You never fully understand a foreign culture until you trade drinks with the locals. But drinking your way around the world is easier said than done. You can learn to say “cheers” in any language, but navigating the complexities of the drinking etiquette of another country takes a bit more prep work. The last thing you want to do is offend your host. Here, 11 boozy faux pas to avoid when drinking abroad.
Mixing Vodka or Drinking Without Eating in Russia
Russians take their vodka fast and in straight shots. But that doesn’t mean they all get hammered (and sickled, sorry) every time they hit the bar. Rounds of shots are interspersed with traditional drinking snacks (zakuski) like pickles, herring, dumplings, pancakes and (if you’re balling out) caviar. Don’t pass on the passed apps if you’d like to indulge in the liquid portion of the festivities, as you’ll be seen as uncivilized. When your group finishes the bottle of vodka (and you will finish it), place it on the floor beneath the table.
Not Buying a Round in Ireland
In Ireland, “getting your round in” doesn’t mean hitting the golf course before puttering off to the pub (you’re thinking of Scotland). Rather, it means buying your friends a round at the pub—and it’s not optional. Failing to get your round in during a group hang at your favorite watering hole will give you a rep for being a cheapskate, akin to “forgetting” to tip here in the States.
Pouring Your Own Drink in Korea
As much as you love to DIY, serving yourself a glass from the bottle of soju on the table in Korea will immediately earn you harsh stares. Always let someone else refill your glass. If you’re worried this will leave you with an empty cup, be extra diligent in refilling your neighbors glasses, and they’ll undoubtedly take care of you too. When someone does eventually offer to re-up your soju, hold out your cup with both hands to accept. Should you be drinking with elders or superiors, also be sure to turn your back to them when you drink, and sip discreetly as a sign of respect.
Sipping Wine in Georgia
When you show up to a traditional Georgian supra feast, aka an Eastern European dinner party for wine guzzlers, you may notice your host has a glint in his or her eye. That’s because they’re the tamada, or toast master, for the evening, and they have all the power over you. When the tamada calls for a toast, you drink your wine—your whole glass. And there will be lots of things to toast—the friends and family gathered, the food, the weather, the wine, the weather again, and so on—so come prepared to imbibe.
Passing Port to the Right in Britain
A meal in a British home may end with a decanter of port on the table. If you forget everything else about the fortified wine, remember this: Always pass the decanter to the left, and always keep it moving. Some speculate it relates to “port” being the left side of a ship, while others suggest it’s a leftover ritual from sword fighters who needed their right hand free. You’ll know if you’ve slacked on your duties if someone leans over and says, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” When you inevitably say no, the person will continue, “He's a terribly good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port.” This is likely a reference to Henry Bathurst, the 19th century Bishop of Norwich who often failed to pass the decanter along the table, either out of aged frailty or (more likely) to keep the drink all to himself.
Drinking Before the Toast in Japan
As in Korea, someone else will pour your drink for you in Japan. But don’t dig in as soon as the sake hits the cup. For the first round, sake will be distributed to all those gathered before anyone indulges. Once everyone’s ready, the host (or whoever bought the round) will lead everyone in a toast of “kanpai” (which roughly translates to “dry glass” or bottoms up). After that, feel free to refill your neighbors’ glasses willy nilly, and go on drinking until all the sake runs dry.
Shooting Tequila or Mezcal in Mexico
Your tequila and mezcal may arrive at the table in shot-sized copas, but that doesn’t mean you should down the agave spirits in one gulp. Do not shoot your drink, do not lick salt off your hand or bite down on a lime wedge to make a big green smile, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 pesos. Instead, sip your drink, interspersing drinks with bites of an orange slice (if provided) or other fare.
Ordering Sangria in Spain
Here in the States, Sangria arrives in bottomless quantities at brunch or makes for an easy party drink at home. But don’t expect to step off the plane in Madrid and find “authentic” Sangria. For the most part, the batched wine drink is a tourist trap, made to fool foreigners into drinking swill. This is not to say you won’t find Spaniards turning out decent versions of the drink; just don’t set your hopes on the crier advertising the Sangria and paella deal in English to anyone with a camera or map.
Drinking Ouzo Straight in Greece
Like mezcal and tequila, Greek ouzo arrives in an easily shootable thimble that contains a hidden etiquette trap for the uninitiated. Don’t go pounding away. Instead, dilute the spirit with the water provided by the bartender, and sip the milky mixture as you converse with your fellow drinkers.
Day Drinking Wine Between Meals in France
The French have a joke: “How do you find the foreigner in the cafe? They’re the one drinking wine.” While lunch in France is often accompanied by a glass of vino, which may lead you to believe that day drinking is totally in vogue, wine, especially red, is usually paired with food. Kicking back with a big glass of Burgundy on a Parisian boulevard between meals will immediately mark you as a tourist. If you’d like an aperitif in the late afternoon, opt for a fruity low-ABV cocktail like a Kir Royale, or drink a lighter wine.
Raising Your Glass Too High in China
The oldest or most senior member of a drinking party in China will propose the first toast of baijiu— usually “ganbei,” the equivalent of kanpai—to be taken all together. But after the first drink, attendees break up into individual toasts with one another, often getting up and circling the table to clink glasses. In deference to your host or seniors, always begin by proposing a toast to their good health. When you clink glasses, though, be sure your glass is lower than theirs, as a sign of deference. And be sure to hit everyone in the group, lest you slight someone by leaving them out.