On May 6th, millions across the globe will tune in to watch the coronation of King Charles III, who ascended the throne of the United Kingdon following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, last September. A weekend of celebrations across Britain is planned—and the drinks will be flowing.
Monarchists have the opportunity to purchase a myriad of limited-edition alcohol, from several coronation-themed gins and single malt whiskies, to a Crown Martini and specially-labeled Pimm’s. There’s plenty of wine, too, including a Long Live the King Cabernet Sauvignon made in New South Wales, Australia, a Champagne by Moët & Chandon and several traditional method bubbles grown and made in southeast England, where fine sparkling wine production is booming. High-quality sparkling producer Gusbourne has even crafted the King’s “official” bubbles.
But for many less diehard royalists, the coronation is simply an excuse for drinking of any sort. The U.K. declared the Monday after the ceremony at Westminster Abbey a national holiday, and pubs and bars across Britain have been given permission to stay open an extra two hours.
“The Brits love their spring bank holidays, and revelry always accompanies a three-day weekend,” says London-based American ex-pat Dan Belmont, who founded the U.K. wine retail company Good Wine Good People. “A bonus day off that celebrates the royals? It’s game on.”
Not that U.K. people need an excuse to drink. After all, the Brits invented sparkling wine (yes, before Champagne), fortified wine, gin, whisk(e)y (credit specifically to the Irish and Scots), cask ale and beer styles like stout, porter and IPA. It’s no surprise, then, that Britain’s drinking culture runs deep.
“Positioned, as we are, off the coast of Europe, with little historic winemaking culture and blessed with a diverse immigrant population, we are lucky to have an incredible diversity of drinking cultures stirred up and interacting,” says Nick Gibson, owner of the north London-based gastropub, The Drapers Arms. “You can start your day with the best of cocktails, move onto Champagne and fine wines and finish in the late hours with… more of the best of cocktails.”
Whether for Coronation Day or really for any reason under the all-too-timid U.K. sun, it’s high time to pull up a pub stool and learn to drink like a Brit.
Buy a Round at a British Pub
Nothing says British drinking culture like a neighborhood public house—a centuries-long institution that remains at the heart of Brit culture. Sadly, U.K. pubs were hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and, more recently, by skyrocketing energy costs. In 2022, 386 pubs shut—an average of 32 per month. That number has leaped to 51 closures per month in the first quarter of 2023.
Nevertheless, the British pub remains a place to gather, not just for drinks with mates, but for family celebrations, televised sports events, game nights, business meetings and Sunday Roasts (see pub grub below).
If British location’s names (Tooting, Piddlehinton and Shitterton, to name just a few) aren’t delightful enough, its pub names can range from charming to absurd, seemingly plucked from a game of Mad Libs. Names like The Drunken Duck, The Jolly Taxpayer and The Bear and Ragged Staff date back to a 14th-century law that forced inns, taverns and alehouses to display signs outside their premises for identification by visitors and tax inspectors alike. Because many at the time were illiterate, memorable pictures made the pub stand out. Names from folklore, war and royalty came later, adding to the array of colorful titles.
But these days, if you’re hoping to drink like a Brit, there’s no need to bother with names or even to specify it’s a pub you intend to patronize. Simply declaring that you’re off to the “local” will suffice.
If joining mates at said local, be prepared to consume however many drinks there are companions. Taking turns buying rounds for the group is an essential part of drinking in Britain, and leaving without getting in your round is one way to ensure you won’t receive a second invitation.
Embrace the All-Day Drinking Culture
Whether it’s sunny outside or pissing with rain; it’s your brother’s birthday or your second cousin’s third marriage; you’ve had a stressful day or you’ve received a raise; any reason to meet for a drink is an acceptable one when drinking like a Brit. Lunchtime wine with your colleague? Yes, please. Pint to pair with a morning sports match? I’d be remiss not to. After work drinks on a Tuesday? Wouldn’t miss it.
“My favorite English drinking culture highlight is the art of lunch,” says Gibson. “Don’t be misled by the fact that lunch is a meal. The art of lunch is how you take a midday meal and, using ‘drink’ in a professional and considered way, turn it into something that finishes past midnight and doesn’t involve ever becoming worse for wear, badly behaved or an embarrassment to your friends.”
