The Travel Channel
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.


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.”


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.”


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.’”


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.’”


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.”

Courtesy New District
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.


As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.


Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.


Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.


While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.


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