Drinking Culture in Chile

Chile is a country of drinkers.  According to the World Health Organization, in 2015 Chile consumed the most alcohol per capita of any country in Latin America.  This high consumption, and high cultural acceptance is worth diving into a little bit.

First, as a wine and pisco (grape liquor) producing country, social drinking is a very integral part of Chilean culture.  For example, every Sunday, my entire host family (extended family included) would get together and have a large lunch that would last for hours.  It was always a great time, with great food, great conversation, and a lottt of wine.

However, cultural acceptance of high alcohol consumption is more complicated than the simple fact that Chile produces a lot of alcohol.  See, for centuries, Chile’s economy has been built on the back of mining.  It was silver in the 1800s, saltpeter and nitrates around the turn of the 20th century, and copper more recently.  These mining industries, which were hugely influential in Chile’s development as arguably the strongest economy in Latin America, were built off of hard physical labor, poor pay, and harsh working conditions.

The way workers coped with low pay, long hours, and no unionizing capabilities to address those grievances?… alcohol.

Especially prior to the 20th century, huge percentages of the mining population in Chile were alcoholics.  While that number has definitely decreased dramatically in recent years, it’s still a problem, and has made heavy drinking culturally acceptable.

I experienced this in many ways while living in Chile.  For example, my host mom was always surprised if I didn’t go out and drink on a weekend.  It was the expectation that I go out to bars and drink two or three nights a week, and if I hadn’t left the house by a particular time, she would often ask why I wasn’t going out.  Especially after growing up in a household where I could talk about alcohol consumption, but was never actively encouraged to drink, this was a very strange thing to experience.

I also found that the people I would drink with had very very high tolerances.  Nearly every Chilean I drank with, whether male or female, could drink more than me.

It was, put simply, a very interesting experience for me.  I’m in college, so I would say drinking culture is a pretty significant part of the world I live in.  However, it doesn’t compare to what I experienced in Chile.  It was just so pervasive, and permeated every facet of life.

I’m not sure if I have a concrete opinion on whether I think it made my time there better or worse, or if it reflects positively or negatively on Chile as a whole.  That being said, it is definitely something I thought about a lot while living there, and continue to consider.

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