Here’s to Cheers! The Toasting Tradition
Toasting is a tradition that goes back to ancient times and often there’s a lot more involved than simply raising a glass. Here’s a quick cultural guide.
Over the centuries, toasting has had its ups and downs. Early Romans were obliged to drink to the Emperor Augustus at every meal and Vikings raised cups (or the skulls of their enemies) to honour their companions. As recently as Victorian times more than 20 toasts were often drunk at Australian public banquets, a practice one temperance advocate called “barbarous, effete and out of place”.
Why a Toast?
Back in mediaeval times, the custom was to float an actual piece of spiced or charred toast in a cup of wine to improve the flavour. In raising the cup to a lady, a gallant lad was seen to be offering a toast.
Different cultures still have varying rituals surrounding the toast. Getting it wrong can cause offence. Should you sip or drain the glass? Should you clink? International travel may not be on your immediate horizon, but in our multicultural society it pays to have a little social savvy.
The host always makes the first toast, saying Gān bēi! (bottoms up). Clink the belly of the glass, not the rim, and show respect by holding your glass lower than that of your guests and elders. For following toasts, just tap the bottom of your glass on the table.
Making eye contact is all-important as you say santé (pronounced son-tay), meaning “health”. And don’t cross arms as you clink glasses with each member of the group. If you do, you’re supposedly condemned to seven years of bad sex.
The meticulous Germans have different words for toasting with beer and with wine. It’s prost for beer and zum wohl for wine. They both mean “to your good health”. Clink with everyone and, again, look them in the eye as you do so.
Some say the ancient Greeks invented toasting, with the custom of pouring a libation to the gods. These days, when you lift your glass of wine or ouzo, say a hearty yamas.
The Italians don’t care so much about eye contact or glass clinking. Simply raise your glass and, if things are casual, say cin cin (chin chin). If you want to be a touch more formal, options are salute (sa-loo-tay) or a la nostra.
In Japan it’s considered impolite to pour your own drink. Let someone pour for you, just as you pour for them. Once everyone has been served their meal, diners raise their sake cups and say Kanpai while gently clinking the cups together.
In Poland toasting continues throughout the meal. The host begins, standing, raising a glass and saying Na zdrowia. Guests then follow suit. Tradition dictates that you down your small glass of vodka in one gulp after each toast. As there can be many, this ritual can prove quite challenging.
In Russia, there is likely to be a toast before every round of drinks, and the order is important. A toast to an honoured guest is followed by a toast to honour the host’s parents, then one to thank the host. And then many more. Russian toasts can get quite creative, but the basic one, “to health” is Za zdarovje.
The traditional toast in Scotland is slàinte mhath, (pronounced, inexplicably, Slanj-a-va). In response, you say just slàinte. But if you want to get more personal, you can say “Lang may yer lum reek”, which means “long may your chimney smoke”, wishing warmth and comfort on the household.
Whatever you do, don’t toast with water, unless you want to risk seven years of bad luck in the bedroom. The typical toast in Spain is Salud, but in Catalonia men might toast each other with the more risqué Salud i forca al canut meaning “health and strength to your ‘pipe’”.