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The Travel Channel

5 Unique Drinking Traditions Around the World

The Travel Channel
The Travel Channel

As host of The Travel Channel’s Booze Traveler, which kicks off its second season tonight at 10 p.m. EST, Jack Maxwell has visited a bank filled with beer in the Netherlands, discovered the medicinal powers of pinecone schnapps in Austria, sipped fermented horse milk at the base of the Khangai Mountains in Mongolia, and inhaled a marijuana milkshake in Nepal. While each experience has been a completely unique one, if there’s one lesson the South Boston native has learned it’s that, “Every civilization, from the beginning of time, has learned how to make alcohol out of something,” as Maxwell tells mental_floss.

“It doesn’t matter what corner of the globe you are from,” Maxwell continues. “There must be a soulful connection to alcohol, whether it’s fermented mare’s milk in Mongolia, a wonderful wine in Sicily, scotch whiskey in Scotland, kava in Hawaii that makes your mouth numb, or malt wine in Argentina. It’s really important everywhere around the world and it really is the one thing that brings us together. It’s truly the universal language.”

Here, Maxwell shares with us some of the unique drinking experiences he has had during his alcohol-fueled world travels with Booze Traveler.

1. PLAYING KOUPA IN CRETE.

In Booze Traveler’s season two premiere, Maxwell pays a visit to Greece, where the drinking traditions date back to ancient times. “On the isle of Crete, which is the largest of Greece’s islands, they have this tradition; it’s a drinking game more than a tradition, but it is called koupa,” Maxwell explains. “What it is, very simply, is that you just call someone’s name at the table, and they have to drink everything in their glass, then kiss the bottom of the glass for luck, and then call on someone else. It’s just kind of a quick way to get buzzed, I guess. It’s particularly popular at bachelor parties, and I was invited to one—even though I was a total stranger—and I drank 100 proof Ouzo with these guys whom I had never met. Then it is tradition to break the dishes afterward.”

2. MIXING HONEY WINE WITH COW’S BLOOD IN TANZANIA.

It’s not every day that a tourist in Tanzania gets to run with a tribe of Maasai warriors, but Maxwell is hardly your typical traveler. “I got to throw clubs with them and eat with them and talk with them,” he says of his time in the East African nation. Of course, Maxwell also got to drink with them. “But I had to drink what they drink,” he says. “And what they drink is honey wine, so I brought them some honey to make the wine with; we actually stole it from some bees, like Winnie the Pooh. But they drink it a little bit differently. Honey mead was maybe the first alcohol on earth, so a lot of people drink that, but Maasai warriors mix in some cow blood.”

“They take a blunted arrow, they shoot it at a cow’s neck, it starts squirting, and then they fix him up with cow dung and he’s fine,” Maxwell continues. “So they mix that cow blood with honey wine and then they drink it. It’s very ceremonial and very traditional. They don’t do it every day, it’s more of a celebration, so they were honoring me with this special drink and, of course, I had to drink it.”

And just what does honey mead mixed with cow blood taste like? “It was very silky and syrupy in my mouth, and I felt a little bit like a vampire,” says Maxwell. “Honey wine is really good, and blood is kind of sweet anyway, so it was a very sweet drink. But it means so much to them, and they were so focused on me drinking it and seeing if I liked it, because they wanted me to. They wanted me to be a part of their culture for the day. So it was a very strange taste, only because I'd never had it before, but it was a great experience.”

3. DRINKING TO STAY SOBER IN SICILY.

A glass of wine may be a way of life in Italy, but Maxwell discovered that safety comes first in Sicily. “There was a drink called the autista, which means ‘driver’ (as in ‘designated driver’), which they invented to keep people going—to sober them up so that they can drink more,” explains Maxwell. “It’s a bunch of ingredients, but the most important one is baking soda. They put it in at the end and it looks like a volcano and you have to drink the whole thing before it bubbles over, and then it kind of explodes in your stomach and makes you burp, but it settles the acids in your stomach. And that’s certainly a drinking tradition in Sicily.”

Maxwell also appreciated the culture surrounding a traditional Sicilian toast: “Because the island of Sicily has been conquered more than any other island on earth … they're very wary of outsiders," he says. "Even though I have relatives I had never met in Sicily who vouched for me, the rest of the village wants to make sure that you're not going to run over them like so many people have. So they have a saying, 'Chi non beve in compagnia o è un ladro è una spia,' which means ‘He who doesn’t drink in company is either a thief or a spy.’”

4. IMBIBING THE ANIMAL SPIRIT IN HONG KONG.

In Hong Kong, Maxwell discovered the true meaning of “spirits.” “In Hong Kong, I drank cobra wine,” Maxwell shares. “One of the traditions they have there is that they put animals in alcohol and let it sit there for years and years and it supposedly puts the properties of that animal into the alcohol, so that you become like that animal when you drink it. Cobra wine, for instance, is supposed to give you the strength of a cobra. Tiger penis vodka is supposed to be for virility. They put turtles in another alcohol and geckos in another; I guess that’s to save you 15 percent on your car insurance. But they really believe that there’s a connection with these animals ... and who am I to say that’s not true? Who am I to say that’s strange or bizarre? It’s just different. On the show, we want to hold up that mirror and say ‘these traditions are how these people do it and let’s celebrate that.’”

5. MAKING PINEAPPLE MOONSHINE IN HAWAII.

Though moonshine’s roots tend to be associated with America’s Appalachian area, the Aloha State has been doing the homebrew thing for ages. “In Hawaii, they have a thing called swipe,” Maxwell explains. “It’s fermented pineapple moonshine, and it goes back years and years and years. It is very much a native’s thing that supposedly began with the people who first came to Hawaii thousands of years ago. They’ve been drinking it the whole time. So it’s really great to be a part of the culture, even when it’s in your own backyard. I’ve had moonshine in Texas, where they have some guys who are still making moonshine like they did a long time ago. In Georgia, they have some really great drinks … No matter where I go, it’s about the people that I get to meet and drink with. It doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes from my house or halfway around the world.”

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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A Restaurant In Australia Is Garnishing Its Margaritas With Frozen Eyeballs
Jesse Hunniford/MONA
Jesse Hunniford/MONA

A cocktail special at a new restaurant in Australia has fallen under the global gaze thanks to its floating gaze. As Nerdist reports, Faro Tapas, a new Spanish eatery at Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), offers a black margarita garnished with a frozen bull eyeball.

The frosty drink contains tequila, mezcal, lime, and charcoal (presumably for color). It's served in a glass with a black salted rim and the aforementioned toothpick-skewered peeper.

Gourmet Traveller recommends that those brave enough to sample Faro Tapas's bovine booze drink it quickly, as the eyeball's ice casing melts. (If you're willing to risk brain freeze to avoid eye mush, this sounds like a smart move.)

That said, adventurous drinkers with stomachs of steel might find Faro Tapas's eyeball-garnished margarita tame compared to the Yukon Territory's Sourtoe cocktail (it contains a dehydrated human toe) and countless other weird and wacky cocktails served up around the world. Bottoms (and eyeballs) up!

[h/t Nerdist]

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