Where there is sugar, yeast will find it — and so we have alcohol. The natural wonder we call fermentation has been discovered and replicated independently in nearly every region of earth, and virtually nowhere is there a culture today in which people don’t enjoy tossing back a few. But what do they toss back? That depends on the place, and one of the simplest joys of traveling is tasting the local tipple — often offered by locals to their guests as one of the most universally recognized gestures of hospitality. While globalization has certainly leveled out the contours of the international drinking world, making the best Japanese sakes and European beers and French wines easily accessible almost anywhere, many alcoholic beverages still evoke the places where they were born. For some rare and regional brews, you may even need to travel for a taste. Here are several drinks well worth a journey — and, usually, at least a sip.
Cashew wine, Belize. Good luck finding this drink anywhere but among the jungles, swamps and keys of Central America’s littlest country. Cashew trees, native to Brazil, are grown throughout Latin America, and they produce not only a nut. The entire fruit of the cashew tree is a gourd-shaped, sweet and fleshy orb from which the familiar “nut” hangs off the bottom. These are separated from the fruit and processed, while the so-called cashew apple is crushed into juice and fermented into wine. If you’re in Belize in May, make an appearance at the Crooked Tree Cashew Festival, where cashew nuts, preserves and wine are prepared and served. Throughout the year, cashew wine is available in most local stores, though how you’ll like the stuff is hard to say. The drink is popular among Belizeans, while many foreigners say they can’t get past the first sip. If you’re up for a real imbibing adventure, inquire with villagers about local wines, and you’ll as likely find yourself escorted into a makeshift fermenting shed where you’ll be treated to a variety of local wines straight from the barrel. Local specialties include carrot wine, grapefruit wine, sea grape wine, ginger wine, sugarcane wine and breadfruit wine. Pace yourself.
Baijiu, China. I like to remind the people close to me, especially on or around my birthday, that “friends don’t make friends drink shots.” But if you’re going to China, get ready to knock ‘em back — because anyone who takes a liking to you or your friends just might call for a round of baijiu, a notorious and potent hard alcohol made from sorghum or other grains and which it’s considered a grave insult to refuse. The problem is, sometimes it never stops coming, according to travelers who shudder at the recollection of baijiu-soaked banquets or so-called “liquid lunches.” Indeed, baijiu bullying is a favored pastime among many Chinese gentlemen (women are generally left out of the fray). Author Peter Hessler vividly described this drinking tradition in his 2001 memoir River Town , in which the American, then a school teacher in the Peace Corps in the Sichuan province, often found himself at midday banquets where red-faced men goaded each other into drinking baijiu until all were stone drunk. The odd man who tried to refuse was often ridiculed and called a woman (big insult for a man) until he relented to “only one more,” which usually led to more taunting by his cohorts and another drink. Perhaps we can learn some tactics from the former President Richard Nixon: When he visited China in 1972, he reportedly fought back during a boozy baijiu banquet; he began proposing his own toasts, although whether he himself was drinking is reportedly unclear.
Bourbon-barrel aged beer, microbreweries of America. A favorite drink among committed beer geeks is beers aged in bourbon barrels. It was Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago that first dabbled in this sub-style back in 1992, aging several barrels of imperial stout in boozy bourbon casks, retired from their previous careers in Kentucky. That beer, the Bourbon County Stout, is still popular today. It runs about 13 percent alcohol by volume, and 12 ounces contains about 400 calories — so watch out. Today, hundreds of American breweries offer barrel-aged beers, many of which taste irresistibly good, often with forward flavors of butter, toasted coconut and vanilla. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, look for Founders Brewing Company’s “Curmudgeon’s Better Half,” an old ale brewed with molasses and aged in “maple syrup bourbon barrels.” In Paso Robles, California, track down Firestone Walker’s Parabola, an imperial stout aged in a combination of wine and spirits barrels. And in Bend, Oregon, look for The Stoic, a Belgian-style quadruple soaked for a time in whiskey and wine barrels.
Sake, Japan. Most of us are at least faintly familiar with what we sometimes call “rice wine.” The culture of brewing and drinking sake is beginning to spread around the world. Still, most of the world’s best sake — the really good stuff that smells like fruity perfume and goes down as softly and smoothly as milk — is most readily available in Japan. Here, more than 1,800 breweries make and sell sake, and many of them offer tours of the facilities and, of course, tasting of many sake styles. Feeling brainy? Then visit the Hakushika Memorial Sake Museum in Nishinomiya City. While exploring the sakes of Japan, keep your eyes open for a style called koshu, which is aged in steel tanks for years before bottling, by which time it has often taken on flavors of chocolate, chestnuts, earth and mushrooms. If you find yourself in Korea — the South, that is (if you go to North Korea, we definitely want to hear about it) — try makkoli, a milky white rice beverage of 6-8% alcohol by volume.
Retsina, Greece. Greece is currently undergoing a wine renaissance as its vintners and marketers push their wines into the international market. But through all the world tours and trade shows and tastings, and all the praise and cheer for the vineyards of Santorini and Rhodes and Crete, there is one humble Greek wine that got left at home: retsina. This infamous white wine aged with sappy pine resin is the one that Greek wine snobs would like to see disowned and exiled to Albania. Retsina, do doubt, has a reputation as a cheap and shoddy booze flavored like turpentine, but I’ll stick up for this underdog, because I like retsina. Many are the balmy autumn evenings in Greece that I camped on a mountain side and watched the sun sink into the gleaming Aegean, figs and feta for supper, a spicy shock of retsina to wash it down. And while the reds and whites of Greece taste roughly like the reds and whites of anywhere else in the world (yikes — the French are going to keel-haul me for saying that), retsina tastes like nothing else, a distinctly Greek specialty with a smell and flavor that quickly calls to mind the place where it’s made — that is, the dry and craggy landscape of beautiful, beautiful Greece.