As a self-proclaimed booze hound and (possible) highly-functioning alcoholic, I have tasted the wares on six of the seven continents. I’m not sure if Antarctica even has any of its own booze (maybe some of the researchers down there are cooking up their own moonshine) but I like to think I’m fairly well versed in such a category. With each place you go there is a different culture of booze, a different drink that the locals seem to cherish far more than any transients who stumble upon it, and a certain etiquette to drinking it. So here is a sampling of cultural quirks that will keep you from offending any locals while you’re busy getting sauced.
My first experience with foreign drinking was my first real experience abroad: the Czech Republic in 2005. If you have ever been to Prague you know the liquor of which I speak: Becherovka. Living there for six months, the exposure to this potpourri-ed liqueur is ubiquitous and unavoidable. At each pub you enter, shots of the cinnamonny beverage are touted on trays as both digestiv and apperitiv, apparently necessary both before and after you eat. And probably during. At first I found the flavor pungent, overly floral, and almost undrinkable. But after a few months in the intense drinking culture of Prague where your only choices for beer are often “light or dark,” I was hooked. Luckily, at the age of 21, I already had 8 solid years of drinking under my belt and was able to keep up with the endless rounds of shots that are passed among large groups of imbibing companions.
But, before you throw back that glass of liquid potpourri, always remember to make eye contact during the toast. In America we sloppily raise our glasses towards some conceived center of the table and try to clink as many as we can before our primal urges rush us to pour the potent liquor down our ever thirsting throats. But in the CZ, the toast is as important as the drink itself, and you give it the attention it deserves. Look each person in the eye individually as your glasses meet. It seems like an insignificant thing, but when you do, the toast is instantly more meaningful.
Toast: Na zdraví!
Roadies? Finish your beer before you stumble into the street.
When I am in America, I drink whiskey: the beverage we sort-of invented (calm down, Scotland, I’m talking about bourbon and rye). In my circles, it is sipped, shot, slammed, and shared, but only in DC is there a signature pound of the shot glass against the bar before any of the tasty libation is consumed. Toast, slam, drink. To this day I have no idea as to the origin of the ritual, but it is the only thing I do religiously no matter where on the globe on find myself. Like a second toast, or a drink to the dead, it reaffirms everything the toast was ever meant to be in the moment before it’s over: solidarity.
When it comes time for the bill, there is no room to be stingy. When I think of how many times in American restaurants I see people calculating each drink they had to the penny, unwilling to possibly consider covering the drinks of a friend just to ease the terrifyingly picayune process, I shudder. In Europe you buy rounds because you want your friends to drink with you. In America people only seem to buy rounds when they are already too drunk to know what they’re doing. Not me or any of my friends of course, but I’ve seen these people. I’m sure they exist. Don’t be one of them.
Toast: Cheers, bitches!
Roadies? Put it in a thermos and act like it’s really hot.
Despite the conspicuous consumption famed across Eastern Europe and the States, Italians somehow manage to drink all day and never get drunk. Wine is a beverage in Italy. A tasty beverage that you drink with every meal and no one will ever judge you for that. But dare overindulge, get a little too drunk, and face the very judgmental stares of a very well-dressed people. And just so you know, being judged by well-dressed people is much worse than if they were poorly dressed. I love wine. More than any other beverage on the planet, I love wine. I’m also pretty sure everyone in Italy was judging me the entire time I was there as I poured bottle after bottle of Chianti into the bottomless pit I call my blood stream. Luckily, I was too drunk to notice how much they were noticing how drunk I was.
Roadies? I’m not sure. Drink 3 liters of wine at a restaurant and you won’t need one.
In every culture, for obvious reasons, drinking is a social engagement. It is a bond between bosses and employees, amiable strangers, and indelible friends. While I did try kava during the brief time I spent in Fiji, this is not the liquored lesson I carry with me. What stayed with me most is the courtesy of choosing a random person at the table and pouring them a shot of beer. You toast the person who poured it, never forget to make eye-contact, and swallow in a silence that will soon be broken by a friendship that has just been unknowingly forged. It is equivocal to sitting down next to a stranger at the bar and buying them a drink. For every stranger’s shot that was poured to me, I still slammed my glass on the table to everyone’s communal confusion.
