I’m a firm believer that a nation’s drink is shaped by its landscape and climate, and that its drink in turn shapes its culture.
According to my theory, the world can be neatly divided into several distinct zones of booze…
The UK and Ireland are home to warming whiskeys, dark heavy ales and stouts. Just the thing for when the perpetual damp soaks through your bones: a sip to burn away the mists of mind, memory and landscape.
To the east, Scandinavia and Russia — cold icy lands locked for half the year in perpetual darkness — are the birthplace of vodka and aquavit. They created a clean, crisp drink that’s as icy as the northern air they breathe. It cuts through the brain like a knife of cold clarity. At least, the first one does.
Europe is split by a wandering line that divides those who drink wine from those who drink beer. This line bisects Germany into a zone of frothy steins and a zone of rolling vine-covered hills. On one side the people are beer hall boisterous, and on the other they’re reserved and contemplative. The Mediterranean countries of Europe fall into the zone of wine, but they add a small twist: the tradition of the aperitif and the digestif. Call them what you will, they’re the stuff of early morning café nips, and like wine they’re the fuel of conversations deep and wide.
Eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia are parched throat lands in need of a crisp, refreshing gulp. Their sharp light lagers work, but sustained travel leaves one longing for something stronger. Little wonder that British colonizers brought gin to India and Malaya: a warming drink turned cold, one that mirrors the gradual dissolution of the long term colonist.
Across the Atlantic, in Central America and the Caribbean, it can be only rum. If wine is the fuel of conversation, rum is the fuel of lust: sweltering nights; air filled with the sweet scent of jacarandas; dusky island girls swirling barefoot to a sinuous slow reggae beat. These are lands where the moonlit tide washes on sandy beaches, lapping and surging like the hot blood that courses through your rum-filled veins.
Just to the north, the tequila belt of Mexico cuts a swath across the map like a dangerous tropical storm zone: hot dusty mariachi nights at the end of which you don’t know your ass from your elbow.
Finally, North America is a vibrant meld of cultures. It’s an amalgam of booze, just as North Americans are an amalgam of peoples. Though it has created several unique spirit variations of its own, rye and bourbon among them, its culture is most truly represented by the cocktail: a cutting edge blend of old and new. Elegant and refined or playful and carefree, the endless combinations of the New World’s cocktail culture bring with them endless variety and creativity.
So there you have it. My professional opinion as an anthropologist and a travel writer. My grand theory of the world in seven fiery sips. (And as you can see from the blank spaces on my map, my research is a work in progress…)
I believe it was Lawrence Durrell who wrote of the variety of alcoholic experience available to the traveler. It truly is one of the perks of road life. And what better way to outmaneuver a cultural barrier than through the gurgle of a bottle, especially a bottle of something local?