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.

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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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.

A Beer From the Middle Ages Is Making a Serious Comeback

Hop-forward beer is all the rage today, but in the middle ages many imbibers preferred brews that skewed towards the sweeter side. Now, centuries after it fell out of fashion, Atlas Obscura reports that gruit ale is making a comeback.

Gruit beer is any beer that features botanicals in place of hops. The ingredients that give the drink its distinctive sweet, aromatic taste can be as familiar as ginger and lavender or as exotic as mugwort and seabuckthorn. The herbs play the role of hops by both adding complex flavors and creating an inhospitable environment for harmful microbes.

It may be hard for modern beer lovers to imagine beer without hops, but prior to the 16th century gruit was as common in parts of Europe as IPAs are in hip American cities today. Then, in 1516, that style of beer suddenly vanished from pint glasses: That was the year Germany passed a beer purity law that restricted beer formulas to hops, water, and barley. Many of the key botanicals in gruit beer were considered aphrodisiacs at the time, and the rising Puritan movement helped push the brew further into obscurity.

Hops have dominated the beer scene ever since, and only in the past few decades have microbrewers started giving old gruit recipes the attention they're due. In 2017, the Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois released their seasonal Scratch Tonic, made from a combination of dandelion, carrot tops, clover, and ginger. The Põhjala Brewery in Estonia brews their Laugas beer using Estonian herbs, caraway, and juniper berries. Get in touch with your local microbrewery to see if they have their own version of the old-school beer in their line-up.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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