Roadies? Sure, I mean…what roads?
After Fiji, I found myself in New Zealand: land of 4% beers and so much cider. Cider in America is a decidedly female beverage, oft referred to as a “chick-drink,” it is lumped with the likes of over-sugared wine coolers á la Smirnoff Ice. But I dare you to try a crisp, pear cider over ice on a Kiwi patio in the summer sun, and tell me you don’t feel like a man. Or at least a very masculine chick.
Toast: Cheers, bro! (must be said in a Kiwi accent)
Roadies? Most definitely not. Boooo. But beach drinking? A OK!
Drinking etiquette doesn’t differ much from the States in NZ and Australia, but if you’ve ever been to Oz, you know what I mean when I say goon. Australia is an expensive country, a beer often costing upwards of $9AUD at a bar. Naturally, the only answer to that is to drink cheap box wine straight out of the bladder it came in. The cheapest box will run you about $10-$15AUD and you get four to five litres of wine. For some inexplicable reason, you are also expected to slap the bag before drinking from it. This tradition has even migrated to America in the form of a game called “Slap Bag.” There are only two rules: slap the bag, then chug. I’m pretty sure nobody ever wins. Obviously, my love of goon knows no borders. I’ve even managed to find a box at Costco here in Korea.
Insert photo of someone slapping a bag of wine, then chugging it, here.
Toast: Cheers, mate!
Roadies? Please see New Zealand.
Alas, box wine is not the chosen beverage of the Korean people. As many people well know, it is soju. Soju is a liquor distilled from rice, and then watered down from 40% ABV to around 20%. It is not to be confused with sake, which is a rice wine, meaning it was fermented, but never distilled. Soju is the most consumed alcohol in the entire world. When you realize that Korea is a nation of only 60 million people and soju is not widely exported, that fact becomes even more amazing. Koreans drink soju every day. And why wouldn’t you? At ₩4,500 (about $4 USD) for a 2L bottle, it doesn’t get any cheaper. As with any national drink, there is a strictly defined etiquette for its consumption. Soju bottles are ordered for the table, and shots poured starting with the eldest and ending with yourself. Pour with your right hand always, and lift your left hand under your right arm if you want to do it properly. Whenever someone’s glass is empty, feel free to refill it and toast again. Lather, rinse, repeat. If your table isn’t littered with empty soju bottles by the end of the night, you’re doing it wrong.
Roadies? Drinking is legal everywhere in Korea! Let’s have a sidewalk party!
Compared with the structured and polite culture of Korea, Kenya seems to have no rules at all, save for one: drink. Drink every day, drink a lot, drive drunk, and then drink some more. Drink beer cold, drink it warm. Drink it for breakfast, drink it all night long. I have to admit I was at first turned off being served warm bottles of their national beer, Tusker. But after a three day safari being beaten by the unrelenting sun, any liquid on your lips tastes divine. If you don’t have a cooler, warm beer or no beer are your only two options, and who’s really going to choose the latter?
Roadies? Hahaha, I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
The last of the six continents on which I have gotten hammered is South America. I will admit I was a little disappointed arriving in Colombia to find that their love of whiskey was limited to Johnnie Walker, which is a scotch. And not a particularly good one. I was happy, however, to drink lots of sangria and many South American wines, and also so many beers. Their national liquor is Aguardiente, an incredibly potent licorice flavored beverage meant to be taken as a shot. I’ve tried it, it’s awful. But of course, if I stayed there for a few months, I’m sure it would start to grow on me.
Roadies? Absolutely! They even have their own word for it: caminera, literally, one for the road. If they are selling beer from a cart on the street, it’s usually safe to drink it there as well.
There you have it, folks! If you have any interesting or unique drinking customs you’ve come across during your travels, feel free to share them in the comments below! CHEERS!