Alcohol: drinking habits, haunts and links

Southern sobriety

Anybody who has spent a holiday in southern Europe knows that they have a different attitude to alcohol down there. Whereas we in the north have a liking for beer and a tendency to binge, those from warmer climes take wine in moderation with their food.

Is it a product of the climate - something to do with grapes and grain - or are there historical reasons for these traditional cultural differences?

One theory puts it down to the survival or otherwise of Roman culture, and suggests that these preferences had their origins in antiquity. It is noticeable that wherever German culture remained relatively untouched by Roman ways, patterns of heavy feast drinking, based on beer rather than wine, survived until relatively recently.

According to this argument, Gaul integrated some aspects of Germanic drinking into a pattern which remained predominantly Roman in character. Britain quickly lost its Roman veneer once the legions had departed, reverting to Celtic practices, which were later reinforced by Germanic invaders.

The president's tipple

Was the first president of the US a regular drug user? Certainly he was - in the sense that he enjoyed the odd shot or two of ethanol. If that sounds ridiculous, then it's precisely how some influential sections of American society viewed alcohol consumption by the middle of the 19th century. This is why it was considered necessary to falsify the record somewhat with regard to George Washington's drinking habits.

In 1848, an engraving was published, depicting the great man celebrating with some of his men. There is a bottle on the table clearly containing an alcoholic beverage. And in the president's hand is an incriminating glass. Shortly after publication of the engraving, the temperance movement began achieving considerable success in altering public attitudes to drink. And so when a second edition of the engraving was published, some time in the 1860s, the bottle on the table was replaced by a hat.

Healing a hangover

No amount of coffee will cure a hangover. A better solution might be at hand. N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), is an amino acid supplement, and it is thought to work on hangovers by boosting the body's ability to mop up free radicals, destructive chemicals which build up in the liver as enzymes break down alcohol. Incidentally, NAC is rich in a sulphur-rich amino acid called cysteine, and cysteine also occurs in eggs. Traditional hangover cures include prairie oysters, omelettes and the good old English breakfast.

Sober science

Drugs that raise the activity or the level of certain brain receptors could one day help alcoholics to kick the habit.

When people take drink or drugs, a chemical messenger called dopamine is released in the brain, resulting in feelings of pleasure.

However, alcoholics are known to have reduced levels of the D2 receptor, which binds to dopamine and picks up the pleasure signals. This could mean that they need to consume more drink or drugs to achieve the same feelings.

In order to find out whether increasing the level of D2 receptors could restore the pleasure response in rats and reduce their need for alcohol, scientists in the US injected a virus carrying the gene for the receptor into the brains of alcoholic rats.

Within days, their alcohol intake had dropped by nearly 80 per cent, suggesting the possibility of a drug therapy for alcoholic humans.

Popularity of pubs

Britain has had pubs as long as it has had churches, with a tradition of householders opening their doors to the thirsty that dates back at least to the 11th century (many pubs were actually opened in order to provide refreshment for the men building the parish church). In time, these ad hoc pubs gave way to inns set up by the local lord of the manor.

With regular horse-drawn coach services came the coaching inn, where travellers could dine and sleep. But industrialisation in the Victorian era swept aside such chocolate-box images forever.

Now large brewing companies began buying up premises in their area, replacing the publicans with tenants and insisting that only their beer be served. In the 1960s, these brewers began merging, so that by 1980, six national giants owned most of Britain's pubs. As they vied for the high-spending youth market, they turned countless traditional establishments into "theme" or "concept" pubs, of which the "Irish" pub proved the most successful.

Anxiety over the power of the big brewers led to legislation at the end of the 1980s, restricting the number of outlets each could own. But the subsequent rise of the non-brewing pub company has meant that large chains still predominate.

Ye olde pub

England's oldest surviving pub is said to be the "Trip To Jerusalem" in Nottingham. With cellars and rooms carved out of the Castle Rock, it first opened its doors in 1189.

"The Skirrid Mountain Inn", at Llanvihangel Crucorney, Monmouthshire, claims to be the oldest pub in Wales. It dates from 1100.

By contrast, Scotland's oldest pub, the "Clachan Inn" at Drymen, near Loch Lomond, began serving as recently as 1734.

A number of possible oldest pubs in Ireland include the "Brazen Head", the "Old Stand" and "Sean's Bar", all in Dublin. But the Guinness Book of Records goes for "Grace Neills Bar", which opened in Donaghadee, Co Down, as the "King's Arms" in 1611.


For a detailed factsheet on young people's drinking, visit the Alcohol Concern website. The site also contains links to organisations which provide information about alcohol and alcohol dependency both in the UK and worldwide. Facts, figures and a description of the different stages of intoxication byalcohol can be found at www.intox.comphysiology.asp

The fascinating story of Alcoholics Anonymous can be read at

The History Department at the State University of Ohio has a site dedicated to prohibition and the American temperance movement

For an insight into the temperance movement in the UK, read a paper entitled The Temperance Movement and Class Struggle in Victorian England, by Rebecca Smith www.loyno.eduhistoryjournal1992-3smith-r.htm

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