Day 255: Toasting The Globe – The World Of Liquor, Part 2

originally published September 11, 2012

Yesterday I examined the history of beverage distillation for the purposes of intoxication and rendering members of the opposite (or same, whatever) sex more attractive. But I never really got my palette wet. Many nations possess a ‘national drink’, an alcoholic beverage that distinctly defines their collective palette. It’s not often an official designation, but to most adult-age citizens, it can become a source of national pride.

Some national beverages are obvious. Champagne, cognac, and brandy are all proudly consumed by under the flag of the French. Scots love their scotch. Irish whiskey is a source of Irish pride and Irish brawls. Jamaicans like their rum, and for what it’s worth, so do I.

Let’s take a trip around the global bar.

We’ll start in Greece, where their national beverage compliments one of the finest global cuisines to have ever embraced my palate and added to my waistline. Ouzo is flavored with anise, which gives it a strong licorice taste. The alcohol they use is usually 96% alcohol by volume ethyl alcohol, so if you plan on making a night of drinking ouzo, you’d best plan on a quick evening in a room with a soft floor.

In Poland you’ll have two options for a national drink. You can go with vodka – and Polish vodka has the potential to be among the tastiest of vodkas – or wash down your kabanos with a hearty glass of mead. Not a distilled beverage, mead is a delicious honey-based wine. It’s also to alcoholic drinks what James Brown is to funk music: where it all started. The earliest evidence of mead production dates back to 7000BC. They knew how to party back then.

If you’ve ever been to Japan, or for that matter dined at your local Benihana, then hopefully you’ve tried some sake, the traditional Japanese rice wine. The brewing process is actually more beer-like, though the alcohol content generally ends up higher than beer or wine, so that’s just fine.

Jet up to Korea and you’ll have to sample some soju. The closest parallel in the western world would be vodka, though soju can be made from rice, wheat, barley, sweet potatoes or tapioca. There are a lot of rules with soju. Don’t pour your own glass. Don’t shoot it while directly facing an elder. Use two hands. Pour the drink with your right hand while your left hand touches the elbow of… you know what? Soju might just be too complicated for me.

Over in Latvia, they’re downing something called balsam. Actually, they are devouring the stuff. It’s an herbal liqueur made with a variety of ingredients (flowers, roots, oils… Latvian Hippie stuff) mixed with pure vodka. How do you serve it? I’m glad you asked. Balsam is served straight up, on the rocks, mixed with soda, mixed with Coke, stirred into schnapps, poured into coffee or tea, highlighting black currant juice, as an ingredient in numerous cocktails, or poured over ice cream. Those Latvians love their balsam.

Unicum, which sounds like… well, I don’t want to say what it sounds like. It sounds dirty and possibly unicorn-related, I’ll leave it at that. But it’s not – it’s the herbal bitters drink that Hungary has embraced as their national booze. The company that makes it is onomatopoeically named Zwack, and because the Zwack family was exiled to New York and Chicago during the socialist regime of the 20th century, it developed a following closer to home. I’d try it, but I’d probably finish that thought about what the name sounds like, thereby offending a nearby Hungarian who’s all hopped up on Zwack-brand unicum, and next thing I know I’d be challenged to a dagger duel in the street. I hang out at those kinds of places.

Belgium is famous for its beer, its chocolate, and the fact that a large percentage of North Americans know nothing about the country except that it’s known for its beer and its chocolate. Also, waffles. Great, great waffles. But Belgium is also known, along with the Netherlands, as the birthplace of jenever, the juniper-flavored precursor to gin. According to European Union law, no other country is allowed to market a product as ‘jenever’. Luckily, someone in Canada makes it, so that’ll save me some airfare money.

Speaking of Canada, I feel obligated to throw in a plug for our own prized potion of potent pleasure, Canadian whisky. We call it ‘rye’ because rye used to be the standard spine that supported the vast network of intricate yumminess in every bottle. These days it’s more common for Canadian whisky to be wholly bereft of rye, its distinct flavor having been replaced by something else. Probably cheese curds or something.

What rye whisky brings to Canadians (often cirrhosis of the liver), bourbon flies the same flag for U.S. of A. Though manufactured all over the country (so, probably in sweatshops in Taiwan), bourbon is associated with Bourbon County, Kentucky. Local proponents of the drink – or ‘Bourbon Boosters’ as I just now decided to call them – swear that it’s the iron-free water which gets filtered through the uniquely high concentrations of limestone in the area that makes Kentucky bourbon taste better than any other kind. A similar argument is given for the unique qualities of New York pizza. Who am I to argue?

I may never make it to Ethiopia, but I’d like to hunt down a sampling of their national source of liquid inspiration, mostly because it is traditionally served in the above vessel, known as a berele. Tej is a kind of mead made with powdered leaves and twigs. Nothing beats the heat like a tall flask of slightly sweet leaves and twigs that will have you slurring after a few good gulps.

Lastly, I’m going to end the night with a stiff shot of Brennivín, native mind-number of Iceland. Concocted from fermented potato mash and tweaked with the flavor of caraway seeds, the locals refer to this drink as Black Death. Even the literal translation of the name ‘Brennivín’ is ‘burning wine’. This is not something I’m eager to pour into my innards. According to my 10-15 seconds of research, Brennivín is consumed after eating putrefied shark flesh, in order to mask the taste of the fish.

I know I commended Moldova yesterday for being the reigning king of per capita drinking, but I’ve got to hand it to the drinkers in Iceland. They bite into rancid-tasting hunks of Jaws, then wash it back with something called Black Death.

That is one bad-ass party right there.

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