5 Unique Drinking Traditions Around the World
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.”