Philip Duff didn’t know Korean. And the 15 Korean businessmen with whom he’d just sat down to eat—in the Netherlands, no less—didn’t speak a lick of English. But the impenetrable linguistic barrier didn’t prevent Duff, a beverage consultant who visits dozens of countries a year, from painting the town six to seven shades of red.
“Dinner, drinks, everything, for hours on end,” says Duff, a native Dubliner who now operates his company, Liquid Solutions, out of New York, “pretty much communicating exclusively through toasts.”
Raising a toast—hoisting glasses, touching rims and offering pleasantries, to honor someone, something or some shared purpose—is the most obvious way to break the ice, then pour booze all over it. “It’s a universal language,” he says.
The act on its most basic level is something anyone of legal drinking age is keen to embrace—a nod to the good health of good company, over some good drink. As a historical pursuit, however, the art of the toast is a case study in apocrypha, filthy rich in embellished folklore and whisper-down-the-lane whimsy.
Many of us have been educated by amateur barstool scholars on the origins of toasting. The ancient Greeks clinked mugs as a failsafe against poisoning, they say—the wine sloshing from one vessel to another was taken as an assurance that the tunic-draped guy across from you wasn’t surreptitiously sending you to meet Socrates.
The Scandinavian skål, their “cheers,” derives from Viking marauders guzzling alcohol out of the skulls of vanquished enemies, or so we’re told. And, so it goes, proto-Germanic peoples developed glass-bottomed drinkware so they could see if someone was bull-rushing them with a blade while they tossed one back. (The actual term “toast” seems to be drawn from the medieval practice of soaking spiced bread in alcohol. But who the hell knows.)
These types of stories make for colorful, if morbid, historical anecdotes, even if they’re more rooted in entertainment than antiquity. But murky origins do little to detract from the immeasurable cultural value the toast holds with people around the world. “No one person can make a spirit,” says Duff. “In this way, toasting celebrates the communal nature of humanity. It recognizes that everyone, directly or indirectly, contributed to this.”
Some countries take toasting ridiculously seriously; others don’t seem to consider it much at all. Regardless of intensity, these rituals tend to share DNA with the social and cultural leanings of their country of origin, saying quite a lot in the time it takes to down a shot.
Here, we’ve outlined just a handful of the world’s most notable toasting traditions practiced in contemporary times. While specifics vary wildly, one practice that seems to apply to every country is the belief that solid eye contact is vital to the toasting process. Fail to do so and you’re doomed to either silly bedroom curses, big in places like France (seven years bad sex!), or actual ostracization (it’s legitimately offensive in Germany). No tall tales about centurions carving each other’s corneas out here, folks—it’s just courteous, no matter where you’re drunk.
Raki—the anise spirit that turns a milky color when diluted—is a ubiquitous aperitif and toasting liquor throughout the Balkan Peninsula, as well as in Turkey and its neighboring nations. It holds weapon-of-choice status in Armenia, where drinkers lock their arms together before saying genatset (“good health”) and shooting it—everyone at once in a riotous circle, if you’re at a large gathering like a wedding or christening. Sit-down toasts at such events are typically handled by the host first, who singles out honorees in ascending order of deference, up to parents and grandparents.
One of the most high-context toasting cultures in the world belongs to China, where etiquette is king. At a meal, a host will open up the toasting, directing it to a specific member of the party, who will respond with a toast of his or her own. (Ganbei, or “bottoms up,” is the usual opener.) Keep in mind that your drunken destiny, especially as a visitor, might be out of your hands, as cup-draining is largely at the behest of those who raise toasts to you. It’ll either be beer or baijiu, a broad category of native white spirits distilled from sources like sorghum, rice and barley. Always respond to a toast with a matching beverage. And if you’re being toasted by an elder or superior, make sure their rim sits above yours when you touch glasses.
German toasts, usually executed with beer or schnaps (aka “shots,” not the sugary liqueurs beloved by American teenagers), tend to skew more cheery than heavy-handed. This is especially true in Bavaria during Oktoberfest season—ground zero for renditions of ein prosit (“a toast, a toast, to cheer and good times”) and schnaps, das war sein letztes word (“schnaps, which was his last word”). Lift glasses high, make eyes, say prost (beer and schnaps) or zum wohl (wine), clink and gulp it down.
It’s either wine or a clear liquor (ouzo; tsipouro, a grape brandy; zivania, a strong pressed-grape spirit indigenous to Cyprus) when the opportunity to toast arises at a Grecian table. It’s considered good luck for a host to perform the first toast, and it’s nice if guests return the favor as the evening progresses. Drink to nous egiis en somati egiis, or “healthy mind, healthy body.”
