I hate taking shots of tequila. It’s not tequila’s fault: I had too much of it one night in college, and I’ve haven’t been able to taste it without wincing since. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that a shot of tequila was far more pleasant (if still a bit cringe-inducing) if I skipped the whole “lick salt/suck a lime” bit of the ritual. I don’t know why it’s something I ever bought into in the first place: you don’t just cover up something miserable by doing more miserable things. It would be like saying, “Hey, do you hate getting stuck by needles at the doctor? It’s much more bearable if you stub your toe first, then get the shot, then have someone you love smack you in the face.”
But every time I take a shot without the lick and suck, my drinking buddies look at me as if I’ve desecrated a tomb. The same goes for if I put an even number of olives in my martini, or water down my single malt with ice.
Drinking is one of those last little corners of modern life that is soaked in ritual. We do strange things while drinking that we would find bizarre in any other corner of life except maybe sports. There are specific ways to toast, specific ways to prepare our drinks, specific drinking faux pas that carry with them specific drinking penalties. There’s a reason for this (which I’ll get to at the end of the article), but our culture is not alone in this. Here are some of the strange drinking rituals people engage in around the world.
England: The Toast
We toast while drinking so often that it doesn’t really register as anything strange. And indeed, it seems to be a universal part of drinking culture. But what’s strange is the reason we call it “toasting” in the English language in the first place: In 17th century England, wine was not very good, so people added spiced bread to the drink in order to cut the harshness. So when someone proposed a drink, they called it “toasting” because they were literally putting toast in before drinking.
Spain: Never have a last drink
In Spain, the last drink of the night is called the “penultima,” which, directly translated, means “second to last.” The word “ultima” or “last,” is reserved for the last drink of your life.
In one of the last episodes of The Office, Dwight Schrute’s cousin Mose kidnaps Dwight’s fiancee and holds her at a bar for a ransom. The ransom is that Dwight has to buy everyone at the bar a drink. It sounds like sitcom nonsense, but it’s actually a legit German tradition: during a wedding (or possibly the night before or at the stag party), the groomsmen actually kidnap the bride and hold her hostage for drinks.
Incidentally, this is probably tied to the story of what a “Best Man” is – the term (and position) is believed to have come from the 16th century German Goths, where a groom-to-be would literally pick the best man to go and kidnap the bride. The best man was then in charge of fighting off the bride’s family during the wedding ceremony.
The Netherlands: Head-butting
In the Netherlands, there’s a practice called “Kopstootje,” which roughly translates to “little head butt.” The Kopstootje is a shot and a beer, but the shot (Genever, or Dutch gin) is put into a tulip-shaped glass and filled to the brim. The drinker is not allowed to touch or spill the first sip of the shot, so they must instead put their arms behind their back and lean down for the first sip before having any of the rest of the drink.
Hungary: Never Clink
In 1848, most of Europe rose up in revolution. It was spectacular and exciting and spontaneous, but before the year’s end, most of the revolutions had fizzled and even more oppressive autocratic governments had taken the old order’s place. In Hungary, 13 revolutionaries were executed as a result of the uprisings, and their deaths were celebrated by the reactionaries with the clinking of beer glasses.
Hungarians vowed to not clink their beer glasses for 150 years to remember their fallen comrades. It’s been more than 150 years, but they still don’t clink.
Norway: Drinking out of Skulls
Norway, like England, has a similarly weird word for a toast: skål. Skål, directly translated from Old Norse, means bowl, but it can also mean skull. There are rumors that Vikings enjoyed drinking from the skulls of their vanquished enemies, and that this is the reason behind their toast.
Japan: Never Pour Your Own Drink
In Japan (as well as a few other Asian cultures) it’s considered rude to pour your own drink or to let someone else pour theirs. This means that other people get to choose when you need a top up, so you are likely to get very drunk.
When I first met my wife’s family, I endeared myself on the first night by not saying no to a drink. I could not hang, but when I came down the next morning with a devastating hangover, they teased me and gave me a breakfast sandwich, and ever since, we’ve all been on pretty good terms. And that’s the real function of a drinking ritual. They exist not because people are superstitious or weird, but because they are ways of developing trust with other people.
To let a stranger pour all of your drinks is to say, “I trust you not to poison me.” To pour all of a stranger’s drinks is to say, “I’m going to see how long you can hang.” To refuse to clink in Hungary, to head-butt in Holland, to toast or to skål, is to acknowledge a shared history. So when I refuse to lick the salt and suck the lime when I’m taking a shot of tequila, what I’m really saying is that I’m not to be trusted. Which is why I go for vodka instead.