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The UK and Gin, Revisited.

Britain has a drinking culture.

You've seen countless documentaries about it, involving the likes of Ross Kemp, Adrian Chiles and David Mitchell. It's mentioned by your favourite media publication at least once a month. We have a collective conscience as a nation that means we can talk about the average Brit's susceptibility to overdoing it on wine due to mediocre labelling, a social culture revolving around pubs and early exposure to alcohol through television, cinema screens and even online influencers (yes that is the same Rita Ora who gave up alcohol to feel like a superhero who is now promoting it to teenagers for money).

But where did it start?

We've talked about Gin briefly before on the website, but it would be doing a disservice to examine Britain's current drinking culture without mentioning it once more. In the mid-18th century, gin became extremely popular as it was much cheaper to buy than beer. We all know this as the 'Gin Epidemic'; by 1740, six times more gin than beer was being produced, and of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, half were gin-shops. How was this tackled? The Gin Act 1736 imposed a prohibitively high duty on gin. As mentioned in our Australia blog post, legislation without core culture change is rarely successful. Unfortunately, this is another case study that proves as much - the act caused so much rioting the duty was gradually reduced and then abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751 was more successful: instead of a tax, it restricted gin producers to selling only to licensed premises.

After the outbreak of World War I the Defence of the Realm Act was passed by Parliament in 1914. One section of the Act concerned the hours pubs could sell alcohol, as it was believed that alcohol consumption would interfere with the war effort. Its restricted opening hours for licensed premises to Luncheon (12:00 to 14:40) and Supper (18:30 to 22:30). In the late 1980s the licensing laws in England and Wales became less restricted and allowed pubs to allow the consumption of alcohol on the premises from 11:00 until 23:00, although nightclubs could stay open much later. Significantly revised rules were introduced in November 2005, when hour limits were scrapped, and pubs could apply for licences as permissive as "24 hours a day". Despite this liberalising, in practice, most pubs chose not to apply for licences past midnight due to other laws regarding being liable overly inebriated customers.

Other laws around alcohol in the UK include a minimum age to buy alcohol set at 18, however beers and wine can be consumed in a pub, restaurant with food and the presence of an adult and one can also consume chocolates with liqueur. Remarkably, it's still a law that children can also consume alcohol from the age of 5 at home although the government stresses that it is not recommended.

The UK’s drinking culture is a big part of socialising with friends, doing business and even networking to find your next job. Still, drinking alcohol in the UK is mainly about being sociable. Brits love to get together in bars, clubs, restaurants and pubs to catch up on gossip, talk politics, watch sport and celebrate friends and families’ successes and anniversaries, like growing another year older. The pub is revered as a cornerstone to British culture by many. To meet new people, most Brits feel that they have to drink. Even activities like Freshers Week at university are renown for involving alcohol.

Alcohol consumption in Great Britain has risen per head of the adult population during the post-war years, more than doubling between the mid-1950s and late 1990s, when it hit double figures for the first time. It has fallen slightly from a peak of 11.6 litres in 2004; periods of slow economic activity in recent years may have contributed to this relative. Men consume on average more than twice as much alcohol – mainly beer – on a weekly basis as women. Although, in terms of amounts drunk, women now purchase more units of wine than men in total. According to research company Nielsen, roughly seven in every ten wine bottles sold in Britain’s supermarkets are bought by women.

However, broad stroke statistics like these miss nuances in alcohol data. There has been a rise in the abstinent population of the UK, which has been trendily renamed as 'Sober Curious'. Although Alcohol consumption for the 40+ year olds in the UK population is on the rise, there is data to suggest that now nearly 30% of 16-24 year olds aren't compelled by alcohol and do not drink at all. This has also been felt culturally, with campaigns like Dry January receiving success in the UK, groups like Club Soda putting on festivals that are heavily attended and a thirst for social activities that don't involve drinking.

That's not to say that Britain's drinking culture is on the decline. We can all agree, it's rather easy to swap out drinking at a bar for paragliding, a marathon or an escape room when you're in your early 20s. But there's been an honourable effort to engage different generations in a range of social activities. And the success of these is promising. Because Britain's drinking culture primarily revolves around it being the only option for social contact, and that is changeable.


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