51. How "Cheers"-ing Was Once Competitive--and Illegal
A look at the history of toasting (it's kinda wild!); plus tarot for beer school and a reading rec to learn about baiju.
To Your Very Good Health, May You Live to Be as Old as Your Jokes.
Do you “cheers”? Really, I’m curious. Starting a round of drinks with a little toasting action is perhaps surprisingly divisive—or maybe that’s just in my experience? I could just about separate my friends into two equal camps: those who instinctively “cheers” to kick off an evening when those first drinks hit the bar or table, and those who are positively mortified and disgusted at the thought. I guess there are a few outliers, considering some who don’t make a habit of toasting but do partake if we’re celebrating a birthday or milestone of some sort. The people in the anti-cheers camp have reasons like it’s too cheesy or too contrived and/or just all-around embarrassing, as if clinking your glasses is actually a thing that would make any fellow bar patrons give a gosh darn about your existence.
Personally, I can take it or leave it, and so take my cues from the more strongly held opinions of present company. I would probably err on the side of positive feelings toward the “cheers,” as idk, let us have the very few nice things left in this world? A wee toast simply feels nice, the ritual of it, and also that it expresses happiness that you’re embarking on a few hours of enjoying being with whoever you’re with.
Don’t worry, I’ll never issue a “I was today years old when I learned that…” tweet in earnest, but I did feel that “huh!” sentiment when reading Christine Sismondo’s book America Walks Into a Bar and finding out that the practice of toasting to each other was once quite controversial, and not just among judgmental pals. In fact, giving a “cheers” to your drinking companions’ health, known as “drinking healths” was once outlawed. But let’s back up first.
The idea of some kind of tradition like this to kick off social imbibing can be traced all the way back to cultures like that of Ancient Greece. One of the many elements of the structured…er, fun when you got together to toss back some wine was to first pour some out for the gods. In Medieval Europe, people thought that clinking their cups together would also ward off demons and evil spirits, either by hitting the vessels together so hard that some liquid spilled out for those asshole spirits (this would be considered an aggro party foul now, of course) or by mimicking the sound of church bells and scaring them off. This clinking and clanking was also believed to help prevent poisoning because your drinks would be sloshing around into each others’ cups so even your worst frenemy wouldn’t risk murdering you with that wine, which, by the way, is way worse friend behavior than roasting you for saying “cheers” in the first place.
Apparently, the term “toast” came from the 16th-century tradition of sprucing up the flavor of shitty wine by dropping in a piece of toasted bread. I had never heard this before reading the Farmer’s Almanac article linked above and…wow that is weird and gross even for 16th-century habits. Over the next couple centuries, that little ritual evolved into starting a drinking session by honoring someone instead of dropping burnt bread in—honestly, I am unclear on what the common thread was there but at least we can agree that’s an upgrade.
According to Sismondo’s book, this had taken the form of “drinking healths” by the 17th century. Writing on tavern culture, Sismondo says, “In Massachusetts…there was much controversy surrounding ‘drinking healths’—the practice of toasting to your drinking companion’s health, the queen’s health, or anyone else’s health. Although this practice seems pretty innocent at first glance, one round necessitated a reciprocal round (so as not to seem to be welching), and each toast inevitably led to the next, more ambitious one, especially in cases in which barroom orators were trying to outdo one another with clever verses and songs.” Ok, so competitive cheers-ing? Look, these folks didn’t have doom-scrolling to take up all their free time.
The concern was that drinking healths led to too much drinking, as imbibers ordered round after round to facilitate their hat toss into the toasting ring. And for puritanical windbags like a clergyman named Increase Mather, this was actually akin to black magic—wishing illness on someone with an evil potion = wishing health for someone with alcohol, also maybe an evil potion. Puritans thought using alcohol to hope for health was too close to the transubstantiation that made Roman Catholics big old blasphemers in their eyes. Just like Roman Catholics believed in converting bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ, tavern patrons, in the opinion of puritans, were revering alcohol like it had some real power to instill wellness and good fortune. Bet ya never looked at your beer that way.
Sismondo writes that Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts decided to wage war on drinking healths. He started by banning them in his own home in 1630, and went on to make the ritual something you had to pay a fine for if you got caught doing it. He also took the whole cringey failed-propaganda route and tried to spread the word that drinking healths were, like, totally so yesterday and not even cool anymore and if you toasted you were a lo-oo-oser, but absolutely no one bought this and everyone pretty much ignored this douche canoe (I can call him that, as he apparently helped establish the concept of American exceptionalism; this dude sucks).
The law against drinking healths was tossed in 1645, but it did come back in 1663 in the Bay State, particularly pertaining to—get this—shipmasters, because they liked to punctuate their toasts with cannon shots. Now that’s a toast. Those guys sound like a blast and anyway, it doesn’t seem like that would inspire more and more rounds to compete with more toasts, because who would be able to top a cannon shot? And while landlubbers were technically allowed to carry on toasting, religious propaganda pamphlets made the rounds advising you to avoid drinking healths in order to eschew the wrath of God and/or the fiery pits of hell—there was, for example, the story of a woman who participated in a toast and was then immediately picked up by Satan himself, Sismondo writes.
