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A Brief History of the Irish Snug

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Though Irish pubs have been exported around the world, one very traditional Irish drinking concept is harder to find in modern pubs: the snug. Prior to the 1960s, Ireland’s drinking establishments were almost exclusively the domain of men, and no respectable woman could or would be seen drinking inside. It wasn’t a law, but it was the reigning social convention, and many bars wouldn’t let women in. But that doesn’t mean that Irish women never drank. They just did it in a slightly less conspicuous way: inside a small, screened-off room attached to the bar called the snug.

In general, Irish women largely drank at home, dispatching someone else (often, their sons) to bring back a jug of porter. Some even sat outside pubs waiting for their menfolk to come back out. But inside many Irish pubs of the 19th and early 20th century, there would be a snug where women—and anyone else who didn’t want to be seen having a nip—could enjoy their pints privately. The snugs—"confession boxes we’d call them," a pub regular recalls in Kevin C. Kearns’s Dublin Pub Life and Lore—An Oral History of Dublin’s Traditional Irish Pubswould have a small window for bartenders to pass drinks through, so no one could see the patron order. They also had locks so that they couldn’t be opened from the outside, giving whoever was inside almost total privacy.

Fans of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders might be familiar with the concept—the Shelby gang holds meetings in the Garrison Pub's snug, where they can wheel and deal out of public view. They were, however, one of the few public places that women could have a drink. In many bars, it was more expensive to buy a drink inside a snug, but for some, the privacy was worth it. 

A snug in a historic Dublin bar. Image credit: Ryans of Parkgate Street via Facebook

When the Irish police force, the Garda Síochána, was founded in 1922, a large portion of officers were teetotalers. "More than half the officers belonged to the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, a total temperance organization," as Irish journalist Cian Molloy writes in his 2003 history The Story of the Irish Pub. "Such was the emphasis placed on sobriety among Ireland’s new police force after independence that from 1926 onwards, disciplinary action could be taken against any officer who 'while on or off duty, shows the result of consuming intoxicating liquor, the slightest departure from strict sobriety.'" The Garda might be able to sneak into a snug, though.

During the War of Irish Independence in Ireland, the Black and Tans (the UK police force fighting the Irish Republican Army) couldn’t be served in Dublin’s pubs. As one Dubliner recalled to Kearns in his oral history, "the pubs wouldn’t serve them in their uniform … they might be able to slip into a snug privately, dressed as if they were going to the theater or all that."

Men of the cloth, too, often frequented snugs. In Dublin Pub Life and Lore, Dubliner John Preston remembers that Father "Flash" Kavanagh, a local priest, was so fond of his drink that he’d rush through mass to get to the pub when it opened: "You’d see him in there with his red vestments and he’d go in right through the bar to a little back snug there … that was his berth."

However, not all snug activities were so rebellious. "The snug also played another social role," Molloy writes. "It was the place where the matchmaker was found. The matchmaker was usually a trusted old man who would discretely arrange marriages between the sons and daughters of local farmers and shop keepers."

Up until the 1960s and 1970s, women were largely not seen drinking in a public tavern. Even women who owned bars weren’t keen on having a female presence there. Mary Hyland, a bar owner in the Irish village of Ballacolla who died in 1996, didn’t approve of women drinking in her pub even when it became more commonplace. Her nephew, who took over the bar when Mary was in her 80s, says she wouldn’t serve women at all until her later years. "A few years before her death [at 83], when two women walked in and ordered pints, her reaction was 'What is the world coming to?'" he told Molloy.

But over time, as it became more socially acceptable for women to head to the bar for a pint, snugs began to disappear. Bars modernized by adding classier lounges where people of both sexes could acceptably order drinks. During the course of those pub renovations, many snugs disappeared. In an email to mental_floss, Molloy theorizes that "snugs started to disappear because they took up quite a bit of room—they were attached to the end of a bar, with only those in the snug having access to that end of the counter. Ged rid of the snug and more people can get to the bar."

You can still find snugs in some historic bars, though. Belfast’s Crown Bar, a historic landmark that opened in the early 19th century, has multiple. As does Ryan’s of Parkgate Street, a Dublin pub dating back to 1886. And there are several pubs across the world named The Snug, though not all of them actually have private snugs. On the bright side, women don’t have to worry about being seen drinking in public anymore, so few of us need a snug, anyway.

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Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid Is Like a Keurig for Cocktails—and You Can Buy It Now
Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid

To make great-tasting cocktails at home, you could take a bartending class, or you could just buy a fancy gadget that does all the work for you. Imbibers interested in the hands-off approach should check out Bibo Barmaid, a cocktail maker that works like a Keurig machine for booze.

According to Supercall, all you need to turn the Bibo Barmaid system into your personal mixologist is a pouch of liquor and a pouch of cocktail flavoring. Bibo's liquor options include vodka, whiskey, rum, and agave spirit (think tequila), which can be paired with flavors like cucumber melon, rum punch, appletini, margarita, tangerine paloma, and mai tai.

After choosing your liquor and flavor packets, insert them into the machine, press the button, and watch as it dilutes the mixture and pours a perfect single portion of your favorite drink into your glass—no muddlers or bar spoons required.

Making cocktails at home usually means investing in a lot of equipment and ingredients, which isn't always worth it if you're preparing a drink for just yourself or you and a friend. With Bibo, whipping up a cocktail isn't much harder than pouring yourself a glass of wine.

Bibo Barmaid is now available on Amazon for $240, and cocktail mixes are available on Bibo's website starting at $35 for 18 pouches. The company is working on rolling out its liquor pouches in liquor stores and other alcohol retailers across the U.S.

[h/t Supercall]

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Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
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by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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