Oh alcohol, one of life’s great redeeming elements, a refuge from the troubles of the world and the spark that lights many a midnight adventure through the lamplit streets of some far-flung city. The joys and subsequent pains of getting drunk have been appreciated all across this spinning globe, and many countries have evolved their own cherished tipple, with a scent, flavor and intoxicating effect that have sunk roots deep in the soil of the national psyche. So why not slip on the garb of some alternative patriotism and celebrate Russia with a beaker of vodka, or South Korea with a shot of soju. It’s guaranteed to be terrific fun – at least through the first four or five glasses...
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Which brand of spirit sells twice as many as any other in the world? Yes, it’s soju (Jinro Soju to be precise), the national drink of South Korea, which is also the country with the highest per capita alcohol consumption. Who knew? Apart from the Koreans, obviously. Anyway, soju is a distilled drink made from rice and usually a little barley, wheat or sweet potato, with a smooth, clean taste, similar to vodka except a little sweeter and usually about half as strong. It first appeared in Korea in the 13th century with the Mongol invaders, who took what they had learnt of distillation during their campaigns in the Middle East and applied it to rice, Korea’s primary crop. For an upscale experience of the tipple, head to The Timber Room in Seoul.
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Scotch whisky, which you may know as simply Scotch, is a malt or malt-grain whisky aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. There are two main types, of which the best is the fabled single malt – a Scotch whisky produced from only water and malt barley at a single distillery. Scotch whisky has long played a role in the lives of the Scots, with the first recorded reference found in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland of 1495, naming Friar John Cor as the distiller at Lindores Abbey in Fife. And with a minimum alcohol content of 40%, Scotch certainly has the fire to warm its drinkers through the long, cold Scottish winters. You want to try it? Well, any decent pub in Scotland will have a single malt or two behind the bar.
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Heading across the Atlantic, Bourbon is a whisky with its roots in Kentucky and the American South. Its origins are not clear, and there is no single story but rather a multiplicity of stories across different county lines claiming to describe the moment of its invention. But however it happened, distilling was probably first introduced to the region by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 18th century, and somewhere along the line their spirit picked up a handful of qualities that imbue it with a distinct American character. It is made primarily from corn and is aged in charred oak casks, which give it its reddish color and unique smoky taste. Taking the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which visits seven different distilleries, is a great way to experience the drink.
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Move south across the equator and into Peru, and you’ll be set up to sample the next drink on our list. Pisco is a brandy – a spirit made by distilling wine, and so ultimately based on grapes – that was developed by Spanish settlers in the 16th century as a local alternative that broke their dependence on orujo, a brandy imported all the way from Spain. Through the centuries since, pisco has been appropriated as Peru’s national drink, the aguardiente of the Peruvian populace – and it’s consumed in large quantities by the Chileans across the border, too. Colorless, smooth and gently flavored, just bear in mind that it’s stronger than it seems – many a traveler has been knocked flat by throwing the stuff back unheedingly.
Crisp, clean, and refreshing, it’s not difficult to see why Hemingway felt a couple of mojitos sharpened his view of the world – how could a drink made of rum, lime, mint, sugar and sparkling water do anything else? He used to enjoy the beverage in La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar by the Havana waterfront, where his handwriting still adorns the wall today. Cuba is the acknowledged birthplace of the cocktail, where its fresh, energizing burn helps light the feet of the city’s many dancers. Just how it was first invented, however, is a matter of dispute: indigenous South Americans, Francis Drake and enslaved Africans working in Cuban sugar cane fields may all have played a role in creating Hemingway’s favorite tipple.
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Rum has one of the oldest heritages of any drink on this list. A fiery spirit made from sugarcane or its byproducts, drinks fermented from these sources have been consumed in parts of Asia for thousands of years. Rum was first distilled in the Caribbean in 17th century, when slaves working on sugarcane plantations discovered that the byproduct molasses could be made into alcohol. It then began its long association with the British Navy, when the British colonized Jamaica in 1655 and, seeing the availability of locally produced rum, changed the sailors’ daily liquor ration from French brandy to Jamaican rum. Jamaica has been the country the drink is most associated with ever since, and it’s certainly pretty wonderful to sit on the warm sand of a Caribbean beach, sipping on a glass of blazing rum as the sun dips over the shimmering horizon.
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"Oh for a thimble of the cold north!" writes Patrick Leigh Fermor, riffing on the English poet John Keats in his epic travelogue A Time of Gifts: "Fiery-frosty portions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs and send travelers rocketing on through snow and ice..." He had just quaffed a glass of raspberry schnapps, given free by a German landlord after he stumbles in from frost-bitten Bavarian roads. The name comes from schnaps, German for swallow, and as this suggests it covers a broad church of drinks – schnapps essentially means any kind of potent alcoholic beverage. In Austria and south Germany, however, it’s usually taken to refer to a crystal-clear yet warming spirit made from apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots or raspberries.
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Outside of Catalonia, cava has frequently been denigrated by affluent wine snobs, but in its native home the sparkling wine has always been given the respect at least some of its varietals deserve. About 95% of the stuff is made from grapes grown in Catalonia, particularly in the Penedès region, and it used to be labelled "Spanish champagne" until EU law prohibited this alternative application of the French word. Poured liberally into small glasses in many of the bars and cafes lining the labyrinthine streets of central Barcelona, it slips down very easily, making a perfect accompaniment to the leisurely night-long consumption of pintxos and tapas.
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Vodka is something of a Janus in Russian culture, beloved for its warming, life-enhancing qualities, but also very much in the sights of studies looking at Russia’s high alcohol consumption. It’s there in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, consumed with a determined ceaselessness by the lonely bearded men that haunt the dim bars lining St Petersburg’s backstreets, and sparking some of Raskolnikov’s most wild deliriums. And it will certainly be there if you travel in Russia today, where it is estimated to make up 70% of all alcohol consumed in the country.
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For some, champagne encapsulates the dedication to process, detail and fine food that defines French cuisine. For others, it symbolizes a pretentious urge to over-complicate and over-price the experience of eating well that some strands of French cooking can exemplify. Wherever you stand, the ritual of downing champagne at moments of celebration is firmly rooted in many western countries, and if you’re from the United States or Europe you’ve probably partaken in it many times. And of course, the drink itself is not so much French as an emanation of a very small part of Gaul, the Champagne region. EU law says the word champagne can only be used to designate wine produced here, and such wine must also follow a series of rules to qualify for the name, such as allowing secondary fermentation and subsequent carbonization to take place in the bottle.