at the weekend to reward yourself.

Remember I’m looking at this through my not-quite-thirty-years-old goggles. My parents, indeed a lot of middle-aged and up people, tend to be more Mediterranean in their consumption.

Spain

Now, in the same way that not everyone is always going out and getting wasted in the UK, not everyone in Spain is an angel that never gets drunk. My goodness they do. But the tone is different.

I initially thought I was in paradise when I arrived in Madrid, for the simple reason that I could get bottles of very drinkable wines for the price of a glass of it in the UK. Hell, I could buy a litre of wine, though less palatable, for a euro. What was this alcoholic wizardry? I was young, surrounded by expats – teachers – and we drank. We had house parties, went out on the weekends and that was that. Cheap booze.

Quickly, via experiences as varied as eating arroz con bogavante (lobster stewed in rice) served with a crisp Martín Codax albariño in Guadalajara, a visit to Viña Tondonia in La Rioja where I was lucky to befriend the family – and to this day still receive a Christmas card from them, and drinking cold porcelain cups of Ribeiro wine in A Coruña with plates of steaming mussels, I started to love wine the way the Spanish did.

It all came down to interest and food culture. This was a country where the people drank their wine when they ate – indeed the Ministry of Agriculture officially recognises wine as a ‘food stuff’ and not a ‘booze’.

This was a country where on a Friday night if someone said ‘fancy grabbing a drink’ it didn’t mean ‘fancy getting blind drunk and vomiting in a policeman’s hat?’ It meant let’s have a drink with a nibble to go with it.

This was a country where restaurants, bars, clubs, were all open later. A place were there was no stress and social pressure to pound drinks and get as much booze in you before the inevitable ‘Last orders!’ was yelled to the ding dong of the pub bell. Here you had another drink if you wanted one, not ordering one to boost your level of inebriation.

This was a country were people got drunk, but as a choice or a bi-product of a nice time with friends. It wasn’t the aim of the night. And in over 7 years of living here, none of my friends have ever said ‘let’s get wasted’ and genuinely meant it.

It is a happier, less stressful, cheaper, tastier, slower, more social, amiable, and gratifying way of drinking. And yes, occasionally to the point where the act of walking in a straight line seems the most monumental complicated thing. And that’s how I prefer it.

Salud!


De Vinos

  • Calle de la Palma, 76
    28015 Madrid
  • Barrio: Universidad
  • Metro: Noviciado
  • +34 911 823 499

Strolling one day with Luke on the old Calle Palma, he took me to this little tavern. It is not unusual that is filled with people, and not just for their tastings, concerts or promotions of wine and vermouth, but because it is really a great place to discover and appreciate the world of wine. It’s easy to miss it, keep your eyes open when walking nearby. The interior has that stale air, with tradition, we call it in Spain with ‘solera’, part of our tradition, really welcoming. The tavern really smells history, did you know it is a former dairy?.

Do not worry if there are many people at the entrance, because there is more room at the back.

The best thing of the place is the owner Yolanda, a real winelover. Let her take you under her wing, her wine list is as wide as it is interesting, served “como Dios manda”. Succumb to the most extravagant denominations, leave the mainstream path of Rioja and Ribera: Mencia, Bierzo, Somontano … By glass or bottle, and do not worry if you don’t finish the bottle, you can bring it home, or better still, they can vacuum seal with a name tag. Cool, right?

It’s not all about wine, they also have some tapas that are a real pleasure to the senses. The menu is as good as the wine one. I especially remember the parmesan mousse with red wine jam … Oh. My. God. Or just go with a simple cheese. Simple tapas: a cheese and a wine. Pleasure of the gods

Posada del León de Oro

The old inns of old “Madrid de los Austrias”, near the Plaza Mayor, have been reconverted into sofisticated hotels that have not turned their backs on one of the most rooted traditions in this city: wine. La Posada del León de Oro is one of those hostels of the late nineteenth century, crossed by the Christian wall of the XII century, and which, after its lavish restoration, has not lost its noisy and daily hubbub, like all the best bars in Madrid. It is not overly expensive for such a luxurious looking place. They have done a very good job with the restoration of the old inn.

The wine list has more than 300 types. Ask for whichever bottle you want, and pay only the bottle plus the corkage. The floor in some parts is transparent glass and you can see the ancient cellar through it. Among all the wines they pay special attention to the Madrid ones, something I like. The tapas range goes from the simplest things like the typical pincho de tortilla to the most sophisticated ones.

Matritum

  • Calle Cava Alta, 17
    28005 Madrid
  • Barrio: La Latina
  • Metro: La Latina
  • +34 913 658 237
  • matritum.es

Matritum is the Latin name for Madrid, but do not look in the history books, this is not a Roman city. The city of Madrid is much more recent, and that’s the reason they can make tunnels and holes anywhere without fear of finding a Roman arena or some Arab baths.

This is definitely my favorite corner of La Latina, small and friendly. The food is exquisite, with a touch of innovation but respectful to the national gastronomic tradition. Pre-book your dinner at this pleasant and hidden restaurant of Cava Alta. Let yourself go by the advice of Alfonso, the sommelier, who is in charge of the place. Meatballs, croquettes, foie gras… see what the staff recommend. The journey of flavors is amazing.

The place is intimate with few tables, not quite cheap, but acceptable. The wine list is designed for each season and includes varieties ranging from the expected Riojas to the unexpected, large enough to have the sensation of traveling around world. It will not disappoint you. This place has also a wide variety of tapas and wines from all regions of Spain.

Casa Lucas

  • Calle de la Cava Baja, 30
    28005 Madrid
  • Barrio: La Latina
  • Metro: La Latina
  • +34 913 650 804
  • casalucas.es

Casa Lucas is one of those places to stop when you are in the area. It is located right next to the emblematic Casa Lucio and is one of the most popular places on the Cava Baja. You will be surprised how small it is, just 6 or 7 tables, so plan your visit well, it’s always full.

If you have to wait, that it is the perfect moment to take a wine at the bar. Here it works the rule of “eat well, drink well”. The menu is excellent, and the wine list is more than acceptable. Do not look for a sophisticated place, newly designed, loud music or dim lighting. This is a bar. Yes. The food is exquisite and worth paying that little more than the local bars. Excellent croquettes, chicken curry, tatakis …

The wine list runs all the Spanish geography with more than twenty references across the country

Taberna Tempranillo

  • Calle Cava Baja, 38
    28005 Madrid
  • La Latina
  • Metro: La Latina
  • +34 913 641 532

I love this wine and tapas bar in its simplicity: wine and tapas. You always find people packed into it, so the sooner you go the better. A wall full of bottles up to the ceiling decorates the bar. Wine, that is the word that defines this bar. After all, Tempranillo is the most famous grape of Spain. You will find excellent quality wines from all over the country at good price. With every wine you get a tapa: excellent embutidos as ham, chorizo, lomo…accompanied by bread of the highest quality. A real pleasure for the mouth.

The tapas menu exceeds the conventional: let yourself be taken away on a flavour zephyr with sophisticated Iberian ham, crab or foie gras, line-caught tuna with garden vegetables. Their open sandwiches, tostas, a real Madrid obsession, are to die for here. The price is incredibly reasonable, so the only thing you have to deal is with the lack of space.