Just like food, music, or art, indulging in a country’s favorite drink can give travelers a deeper understanding of culture and connection to a sense of place.
Prepare for an upcoming trip with a destination-themed cocktail party (you know, for research), or if you’re at home, take a vicarious journey through the national drinks of countries on your travel bucket list. A country’s favorite drink can connect us to both its current way of life and its past with just one sip.
Some of the oldest written accounts involving sake in Japan can be found in third-century Chinese history books, which discuss the Japanese tradition of drinking the rice-based liquor during funeral ceremonies. Eighth-century Japanese imperial court records talk of sake in both historical accounts and mythical stories, though the drink was still reserved for the monarchy and religious practices.
Today, sake brewers use a combination of traditional and modern methods to preserve important cultural ties to the historic elements of the practice. High-quality water and rice are crucial, as the process uses large amounts of both. Premium sake rice is milled (or “polished”) to prepare it for steaming and fermentation, with different levels of milling dictating different levels of grades and rankings.
Make sure to familiarize yourself with the drinking etiquette before a trip to Japan. Cultural norms, such as always reciprocating when someone pours a drink for you and making eye contact with your peers while cheersing (or kanpai!), will go far.
When it comes to Mexico’s most famous spirit, it all starts with blue agave. Full of heavy, spiky leaves and often confused with an aloe or cactus, agave is harvested using long hoes called coas. When the thorny leaves are stripped away, you’re left with a piña, the pineapple-like heart inside of the plant. The piña is then cooked, mashed, fermented, and distilled using a process dating back to the 17th century. While agave distillates can be found all over the country, one found in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, became the most popular, which is how the modern spirit got its name.
The large city of Guadalajara less than 50 miles from Tequila offered big opportunities for distribution and an even bigger market. In 1893, the liquor was introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair and was later smuggled across the United States border during Prohibition in the 1920s.
Look for the mark of 100 percent agave or 100 percent blue Weber agave on your bottles, as the cheap stuff more notorious for hangovers is often blended with sugar or corn to bypass the challenges and expenses of farming agave (there are a ton of incredible labels out there that won’t give you college flashbacks, we promise). If you want to go beyond the margarita at home, try a Paloma by mixing tequila with grapefruit juice, soda water, and fresh lime juice.
Traditionally chilled, which turns the spirit from clear to milky white, ouzo is the national alcoholic beverage of Greece. The drink is made from a base of fermented grapes and flavored with anise, and is typically used as an aperitif to help stimulate the appetite and prep the stomach before a meal. Beyond that, ouzo is also used to improve digestion and believed to have healing properties. Ouzo’s predecessor, a stronger grape-based liquor without the distinct licorice taste called Tsipouro, has been produced in Greece since the 14th century.
Following Greek independence in the early 19th century, the first ouzo distillery was opened in Tirnavos by Nicholas Katsaros in 1856, and it is still open today. In 2006, the country received a protected designation from the European Union limiting production of ouzo to Greece and nearby Cyprus, meaning if it wasn't made in Greece, it can’t be called ouzo.
Be advised, ouzo is notorious for its deceivingly high alcohol content despite its sweet taste and easy drinkability, so pairing it with some appetizers as it's meant to be is absolutely the way to go. Ouzo can be found in liquor stores all over the world (look for it near the sambuca), but keep an eye out for imposters!
The production of Cuban rum can weave its way back to the first cultivation of sugarcane in the Caribbean during the early 1500s. Back then, the region started producing a heavier spirit called aguardiente which eventually evolved into the more modern, lighter version of Cuban rum we see today.
Don Facundo Bacardi (yes, that Bacardi) is credited for inventing the filtration technique producing a lighter, sweeter Cuban rum in 1862. His son, Emilio Bacardi, advocated for the Cuban overthrow of Spanish rule and for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, a time in history that coined the phrase, “Cuba libre!” At the same time, another rum-distilling family, the Arechabalas, were producing Havana Club, widely popular in the United States up until the embargo and nationalization of Cuban companies by Fidel Castro. After the Revolution, the Bacardis relocated their company to Puerto Rico, but the Arechabalas were forced to flee the country and turn their company over to Castro’s government, who continued to produce and export the rum. About 20 years later, the Bacardi company sought out their former rivals to purchase suing rights over the Havana Club label and began producing their own Puerto Rico-produced Havana Club in the United States.
Shaken vigorously with ice and served strained in a coupe glass with no garnish, a traditional Cuban Daiquiri contains three simple ingredients: rum, fresh lime juice, and sugar. Ernest Hemingway, who spent a lot of time at El Floridita bar in Havana, had a special version invented by his favorite bartender that included grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur.
Germany: Lager Beer
Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in the history of mankind, so it is no surprise that its origin is steeped with mystery. One of the first recorded accounts of beer brewing dates back to Sumerian clay tablets in 3,500 B.C, though some believe it began in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as 10,000 B.C.
Lager-style beer can trace its origin to Bavaria, when German brewers began working with a new strain of yeast that worked at much cooler temperatures (known as bottom fermenting) sometime around the 1500s. In 1840, a brewmaster by the name of John Wagner traveled from Bavaria to Philadelphia, bringing a supply of lager yeast along with him. In the years following, lager breweries began popping up in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Boston, and Chicago, gaining more and more popularity with locals and Germans who had emigrated to the United States.
The first Oktoberfest festival in 1810 was thrown to celebrate the marriage of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The festival now sees upwards of six to seven million attendees each year.
Peru and Chile: Pisco
If you’re traveling in Chile and say that pisco was invented in Peru or vice-versa, be prepared to hear some strong words from the locals. The two countries have been arguing over the one true origin of the South American spirit for years; both countries even recognize the Pisco Sour as their national drink.
Pisco is technically a type of brandy, though it is far removed from the typical cognac-esque brandy one associates with the word. Although Chile and Peru were once two parts of the same territory, many Chileans claim that the indigenous Aymara people first made pisco in Chile’s Valle de Elqui, while an influx of evidence from historians led to the European Commission's designation of Peru as the official geographical origin.
Regardless of where it originated, making pisco in Peru is a highly regulated and skilled procedure (regulations are a bit more relaxed in Chile). True pisco is single distilled from wine to proof between 38 and 48 alcohol by volume (ABV), meaning there can be no water added after distillation. Unlike other types of Brandy, Peruvian pisco cannot be aged in wood, and it can only come from five distinct valley regions.
While grapes have been grown in Portugal since before the middle ages, the export of Port wine wasn’t recorded until well into the 17th century. An alliance between Portugal and England meant that the two countries were exchanging commodities like wine and salt cod as far back as 1386.
Portuguese merchants were inspired to explore other parts of the country in search of unique wine-making opportunities to exchange. They settled on vineyards in Douro where the climate and terrain were perfect for the full-bodied wines that the English preferred, though the region was much further from the usual English merchant hub in Viana do Castello. They ended up transporting the wine through the city of Oporto before loading it onto England-bound ships, fortifying it with Brandy to help preserve it for the longer journey. The wine became known as “Oporto wine” or “Port.”
Usually enjoyed as a dessert wine, the most recognized styles of Port include red Port with less sweetness and tawny Port with more of a caramel flavor. If you’ve made it to Portugal, don’t leave without pairing a glass of Port with a pastel de nata—a popular Portuguese custard tart dusted with cinnamon.