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Thursday, October 20, 2016

How We Toast

A few months ago I was sitting in an Irish pub with The Beer Nut and I did what any American would do: I held my pint glass aloft and said "Sláinte" with gusto. Hey, that's what the Irish do when they offer a toast, right? Fortunately, just as the word was dying in my mouth, shamrocks, leprechauns, and Blarney stones trooped through my mind and I had the good sense to ask John (the Nut's actual name) whether this is something Irish drinkers say. Not often, he confirmed. 

In drinking culture, the toast happens reflexively. We offer the toast and may even bring our awareness to the moment, but then it's gone. Once the act is done enough it passes into ritual, which is to say it is so familiar the particulars of the act are hard to identify. I was reminded of this when John and his wife visited Portland a few weeks past and I joined them for pints on my home turf. I met them at Fat Head's, where they were already well into their pints, and then, in the Irish fashion, marched off to a different pub for our next pint. It was there I went through the reflexive toast, and I could tell by their slight expressions of surprise that I was doing something culturally specific.

The ritual of toasting one another with alcohol is ancient. It fits within a category of social rituals that happen all the time: vocal greetings at particular moments during the day, the way we touch each other when we meet for the first time (handshake, cheek kiss, bow), even the way we say something after someone sneezes. Alcohol fits into a slightly more special category because it is usually used in ceremonies (weddings, funerals, boat christening) that mark our connections. That's what's happening in the pub, too, though on a more quotidian level. The words themselves often translate to some kind of well-wishing: "to your health" is a common translation of many national exclamations, or to happiness or one's benefit. 

The subtle particulars of how we conduct this ritual vary a lot. Czechs have told me that the failure to look someone in the eye during toasting brings seven years bad sex--an amusing joke that nevertheless reveals a real element of the act. In some countries you only have to raise your glass or clink the glass of your neighbor, while in others, clinking must happen all around. Most places frown upon toasting with an empty glass.

I'm not sure what I told John at that second pub about the habits of American toasters. I hadn't considered it well enough to know. The truth is, I'm not even sure if there's an American practice--these things may well be regional or even confined to smaller social groups. I have considered the matter, though, and should you ever find yourself in my company here in Portland, expect these things to transpire.

A toast is made after the first round arrives. We generally say "cheers," though variations may be appropriate for special occasions or comedic purposes ("cheers to this sorry basket of deplorables"). Everyone must touch everyone else's glass. Eye contact is not a must, though appreciated. 

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me the moment is not a blind ritual. Stopping after receiving that first glass of beer to offer a toast centers the moment in its social setting. Offering a toast is a way of re-establishing connections. We say "cheers," but we mean, "let's not miss the opportunity to affirm how happy we are to have a chance to be together here, now." In nearly every case, I sense the actual connection being made. 

(Perhaps a great deal could be made about the psychology of men's emotional relationships to other men, and how they are nurtured through these subtle and non-demonstrative displays of friendship. Since toasting is now done among all genders and since I have not surveyed the literature, I'll skip that digression for now.)

Other rules. If people arrive at different times, the toasting will take place when a new round arrives. If the group doesn't settle into ordering in rounds, the opportunity may be lost, though any member may, after everyone has a beer, offer the toast then. It's considered poor form to toast with an empty glass, and I have seen the ritual delayed while the group waits for the empty-glassed member to get a fresh beer. This again confirms that the moment is more than an empty gesture. 

Finally, and this wasn't something I'd noticed until recently, relocation to a new pub starts the whole process over again. One is tempted to draw connections to the religious sphere in this ritual act, and the idea that we toast at every new pub would tend to bolster that case. There's an element of blessing or sanctification that this suggests; a new space, a new need to prepare it and make it sacred. In this way, the act of drinking becomes something like a rite that must be preceded with the proper invocations.  

Or perhaps I'm overthinking things here. Maybe it's just something we do, and it's nice and we like it, and it's cool because we all do it slightly differently. Even at that, it's worth a blog post every now and again.



  1. Toasts are great but not as elaborate as they once were: I have been in a setting where the Queen was toasted which was all very jolly - even though I've always kept my lips shut when it comes to the oaths to the Queen. There is another word that comes up that I think might be what we do now - bumpering. Toasts and bumpering were often jumped upon as great social ills when it was pretty much a drinking game. My favourite ritual sitting down to drink was that of a pal from Cornwall, England - heads and tails. Clicking glasses to tap the rims then the bases in quick succession.

  2. Not only must you look your fellow Czech drinker in the eye, you mustn't cross over someone else cheersing, you wait until arms have been retracted - if that makes sense. I was also told, and got into the habit of, that you clink the top of the glasses, then the base, before hitting it on the table before taking your first mouthful.

  3. Prost! I was told at Oktoberfest about looking the other in the eye. But only to toast with the bottom (more sturdy) part of the glass.

  4. Alistair, fascinating. I missed that one--probably because arm-crossing never came up.

    Unknown, yes, and that's actually why weisse vases have a thick bottom--so you can tap them firmly together.

  5. I've always heard, and of course this could be as true or not true of any other urban legends, that back in Viking or Medivel times, the glasses (wooden mugs?) were clinked together hard enough to slosh liquid from one glass to the other in an sign/gesture that the drinks had not been poisoned. We all live together or we all die together. Similar to legends about handshakes and military salutes that stem from showing an empty hand indicating that you are unarmed.

  6. When it's just my wife and I, we toast "To Evil!" Because we're nerds, and it tickles our funny bones.

  7. I think it's just to offset the awkward silence created when it's time to stop talking and do something else with your mouth, ensuring everyone is equally antisocial simultaneously. We observe a ritual for the same purpose before we eat also.

    I should point out that Irish people are well capable of staying in the same place and drinking, just not when we're being beer tourists, or beer tourists are visiting us.

  8. I've rarely come across formal toasts during a night out with friends. Formal meaning that everyone stops to engage in some sort of ritualistic habit together to open a round of drinks. Toasting like that in the US seems to be reserved for special occasions.

    The closest thing I see to toasting when I'm out drinking is usually an informal ritual that revolves around the buying of rounds. Whoever buys the rounds is told thanks or cheers, and person raises their glass then quaffs. I guess in a way it's toasting, but I always saw it more as a thank you for the round since it doesn't usually occur outside of someone buying someone else a drink, and it's an individual acknowledgement of appreciation rather than a group activity.

  9. Meanwhile, if you wander across the Czech border into Hungary, never toast a Hungarian with beer.

  10. My household will be adopting that toast to evil…

    I was a high school exchange student in Germany. This being my introduction to beer culture, I follow German practice. Besides that, lipsticks, balms, and worse live on the rim. The bottom of a glass is as sanitary as it is customary.