Drink Like a European

Coffee often comes with a glass of tap water, but for meals you’ll need to order separately.
Asking a Scot about his favorite whisky can be a good way to start up a conversation.
By Rick Steves

In restaurants, most drinks can sink a tight budget, especially if you’re set on drinking the same way you do at home. If your budget is tight and you want to save $5–10 a day, never buy a restaurant drink.

Europeans generally drink bottled water — for taste, not health. But as their cost of living increases, so do their requests for tap water. Once in an Oslo restaurant, I counted 16 of 20 diners drinking tap water. They were charged $1 a glass, but it was still a substantial savings over a $6 Coke.

To get tap water at a restaurant, you may need to be polite, patient, inventive, and know the correct phrase. Availability of (and willingness to serve) tap water varies from country to country; you’ll pay for it in Belgium (and in Denmark, too, unless you order an additional beverage). It’s sometimes considered a special favor, and while your glass or carafe of tap water is normally served politely, occasionally it just isn’t worth the trouble, and it’s best to put up with the bottle of Perrier or order a drink from the menu.

Bottled water is served crisp and cold, either with or without carbonation, usually by happier waiters. Some Americans don’t like the bubbly stuff, but I do. Learn the local phrase for con/avec/mit/con/with gas or senza/sans/ohne/sin/without gas (in Italian, French, German, and Spanish, respectively), and you’ll get the message across. Acquire a taste for acqua con gas. It’s a lot more fun (and read on the label what it’ll do for your rheumatism).

Drink like a European. Cold milk, ice cubes, and coffee with (rather than after) your meal are American habits. Insisting on any of these in Europe will get you strange looks and a reputation as a crazy American. Order local drinks, not just to save money but to experience the culture and to get the best quality and service. The timid can always order the “American waters” (Coke, Fanta, and 7-Up), sold everywhere.

Trying regionally produced alcohol can be a great cultural experience — and brings out fun and fascinating facets of my favorite continent. In Scotland, locals are passionate about finding and describing the whisky that fits their personality. Each guy in the pub has “his” whisky. And the flavors (fruity, peppery, peaty, smoky) are much easier to actually taste than their wine-snob equivalents.

In France, geography plays a big part in their liquid pride. Terroir (pronounced “tehr-wah”) is a uniquely French concept. Terroir is “somewhere-ness,” a combination of the macro- and microclimate, soil, geology, and culture (the accumulated experience of the people and their craft). The French don’t call a wine by the grape’s name. Two wines can be made of the same grape, but be of very different character because of their terroir. A real Chablis made from the Chardonnay grape is better than Chardonnays made elsewhere because of its terroir.

Drinking locally produced alcohol has another advantage: It’s cheaper than your favorite import. A shot of the local hard drink in Portugal will cost a dollar, while an American drink would cost more than the American price. Drink the local stuff with local people in local bars; it’s a better experience than having a Manhattan in your hotel with a guy from Los Angeles. Drink wine in wine countries and beer in beer countries. Sample the regional specialties. Let a local person order you her favorite. You may hate it, but you’ll never forget it.