I previously served up a short listing of alcoholic beverages of the world — and I’m glad I’m merely writing about so much booze. For had I set myself to tasting my way across the globe, I’m not sure I’d even remember my journey. I think I could pass gracefully enough through the vineyards of France and the monastic breweries of Belgium. Even in Italy, I think I could maintain my composure, swirling my glass and sniffing my wine like I knew what I was doing. But the list of brews and booze from around the globe is a long one, and after the grappa, the tsipouro, the rakia and the chacha of Europe, there’s no telling if I’d make it through the various rice distillates of Asia, past the coconut and sugarcane liquors of the tropics and home again to California for a glass of Zinfandel. So here we go, another round of the world’s most throat-raking, most charismatic and most beloved alcoholic drinks:
Chacha, Republic of Georgia. Stick to the road, ignore everyone and beware of liquid that looks like water — because it’s probably chacha, and in the Republic of Georgia, locals take pride in their national liquor, and they want you to drink it. The local version of grappa, chacha may be distilled from wine lees or the brew of other fermented fruits. It runs 40% alcohol, tastes like any other backwoods moonshine and can appear just about anywhere, at any time. If it starts raining and you pull your bicycle under a tree with two or three drenched locals, don’t be surprised if one produces a bottle of chacha. And if you stop in a cafe for tea and accidentally make eye contact with the fellows at the table in the corner, hey, you asked for it. They’ll call you over and get you started a shot glass at a time. Saying “no thanks” bears no meaning here, and if you say “just one,” it always means “just one more.” And if you accept that invitation from a group of construction workers to join them for their roadside lunch, well, get ready — because you know what’s coming. Didn’t I warn you to stick to the road? Tip: If you can (and this is what I always did while biking through Georgia in 2010), politely say no to the chacha and ask for wine. That was usually an adequate compromise — and then you’ll get to experience the absurdly laborious, almost comical but totally serious custom of toasting. Keep your glass raised, and wait until the speaker drinks (it could be five minutes) — then chug.
Tej, Ethiopia. Honey, water and yeast equal mead, but in Ethiopia, a slightly different recipe has long been used to brew a drink called tej. The difference comes with the addition of leaves from a plant called gesho, a species of buckthorn that serves much the way that hops do in beer, balancing sweetness with bitterness. Archaeological and written records indicate that tej has been made for as long as 3,000 years. Elsewhere in Africa, beer has replaced honey-based alcohol as the drink of choice, but tej remains king in Ethiopia, the largest honey producer in Africa. Here, there are between five million and six million wild beehives, and 80% of the honey is snatched away from the insects by brewers bent on having their tej. In the United States, imported tej is becoming increasingly available. Heritage Wines in Rutherford, New Jersey, for example, is brewing it. If you can, track down their Saba Tej — named for the ancient Queen Sheba — or Axum Tej, named for the ancient Ethiopian city. Trivia: There is another ancient honey-based drink that, unlike tej, has gone extinct. But if you have any homebrewer friends, you might talk them into making it: whole-hive mead. Yes, that’s mead, or honey wine, made with the addition of the entire buzzing beehive. Beer writer and beekeeper William Bostwick recently wrote about the process, which he conducted at home. Not only did Bostwick boil his own bees alive, he even specifies the importance of mashing the bees into the brew.
Apple Cider, Asturias. Cider is to Asturias and its neighboring Spanish provinces what wine is to Burgundy, and many or most bars make their own from backyard trees. The drink usually runs about 6% alcohol and is sometimes drawn straight out of the barrel upon serving. And while local folks certainly enjoy drinking their homemade cider, many derive equal pleasure from simply pouring it. In fact, serving cider in Asturias is a celebrated art and even a competitive sport. The server — or contestant — holds the bottle overhead and pours the drink into a glass held at waist level. If you find a Spaniard who takes pride in his pouring skills, offer the chap a glass. Maybe he’ll fill it for you, splashing as much as 20% of the cider onto the floor as he pours. Drink it, and then kindly offer your glass to him again. And if you’re still thirsty, check out the Nava Cider Festival on the second weekend of the month.
Zinfandel, California. Its origins have been traced via DNA profiling back to Croatia, and in Puglia a grape called Primitivo seems to be nearly identical. But Zinfandel today is as Californian as Lake Tahoe, the Beach Boys and the Golden Gate Bridge. Some of the oldest grapevines on earth are the Zin vines planted in the Sierra foothills — prime cycling country, if I may add — during the era of the Gold Rush, 150-plus years ago. The Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel from Scott Harvey Wines is one such taste of history, as is the Old Vine 1867 Zinfandel from Deaver Vineyards. Besides historical value, Zinfandel is one of the most distinctive and charismatic of red wines. It is often crisp and sharp, tart like raspberries and spicy as black pepper — but there was a short chapter of history when “Zin” was mostly pink, sticky and sweet. Ugh. Called “white Zinfandel,” this cheap and nasty stuff still can be found at $4 a bottle, though Zin-heavy wineries like Ravenswood in Sonoma County have helped dispel its popularity. Today, Zinfandel — the authentic red kind — is wildly popular and is the featured star of the world’s largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, the annual “ZAP festival” in San Francisco.
Port, Douro Valley of Portugal. Beginning in the late 1600s, political squabbles between the British and the French led to a halt of trade between the nations, and the British, as thirsty a tribe as any, had suddenly lost their most important connection in the latitudes of winemaking. So they turned to humble Portugal, which for centuries had been fermenting grapes mostly for its own use. Exports began, and often the shippers dumped into the barrels a healthy shot of clear brandy to preserve the wine at sea. The British gained a taste for this fortified wine, and so was born the sweet and strong drink we call Port. Today, “Port-style” wines are made worldwide (Ficklin winery in Madera, California makes one called Starboard — get it?), but the real thing legally can only be made in the Douro River valley. At least one cycle-touring company of the area, Blue Coast Bikes, sends clients on a six-day bike ride through this rugged region, visiting wineries and tasting the many varieties of Port, which include ruby, white, vintage and — my favorite — tawny. People who visit Portugal on a liquor kick should keep their eyes out for aguardente, the local high-octane booze that jokers sometimes like to serve to unwitting tourists who, fresh off a bicycle in the hot sun, lunge for the stuff thinking it’s water.
Still thirsty? Try ouzo in Greece, fenny in India, Madeira in Madeira, soju in Korea, pisco in Peru and raki in Turkey.
Oh, and about that glass of Zinfandel. I was wondering — can I just have tall pitcher of cold water?