Photo: Okinawa man bottle awamori

Okinawa toast: A local man raises a bottle of the island's sake-like awamori.

Photograph by Nathan Keirn

By Daisann McLane

Want to get a quick bead on a new place? Share in a round of the native firewater.

Catching the bartender's eye, I call out my order: "Don Julio Añejo, por favor!" My friend Luis nods approvingly. I love Mexico City, and I've visited enough times to know how to confidently toss off my request for a shot of one of the country's finest tequilas. As the bartender turns to find the bottle, Luis says something to him so quickly that I don't catch it in the hubbub of nearby conversations and mariachi music. Soon my drink arrives—in not one but two glass vials. The first vial, filled with a liquid gold, is the tequila. But the other holds a shimmering, mysterious, ruby-red fluid I hadn't asked for.

"What did you order for me, Luis?" He smiles and says, "Try it. First take a sip of the tequila, then the sangrita."

The tequila goes down quickly, in an amber glow. I silently thank the travel gods for sending me on my long-ago first trip to Mexico, when I learned that real tequila was a far cry from the nasty firewater of college days. Then, with Luis watching me keenly, I take a sip of the other, ruby red potion.

Wow. Flavors explode like fireworks in my mouth—hot and peppery at first, then a tingly sour-sweet finish. I've never tasted anything quite like this before. What is it?

"Oh, pomegranate and sour-orange juices," says Luis. "Some Tabasco. And most likely a secret ingredient or two. There are many ways to make a sangrita chaser, but this is the way they make it in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where tequila was born. Congratulations. You have just taken your first trip to Jalisco."

When traveling, I'm usually not much of a drinker. Partly it's because I'm traveling on my own much of the time and need all my wits about me. Partly it's because I hate to waste a minute of my precious travel days recovering from a hangover caused by run-of-the-mill spirits. Nonetheless, I enjoy dipping into a destination's tourist-bar subculture: In Southeast Asia, for example, chilling out in backpacker-friendly pubs is not only de rigueur; it's a great way to pick up the latest travel buzz. I'm also happy to cross the line when I have the opportunity to participate in the local drinking culture—I love to sample the taste of unfamiliar drinks with new local friends.

The drinks don't have to be alcoholic. The Amazon region's exotic juices, likeaçaí and cupuaçu, offer a real taste experience. And in India, where alcohol isn't really part of established ways, you will find me on the street chugging cold, salty lassis.

However, I have noticed that when the drinks

are alcoholic, the experience deepens and the connections become stronger. Sure, getting a bit tipsy obviously helps lubricate conversations between nervous strangers. But alcohol taps a ritual power, too. From the dawn of time, shamans, priests, and kings have poured libations to the gods and sealed vows and alliances with wines and whiskeys. Drinking the local firewater, even if it is just a small, polite taste, nudges us deeper into that culture. Maybe it's no accident that we call them "spirits."

I'm also passionately interested, as a traveler, in what is in that glass. The tastes and fragrances of local alcoholic spirits carry with them something ineffable—the very essence of a place. When I mentioned this to my friend Marc, a French chef from Normandy, he understood instantly. "It is terroir," he said. "The word is a bit difficult to translate, but for us, terroir is the land, the region, the earth. In our best French wines you taste the soil where the wine was grown. If you understand terroir, you can taste the place."

He's right, but I'd say there is even more. The best spirits contain within them not only the essence of place but also of time and even history. Take the case of hua diao, the lovely semisweet rice wine from the Shaoxing region of China. One night in Hong Kong, my host ordered it for our banquet table. Because this was a fancy restaurant, the bottle was first warmed, then decanted into delicate little red-glazed porcelain vessels, one for each guest.

In Chinese, "hua diao" means "flower falls." As we drank, I asked my host about the unusual name.

"It's a polite way to say that someone has died. This wine traditionally has been made by families upon the birth of a daughter, at which time it is buried in the ground in jugs until her wedding day, when the family digs it up to be served at the wedding celebration. In the old days, when villages were poor, some daughters didn't live long enough to marry. After the funeral the families would dig up the wine and drink it anyway."

I sipped the "flower falls" wine again. Closing my eyes, I drank in not just the fermented local rice, but also the traditional village, the earthenware jugs, the bittersweet ways of ancient China.

When we raise our glasses, we travel in two directions at once—forward to new friends and experiences, backward to roots and earth and stories of long ago.

So when I am offered a glass of eau-de-vie in Nice, cachaça in Salvador, Brazil,soju in Seoul, or the subtle, herb-steeped rice liquor called awamori in Okinawa, I have a single response. Well, actually, many: À votre santé! Salud! Gan bei! Kanpai! (Isn't it funny how some of the first words we learn in foreign languages are the exclamations we shout as we raise a glass?)

Back in Mexico City, I called out to the bartender and ordered us another round. Together, Luis and I headed back to Jalisco, in spirit.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.

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