In the home of genever, Dutch drinkers fill frosted mini tulips (like a grappa glass with a shorter stem) to the very top before tossing out a traditional proost (or santé, in the French style, for wine). To get in with the most serious local drinkers, perform a kopstoot (“head butt”), the Dutch version of a boilermaker—begin by leaning over and slurping the top off a genever shot, hands free, before chasing with beer.
Lock eyes, clink glasses and tap your glass on bar or table before sipping and never toast with an empty glass. Cent’anni, meaning “one hundred years,” is often cited as the quintessential Italian toast, but it’s one of dozens. (It seems to have been popularized, stateside at least, by The Godfather.) The rigid regionality of the country means toasting language is extremely idiomatic. In the Campanian town of Montella, for example, a simple salute honoring one’s health is met by etta lo sangue (essentially, “I hope you die”), a sardonic bit of local black humor and possible wink at the region’s fondness for blood-related ritual. You might also come across in boca al lupo—“in the wolves’ mouth,” literally, but understood as “good luck.”
With a strong link between work culture and social culture, the act of the Japanese toast is associated with male-dominated office outings and functions, but the same precepts apply to recreational outings. Beer is the most-consumed, and therefore most-toasted beverage, with sake in play as well. Regardless of what you’re sipping and in what setting, it’s customary to allow others to pour for you; never drink before a toast is raised. Younger drinkers tend to handle carafe duty for elders at the table before every kanpai (“cheers,” but literally “dry cup”). A more advanced Japanese toast is otsukare, or “you’re tired”—a compliment of one’s work ethic, meaning they have earned their drink.
Citizens of one of the most fully realized drinking nations in all of Asia, Koreans love to party, and there’s a complex set of customs in place when they do. There is some commonality with Japan, such as allowing your friends to pour your beer or soju for you prior to yelling gun bae (“cheers”). There are also generational considerations in play: younger drinkers, when poured a drink by a conservative elder, might divert their eyes when consuming it out of deference. Grasp your cup or glass with two hands before draining it. And try your best to keep up—Koreans go hard.
Toasts in Mexico are typically the domain of men and are structured in correlation with most Western drink-raising practices. When in Oaxaca, however, be sure to employ a hearty stigibeu—it’s an ancient Zapotec toast, honoring the earth that provides the agave necessary to create the region’s famous mezcal. An old-fashioned Oaxacan toastmaster might dribble a little spirit out onto the dirt before filling up your copita, a dainty clay vessel specifically designed for mezcal drinking.
An intimate Filipino drinking session is lorded over by the tanggero, who will crack a beer or lambanog (arrack) and, after dripping a bit out in remembrance of fallen friends and family, will dole out pours to the group one by one using a single cup or glass. This is a practice called tagay—definitely not for the germaphobic, but a tangible representation of boozy Filipino togetherness. These sessions are usually accompanied by pulutan, snacky finger foods such as chicharrones. Acknowledge the group with an energetic mabuhay; it means “welcome,” but it’s also used as a toast and affirmation.
The United Kingdom
The Irish have a wonderful reputation for lilting, lengthy toast-making, but it’s likely the drinkers of yore who have earned it for their progeny. “There’s this idea that Ireland is awash with pubs filled with gap-toothed old farmers in flat caps citing literary quotes,” says Duff, who thinks his home country’s toasting prowess tends to be overstated. “It’s usually ‘cheers,’ and that’s it.” Of course, a spirited slainte is shared in good faith in both Ireland and Scotland. Toasting in England and Wales (yechyd means “good health” in Welsh) set the precedent for the no-frills American approach.
Russians are fiercely proud of their toasting abilities, and for good reason. “They’re the Olympic heavyweights in this,” says Duff. “They’ll defeat all comers.” Sit down with 20 Russians at a formal dinner and you’ll hear 20 different eloquent toasts, the lot “sentimental or stirring or provocative or intellectual, just like the Russians themselves.” Don’t sit or begin eating until the introductory toast is completed, and make sure to stand and participate in all subsequent toasts. Nazdarovya (“to your health”) is the most-used utterance, and variations on this can be found throughout Eastern Europe. Men will pour for the women sitting near them. Don’t attempt to toast with an empty glass; and if a bottle of wine or vodka is kicked, it must be removed from the table immediately.
In Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, toasts often take the form of songs, or snapsvisors. For special celebrations, like holidays, hosts go out of their way to print out lyrics pamphlets for the crowd. The most popular drinking tune is “Helan Går,” sung to kick off an evening of heavy schnaps consumption. You don’t necessarily have to touch glasses, as long as you acknowledge one another and say skål. An expert host will even plan ahead and prepare a filling late-night dish—like Janssons frestelse (“Jansson’s temptation”), a rich, rib-sticking potato and fish casserole—in and attempt to mitigate sloppiness.