In university life there is one tough decision we all face time and time again: trying to work out which drink to order from the bar. In many ways, it would be easier not to drink at all. Most decent people respect the decision not to, and you may even garner some admiration for being a sensible, health-conscious type. But for myself and the other less sensible students out there, deciding on your tipple for the evening can be a surprisingly fraught process. Alcohol inhabits a unique position within the world of food and drink: more so than any other menu choice, the alcoholic drink we choose is loaded with all sorts of fascinating social and cultural baggage. So how on earth do you choose?
Having waited on bar tables for years, I have seen hundreds of versions of the internal calculations which customers make before ordering a drink. One of the key factors, even in this day and age, is gender. While there are always exceptions and the gendering of drinks is in decline, some drinks still carry a residue of masculinity or femininity that linger in the back of our minds. Last year only 9% of women named beer as their favourite beverage, versus 40% of men. Of course, how drinks companies choose to market their products does not help. While we have come a long way since the 1970s when cans of Tennent’s were sold with pictures of ‘Lager Lovelies’ on the front for men to ogle at (seriously, look it up), drinks are still deliberately targeted at a specific gender. They may not explicitly admit it in advertising, but there is no doubt Eden Mill had the female market in mind when developing their popular, pink-tinged Love Gin.
Geography also plays a part in what we drink. Spend enough time in a St Andrews hotel and you can figure out which side of the Atlantic a guest is from by their order. Americans prefer Chardonnay while Brits drink Sauvignon Blanc. Americans have a hundred different ways of enjoying vodka while Brits are currently in the middle of a gin renaissance. Alcohol can even be a source of national pride. Anyone who has heard an Irishman sing the praises of Guinness or a Scot well up with emotion over the virtues of Tennent’s will know this.
Most important of all is our social environment. Who we are with, how well we know these people and how we want them to perceive us will ultimately determine our drink choice. A 2013 study from the University of Birmingham applied the idea that we ‘compartmentalise’ all our different identities, matching different social contexts to different drinking habits. To put it simply, you probably wouldn’t order tequila shots when meeting your partner’s parents for the first time.
Meanwhile, our culture seamlessly reflects and reinforces all these stereotypes. Alcohol has so much cultural meaning attached to it that it has become part of the shorthand for establishing a scene or a character. The male noir detective is never without his glass of bourbon. A bottle of wine immediately signposts a middle-class dinner party. And wasn’t there a small part in all of us that came to university expecting to find house parties filled with beer kegs and red plastic cups? Particularly on the screen, where every frame counts, a character’s choice of drink is never arbitrary.
Of course, when it comes to what one should choose to drink it’s all nonsense. Who cares? We should all drink exactly what we want to – in moderation, of course. There is nothing sadder than watching someone struggle through a drink they didn’t really want in the first place.
However, there is a positive side to all these assumptions. It means that drinking is performative: what you choose to drink makes a statement about who you are. In this respect, drinking is like fashion. Others might use it to make assumptions, but we can also use it to tell others who we want to be. My advice would be to have fun and embrace the theatricality of it. If you want to order a martini so you can feel like James Bond, then do it. And if a pretentious bartender tries to lecture you on why a martini shouldn’t be shaken then ignore them. It’s your drink and your identity. Also, surprise people! Never feel as though you should order something fancy just because everyone else is, or vice versa. Although if you get champagne when everyone else is on rum and coke, I would advise paying for that round.
Never underestimate how drinks and their presentation can elevate a party or a night out. Why not go to one of St Andrews’ many charity shops and buy some garish cocktail glasses on the cheap? They will immediately add an air of novelty to your pre-drinks. Above all, you should never feel pressured to stay in your comfort zone. What better excuse than the start of the Roaring Twenties next year to perhaps try making some basic cocktails. There are so many drinks out there, each with their own history and reputation. The world is your martini glass.
I should probably end with the disclaimer that all this drink should be enjoyed responsibly. Telling the bouncer that you were making a statement about your identity by playing with the socio-cultural connotations of a Pablo probably won’t stop them from throwing you out.