If you view your nightlife through a Western-centric prism, Iran's alcohol-free nights (alcohol is banned in the country) are very quiet. But Iranians love to go out at night and teahouses, restaurants and other public spaces throng with people until well after dark, especially when the weather's warm.

Drinking in Non-Drinking Iran

Tea, More Tea & Coffee

Socialising in Iran almost inevitably involves chay (tea). Whether you’re in a chaykhaneh (teahouse), carpet shop, someone’s home, an office, a tent – actually, almost anywhere – chances are there will be a kettle steaming away nearby. According to the rules of Iranian hospitality, a host is honour bound to offer a guest at least one cup of tea before considering any sort of business, and the guest is expected to drink it.

Tea is drunk black and is usually served with a bowl of ghand (chunks of sugar). It is customary to dip the sugar into the tea and place it between the front teeth before sucking the brew through it. Dentists don’t recommend this.

Like Turkey, Iran was a nation of coffee drinkers until tea was introduced by British traders in the 19th century. These days traditional Iranian ghahve (coffee), served strong, sweet, black and booby-trapped with a sediment of grounds, is hard to find. Instead, in the past decade there has been a rapid spread of European-style cafes and coffeehouses, especially in wealthier suburbs of major cities, where you can get an excellent espresso. Outside cities, coffee addicts should consider self-catering.

Coffeehouses are now very big. Almost always in the rich part of cities, ie well away from historic/tourist centres, they are great places to meet hip locals. Espresso machines are very impressive in many.

Juices, Shakes, Dugh & Soft Drinks

You’ll never be too far from a delicious fresh fruit ab (juice) and fruit shir (milkshake). Both cost between US$2 and US$4. Juices are seasonal and usually come au naturel, without added sugar. Popular shakes include shir moz (banana), shir peste (pistachio) and shir tut farangi (strawberry). Shakes are often loaded with sugar.

Some of the more popular juice varietals include ab anar (pomegranate), ab talebi (honeydew melon), ab hendune (watermelon), ab porteghal (orange), ab sib (apple) and ab havij (carrot)

Also widely available, dugh (churned sour milk or yoghurt mixed with water) is a sour but refreshing drink. The best dugh is usually found in restaurants, comes with chopped herbs and is uncarbonated, unlike most prepacked bottles found in stores.

Tap water is drinkable almost everywhere, and bottled water is widely available. Despite the USA embargo, Coca-Cola is bottled under licence and competes with local soft drinks Zam Zam, Parsi Cola and others. Canned drinks cost multiples of the same drinks sold in bottles.

Islamic Beer but No Shiraz

While alcohol is quietly tolerated in Christian communities, it is strictly forbidden to Iranian Muslims. There is, of course, a black market – oddly enough often operated by greengrocers – and you’ll occasionally hear ‘whisky’ whispered as you go by. But, believe us, the sickly sweet clear spirit you’ll likely be sold is rocket fuel.

There are several brands of ma’-osh-sha’ir (‘Islamic beer’) proudly declaring ‘0.0% alcohol’. Russian-made Baltika tastes most like beer, while Delster comes in several fruit ‘flavours’ and is popular because it doesn’t try too hard to taste like beer. The lemon version is pleasantly refreshing.

Sadly, there's no chance of finding a glass of Shiraz (Syrah) in Shiraz. There are various theories on the origin of this grape varietal, most involving cuttings being taken from vineyards in Shiraz back to the Rhône Valley in France during the Crusades. Iranian vines were either ripped up after the 1979 revolution or now produce raisins. Today there are no (legal) wineries.