Drinking rules are far from universal. Bars, tavernas, and pubs are great places to meet and mix with locals—but it’s easier to make a real connection if you’re not breaking unspoken but longstanding cultural norms when imbibing. For example, in Spain, it’s just not done to order hard liquor or mixed drinks with a meal. I’ll never forget the first time I was out with local friends for tapas and ordered a gin tonic—forget side-eye; some people in our group looked like someone had told them California wines were just as good as Spain’s famous Riojas.
Every destination has a different take on what to drink when, who pays, how to toast, and everything else—and in some countries, not following the rules could have you accidentally coming off like a jerk or a cheapskate. So here are some of the most important (and unusual) drinking rules from around the world to help you make sure you can handle your liquor in pretty much any destination.
Keep those glasses half full
France, Hungary, and Thailand
In France, social norms dictate never filling a glass of alcohol over the halfway mark, and sipping slowly (yes, even shots). In Hungary and Thailand, though, keeping your glass half full means you’re ready to stop drinking. In these two cultures, locals like to keep your glass full to brimming, and every time you bottom a beverage out, you’ll be topped up again in no time—unless, that is, you leave your glass half full.
Tip with alcohol
The United Kingdom
In England and Scotland, locals have a unique tipping tradition. Instead of leaving extra cash for the bartender, it’s considered courteous to offer the person behind the bar “one for you”—and have them add their drink of choice to your tab. That said, make sure not to directly mention money or offering to pay—the whole point is to keep the interaction friendly and natural. Be aware that bartenders occasionally may refuse, and if they do accept, they’re free to have the drink offered right away or save it for later.
Take turns paying for rounds
Ireland, England, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Australia
Drinking is regarded as a very social experience in all of these cultures, and coming into the bar and buying yourself a drink—or ordering and paying for drinks on individual tickets in a large group—just isn’t done. In Australia, taking your turn to pay is called shouting, and losing track of when it’s your shout won’t do you any favors when it comes to making new friends before closing time. This is also common practice (but not called the same thing) in England and Ireland. In Armenia, Turkey, and Georgia, it’s best behavior to order a bottle of something for the table to share, and in Armenia and Georgia, whoever drinks the last serving is in charge of covering the cost of the next bottle.
Nix hard liquor (or mixed drinks) with dinner
Spain, Greece, and Italy
In these Mediterranean countries, timing is everything and dinner isn’t the time for cocktails or shots. Meals are meant to be enjoyed with wine or the occasional beer. In Italy, stronger alcohol has its place directly before and after a meal in the form of aperitivi and digestivi. For the most part, in Spain and Greece, shots and mixed drinks are in the after-dinner domain. In Greece, ouzo is a popular after-dinner dram believed to aid digestion—but although it’s served in a small glass, traditionally it’s sipped, not thrown back like a shot.
Russia and Kazakhstan
In Russia, where vodka reins supreme, and in Kazakhstan, where the locals drink fermented mare’s milk called kumis, be ready to slurp down every last drop. In Russia, the very dangerous-for-vodka-newbies custom dictates polishing off every bottle of spirits started and not putting your shot glass down until it’s empty. In Kazakhstan, you can leave part of your kumis if you just can’t drink another drop, but whatever’s left will go back into the communal bottle.
Toast with a song
Silly singing toasts known as snapsvisor are always an entertaining tradition to witness at gatherings in Sweden. If you’re not lucky enough to hear one at a bar, or a party, head to the Sprit Museum in Stockholm to check out a few examples of the songs Swedes sometimes sing in pursuit of the Scandinavian liquor, akvavit. The most popular Swedish drinking song is “Helan Gar,” which roughly translated means “The Whole One Goes Down.” After each song Swedes look their fellow drinkers in the eye and say skal (cheers), and rumor has it some Swedes even resort to singing ABBA when they run out of traditional and made-up snapsvisor.
Never pour your own drink
Japan, China, Korea, and Thailand
In the above-mentioned Asian countries, it’s important to remember that whatever you do, don’t serve yourself, and certainly not before you serve others. Typically, higher-ranking folks and “elders” should be served in descending order of importance. In Korea, how you pour and receive a drink is also important—always use both hands. The Chinese take showing respect during toasts a step further—the person making the toast should generally hold their glass lower than everyone else’s to show respect; in addition, younger people should be sure to hold their glasses lower than their elders for the same reason.