Spain’s Public Drinking Phenomenon

In the post-Franco years, the tradition of botellón—gathering in public spaces to drink—became an expression of community and Spanish identity. Amidst the current economic crisis, a new generation is adopting the ritual as its own.

On a sunny day this past March, 20,000 Spaniards flooded into Granada’s botellódromo—a large, open space just outside the city’s center—to celebrate spring’s arrival. It looked like the beginnings of a music festival: a chaotic hum, a shapeless crowd, teenagers dressed in the hippest clothes their parents could buy. Each set of hands held at least one nondescript soda bottle or a large plastic cup. But there were no stages in sight, no sponsors, no food kiosks. This was a large­-scale botellón—Spanish for “big bottle”—whose attendees were there, exclusively, to drink.

This celebration of the vernal equinox was something that’s come to be known as a macrobotellón. The local government built its venue, the botellódromo, after attempts to abolish public drinking failed. If you can’t beat them, the argument went—corral them. Other southern capitals—Córdoba, Jaén, Huelva and Cádiz — have followed suit.

While some might see botellón as an epidemic, its manifestation is actually more a logical product of the country’s recent history, and an assertion of a centuries-old cultural ethos that drinking means togetherness.

This fact has never been more evident than it is now: The country is still stuck in the depths of an economic crisis and unemployment rates in some parts of Spain are as high as 35%. In these conditions, botellón is thriving.

Since botellón’s inception, it has served as a reaction to various social and political changes, the first and most drastic of which was the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. After decades of oppression, economic depression and alienation from other countries, Spaniards were set free, and quickly made up for lost time.

In the post­-Franco years, Spanish society loosened up: Collective thinking on moral issues like religion, the role of women and contraception shifted from conservative to left­-leaning. Drinking habits quickly followed suit.

Botellón is everywhere. Businesses have even sprung up around it: convenience stores will sell kits complete with mixers like cola and big plastic cups. Vendors stroll through packs of kids peddling large cups of beer for a few euros. Texting and social media make these once impromptu gatherings easy to plan, whether you’re inviting 20 friends or 20,000.

Wine, of course, has always been essential to Spanish life. “Comer sin vino, comer mezquino,” proclaimed a popular refrain from the 1700s. “To eat without wine is to eat miserably.” Grapes have been cultivated on the Iberian Peninsula since 1100 BC—a staple as important to the national diet as olive oil and bread. Some fortified wines were even believed to help children grow stronger, and parents administered them generously.

Wine has long been considered sustenance, and it belonged on the table. But, over the last 30 years, wine—alongside beer and liquor—has taken to the streets.

As Spain adopted democracy once again, John Hooper explains in The New Spaniards, “newly liberated young got into the habit of ir de copas [literally, “to go for cups”], going out to drink until the early hours at the weekend.” Spaniards had traditionally done their social drinking in tavernas—neighborhood bars where both old and young would congregate to sit alone or chat quietly with a few amigos. But a new crop of bars appeared, attracting a young clientele that delighted in having a place to socialize without adult supervision. The drinks in their hands changed, too—beer and spirits became more popular, thanks to a reintroduction of international trade and the mass production and commercialization of booze.

In the late ’70s, the litrona—a liter bottle of beer, the Spanish equivalent of a 40—appeared in 
Spanish markets, and quickly came into fashion thanks to its high volume and low price point. Just a few years later, beer overtook wine as the most-consumed beverage among Spanish drinkers. Foreigners added to this demand, too. As tourism became one of Spain’s fastest growing industries, and more Spaniards emigrated to work elsewhere, the drinking cultures of northern Europe began to seep into the Spanish identity—specifically, drinking outside of mealtimes, and, according to Hooper, intentional intoxication.

Sometime in the late 1980s, young Spaniards began to take the party outside: copa bars became too expensive, but traditional tavernas didn’t provide the atmosphere, or the excitement, that they were looking for. Armed with litronas or clear jugs of liquor, they flocked to squares and public parks to meet with friends. Out of a need for an alternative—and an ever-present desire to congregate and celebrate—botellón was born.

Since its inception, this tradition has become a stalwart of the Spanish social scene. Save for a few geographic exceptions—like Barcelona, whose drinking culture is more Parisian than Madrileño—botellón is everywhere. Businesses have even sprung up around it: convenience stores will sell kits complete with mixers like cola and big plastic cups. Vendors stroll through packs of kids peddling large cups of beer for a few euros. Texting and social media—Spaniards favor whatsapp and tuenti—make these once impromptu gatherings easy to plan, whether you’re inviting 20 friends or 20,000.

“It’s a very characteristic aspect of life for most young Spaniards,” says Marta Sáez, a student living in Zaragoza, Spain. “Everybody does it; people want to feel like a part of a group that almost all of their peers belong to.” Isolation from other cultures throughout most of the 20th century caused Spaniards to turn inward. But the post-Franco generation banded together, drink in hand, and their successors are carrying on the tradition. “It’s an integral part of the Spanish social scene.”

Eusebio Megías, the technical director of Spain’s Fundación de Ayuda contra la Drogadicción (Foundation Against Drug Addiction), says that research clearly shows getting wasted isn’t the only—or even the primary—reason kids attend these gatherings. They go “to see one another, to relate to one another, because they need a collective identity; these are places where they can entertain the fantasy that their lives will get better; it is a form of self­expression.”

A recent study showed that the most popular reason to botellón is to chat with friends; the second is to have a proper space to socialize. Drinking comes in, conservatively, in third place. Yes, these kids are drinking more than their parents did as teenagers, and starting earlier—most begin drinking regularly around age 15, and learn to do so among friends rather than at home. But at a time when Americans worry that their children will turn into iPad-­wielding zombies and cultural dilution is an omnipresent threat, the Spanish are holding tight to their country’s centuries-­old love of a good time.

Spain’s newly open borders have, in turn, opened its people’s eyes to previously foreign ways of living, thinking and drinking. But while this newfound exposure to other cultures has liberated the younger generation, these kids also feel a (possibly self-conscious) need to assert their Spanish­-ness. The family ties that have held their culture together have not dissipated; they have been redefined and broadened to include friends and meeting places outside the home. Botellón is, in a way—and for better or worse—a reflection of Spain 2.0.