Puritans were also wringing their hands over the dirty ditties people liked to sing along with their drinking healths. Here’s a little taste of one called “My Husband’s a Mason” Sismondo includes:
“My husband’s a butcher, a butcher, a butcher. A very fine butcher is he.
All day long he stuffs sausage, stuffs sausage, stuffs sausage.
At night he comes home and stuffs me.”
Get it, girl! While I’m sure it was easy to get puritans in a frenzy over the power of drinking healths and accompanying drinking songs to unravel the tight weave of a good God-fearing society, when it comes down to it, people in power like Mather were afraid of the general camaraderie and socializing that booze and communal activities like drinking healths facilitated, because that could and often did lead to more serious, political conversations. Taverns and churches were all you had back then for your third place, and most people spent a lot more time in the former. They weren’t just where you drank, they were where you rooted yourself in your community, had town meetings, celebrated weddings, heard speakers, and even held trials. They were often where people shared their political opinions with one another, and this not all infrequently gave way to planning protests and other demonstrations that all the old straight white Christian men in power found entirely inconvenient.
This is a big reason why people like this in power have never liked the common folk to get their hands on alcohol. When they drank, they thought themselves civilized and engaging in refined socialization, but when the working class drank, that was heathen debauchery. When I interviewed author Mark Forsyth about 18th-century London’s Gin Craze for this Good Beer Hunting story, he said:
“One of the absolute constants in the history of alcohol is, ‘Alcohol is fine when I’m doing it, but when you’re doing it, it’s very bad. And specifically when it’s the working class, it’s very bad.”
Legislation banning drinking healths were obviously never effective, even though these laws were just some of the many, many, many alcohol-centric regulations over the following centuries in America, some logical and helpful, others just further attempts to keep the poor poor and powerless—and punished for it. Indeed, when it comes to drinking healths, here we are in 2022, still toasting. We don’t, at least, tend to go round for round competing over who has the most impressive toast, which seems like a relief, frankly. But I wouldn’t credit Mather or Winthrop with that win; rather, these days, can you imagine anyone having the patience for such a long, drawn-out affair? Now we can keep it to a casual little expression of excitement to be together and well wishes—cheers to that.
“Here's to those who wish us well, and the rest can go to hell!” (That’s my favorite, and I heard it on “Real Housewives of New York,” so I do apologize for not knowing its actual origins.)
This week, I’ve pulled the Eight of Pentacles.
Pentacles as a suit speaks to money, property, and achievement. This card specifically deals with learning and mastering a skill, practicing, and tasks.
That sounds dull, I know, but while this card is notably straightforward and simple—just like the chore-y, practice-makes-perfect message it embodies—the growth and achievement it represents can be really exciting. Essentially, this card comes up to speak to you about developing skills, and that can mean one of two things: One, that you’re already working on something, and you’re doing great! Good job, you! Make sure you take a beat to recognize your own hard work and don’t beat yourself up for things like not having time to study or practice some days—you are doing your best and it’s going to pay off, and it’s hard to stick to things, so you’re already pretty impressive tbh. Two, this card could also mean that you haven’t started on this road yet but that you should, whether that means taking the leap on something you’ve been considering, like going back to school or picking up a new hobby, or even just now starting to think about what something like that could bring to your life. Wherever you are in the journey, the Eight of Pentacles is a pat on the back, a reminder to stay the course, and a promise of how rewarding the accomplishment you’re working toward is going to be.
All of this naturally makes me think of the Cicerone, for which I’ve been studying off and on for approximately 376 years because I am fantastically bad at studying. But I know lots of us are working toward that goal, on top of jobs and obligations and chores and families and social lives and more, so first of all, way to go, and let’s do this. To help you immensely, my recommendation for this edition of beer tarot is Virtual Beer School, online classes from Beer Sommelier & Advanced Cicerone Natalya Watson. There are programs for both the Certified Beer Server and the Certified Cicerone. Nat, also an author, is an incredibly knowledgeable, fastidious, detail-oriented teacher who makes even tough topics approachable. I honestly can’t believe how affordable the classes are considering how comprehensive they are. Truly, I never really totally felt I could do this whole Certified Cicerone thing until I took this class, and it jump-started (jump-re-started, I suppose) my studies with fervor. I understand things I just could not get before, and that combo of knowledge and confidence is priceless.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
My favorite booze-related learning moment this week came courtesy of Valerie Li Stack’s story “Baijiu Gets Its Due on Cocktail Menus” for Eater. I’d heard of baiju, but realized reading this article that I didn’t actually know exactly what it is, which is an entire category of alcohol that includes all grain-based distilled liquor in China. This is a fascinating read where you can learn all about its characteristics and also how its presence is growing on bar menus in the States. It’s always a good thing when menus get more diverse and actually start including things that entire cultures know and love but had been ignored here. And I’m excited to get started exploring baiju with a flight.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
On Friday, I finally got to try a Heater Allen offering, their pilsner, and it did not disappoint. This brewery was of course on my bucket list of ones to try for quite some time now, and the bright yellow can had called out to me from a to-go fridge at a very good bar called The Hermosillo in LA. Friday was a crap day, which is always a perfect time to crack open a can of something you’ve been anticipating and can reasonably count on being great. And it was!
Until next week, here’s Darby having a grand old time at Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co.