Gibson adds that the sign of a great lunch includes large quantities of food to match the abundance of drinks. “The need for a small kebab on the way home would not render the lunch a failure, but needing to eat again early evening, thereby interrupting your drinking, would make one question if the lunch was good,” he says. “Finishing with a Sazerac for sweet dreams is recommended.”
Evening still remains the most popular time for a tipple. Britain’s most frequented watering holes see patrons spilling from their cozy quarters onto the streets most nights of the week—whatever the weather. As the night progresses, the pub’s collective volume increases, until final drinks are called, usually at 11 p.m.
Drink up for Special Occasions
Most holidays in Britain include drinking traditions. In the months leading up to Christmas, every pub worth its salt will boil up a pot of mulled wine, the heady smells of holiday spices converting even the Scrooge-iest amongst us into “Chrissy” fans. For the rest of the winter months, a steaming mug of hot toddy can cure many ailments. On Christmas Day, Port is poured beside mince pies and Christmas pudding.
Weddings are marked with bubbles, as is nearly every other special occasion. Stag parties and hen dos (aka bachelor/bachelorette parties) are common fixtures in pubs and bars, particularly in Britain’s seaside towns. The Buck’s fizz (a mimosa, but with a higher ratio of bubbles to orange juice) flows.
Order Like a Local
Year-round, pubs specialize in cask ale, poured on tap and served closer to room temperature than the chilled brews more common stateside.
“The one thing that is singular about the U.K. is the existence of cask beer in pubs—a product that is specifically delivered ‘unfinished’ to pubs,” says Gibson. “It has to be kept in a regulated environment, temperature-controlled and brought up to its best over a number of days by spilling, tapping, venting and conditioning, giving rise to much talk amongst cognoscenti of ‘a well kept cellar’ and praise across the bar for a well-kept pint. Or indeed long faces and comments on how much of a disappointment the beer is here.”
It’s not all about beer, however. Pubs always serve a few house wines, hard ciders and basic spirits. The fancier the pub (see gastropubs below), the more extensive the drinks list. Some of Britain’s most highly-rated pubs boast world-class lists.
And keep in mind when drinking like a brit: In Britain, “lemonade” is the equivalent of Sprite, “soda” is seltzer and “fizzy drink” is a general term for soda.
Everything Is an Opportunity for a Drink
Leave it to the Brits to have organized exercise around drinking. A “ramble” typically involves taking a countryside hike or walk that, at some point, inevitably passes the back “garden” (patio) of a pub right when you’re getting thirsty. Two pints later, the walk back is inexplicably more pleasant.
If multiple pub stops are made, your hike quickly becomes a pub crawl—another beloved drinking pastime of Britons everywhere. Due to the pubs’ close proximity—and Britain’s excellent public transportation—it’s possible to patron a dozen pubs in a day and to do so safely, albeit with some deal of regret the next morning.
Dine While You Drink
It’s unsurprising for a nation so centered on drinking that a local food culture would arise alongside it. Britain has come a long way from the days of soggy fish and chips and overcooked bangers and mash (although there’s still plenty of both to be found). These days, Britain’s pub grub can include anything from wood-fired pizza to pork rillette; from Thai salad to tikka masala, with many boasting locally-sourced ingredients. The rise of gastropubs has put food at the center of—or at least on equal footing with—drink.
Despite the culinary diversity that now abounds on the isles, it’s Britain’s most longstanding bar snacks—particularly its creativity with meat and pastry—that are most notable. Pub-friendly, eat-with-your-hands fare like Scotch eggs, sausage rolls and Cornish pasties make for a grease-and-carb combo that’s both stomach-lining and hangover friendly. (And don’t forget the brown sauce.)
Speaking of hangover-friendly, there is perhaps no finer, more cozy British tradition than Sunday Roast at the local pub. This end-of-the-weekend meal includes roasted meat and veg, Yorkshire pudding and gravy, paired, of course, with wine or beer, and shared with family and friends typically in the late afternoon. Throw in a crackling fire, a few scruffy dogs and muddy boots from morning rambles, and it’s easy to fall hard for British drinking culture.