Offering a toast is a staple of any holiday gathering, celebratory dinner, or really any gathering of friends, colleagues and family where beverages are being consumed. Someone in the group raises his glass, says a few words, then the rest of the group follows suit by raising their own glasses and responding with a hearty “cheers!” as they clink glassware with other guests in attendance. Perhaps the response is made in a foreign tongue, as certainly a sláinte, salud, prost, or l’chaim might be a common substitution for the more familiar Anglo-based expression.
This custom is sustained by our modern sense of camaraderie and our abilities to gather together with friends and family in social settings with relative ease. However, this custom of the toast doesn’t have such pure goodwill associated with it throughout history. We consume a glass of wine, a pint of beer or a well-crafted cocktail to relax and unwind, or to enjoy with a meal, however, much of history was not quite as civilized.
Organized meals and gatherings were not as much a chance to relax with those close to you as they were a great opportunity for people to try and eliminate their rivals for wealth, land and power. The easiest way to take out your competition was to poison them, and drinks were the number one option for nasty powders and liquids aimed at causing death to your nemesis. The only way to assure everyone in attendance that the beverage you brought to honor your host was safe for consumption was to have it poured for everyone. One would then stand and raise your glass in honor of the gracious host and take a sip of the drink in view of the rest of the guests. At that point, everyone could feel better about not winding up with a tainted glass and finding themselves with far worse than a hangover.
Another root of our modern tradition of the toast actually stems from a piece of, well, toast. Beverages of the past were not the products of pristine production methods, clean storage or real knowledge of chemical processes that take place during and after production. This often resulted in beverages that didn’t taste terribly good, but were still safer than non-alcoholic alternatives. Toast, or more accurately, burnt bread, was a primitive form of charcoal filtration that helps to remove unpleasant aromas and flavors, making the resulting drink far more palatable.
But what about the “clink-clink” of glasses that accompanies a toast? This is another custom that dates back to times when there was more mystery about the process of fermentation and alcohol. There was a widely held belief that there were “evil spirits” in beverages. These spirits where seen to be the reason one would feel badly the next morning after over-indulging. By clinking glasses together with your compatriots, you would chase off the evil spirits residing in your drink and you would be less susceptible to feeling poorly afterward. (An alternative explanation is that this clinking signifies your confidence that the drink you are about to partake in is safe, per the aforementioned tactic of avoiding.)
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since those days. Now the “evil spirits” are only those that we drink after having too much. We don’t have to worry about people trying to “eliminate” us and take over our kingdom via our glass of wine. And well, it might be my own preference, but I like to keep my toast and drink separate. So rest easy, relax, pour yourself and your friends a drink, raise a glass and toast to whatever strikes your fancy!
The author of this article is Michael Meagher. Michael is a Master Sommelier Candidate and winner of the 2010 Chaine de Rotisseurs Best Young Sommelier competition and finished third at 2010 TOP|SOMM. He serves as Chairman of the Boston Sommelier Society and is the owner of the beverage consulting company, Sommelier On-Demand.
Categories: Wine & Spirits