Opinion: The meaning in raising a glass

Opinion: The meaning in raising a glass

Breaking down our whisky-drinking rituals across the world – and the sense of community found in them

Editor's Word | 23 Oct 2023 | Issue 195 | By Bethany Brown

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Before entering the whisky world, I’d never heard the word ‘slàinte’ or the extended ‘slàinte mhath’ before. It’s ubiquitous, not just in Scotland – from whose Gaelic language it derives – but in whisky-loving circles around the world. Being in a position to use it (preceded, of course, by learning how to spell and say it) felt like a rite of passage.


Fundamentally it means the same thing as lots of other drinking toasts – it’s a wish of good health, like ‘santé’ in French, ‘salud’ in Spanish, ‘kanpai’ in Japanese, or ‘na zdrowie’ in Polish. But there is subtext to slàinte as well; sharing this salutation comes with a kind of reverence for those who have shared it before, and those who will do so in the future.


Raising a glass of whisky with a cry of, “Slàinte!” is one of the many rituals worldwide that accompany the consumption of alcoholic drinks. If drinking vodka at a gathering in Russia, each shot should be raised with a specific toast to a person or persons around the table and should be gulped, never sipped. If you clink your glasses together during a toast in China, rather than just raising them to one another, you should finish your drink afterwards (the Mandarin toast ‘gānbēi’ literally translates as ‘dry cup’). While you can toast a glass of wine or pálinka in Hungary, it’s considered rude to toast with beer (for reasons relating to the country’s defeat by Austria during a revolutionary conflict in the 1840s). Meanwhile, in Germany, you must look a fellow toaster in the eye as you clink glasses, or risk seven years’ bad… ‘relations’, as the superstition goes.


In Scotland, there is also the matter of the quaich – an artefact so integral to Scotch whisky culture that there is an entire order named after it. Also known as a ‘cup of friendship’, it is a shallow two-handled drinking bowl that is traditionally shared between guests at ceremonial gatherings, including dinners and weddings.


While the vast majority of drinking rituals foster this sense of community and togetherness, there are attitudes towards whisky consumption that remain exclusionary.


Perhaps the most noticeable for me, as a cis woman, is the continued gendering of whisky as a man’s drink. Last month, UK-based organisation the OurWhisky Foundation released the results of a survey in which it asked women working in whisky to share their experiences of the industry. The 600-odd women surveyed (disclaimer: I was one of them) cited unconscious bias (84 per cent), stereotyping (76 per cent), and a lack of representation (54 per cent) as the most significant challenges facing women in whisky.


A few weeks ago, I attended The Whisky Show in London along with other whisky fans and professionals from around the world. While the crowd of visitors on the day I attended was largely male, there was a remarkable number of women who were representing brands on stands. I sincerely hope that those women who did attend, either for business or leisure, will have good memories and experiences to share that will give more women the confidence to participate in future.


We must also address the persistent assertion that there is only one “proper” way to drink whisky: neat, without ice. I don’t seek to dismiss those who hold this belief, nor suggest there is no place for it in the modern whisky world. However, the growth of the whisky category (in volume, variety, and fan base) warrants an acknowledgement that “straight” is not the only way to enjoy it – and it doesn’t make you a lesser fan if you choose another way.


This year, I’ve attended press events for the launch of new single malts from Glenmorangie and Glenglassaugh – while both, of course, displayed the new whiskies in their neat form, each also showcased them in cocktails. Some may still consider it sacrilegious to mix a Scotch (or any single malt) in this way, but to my mind it’s refreshing to see more distilleries adopting this kind of “serving suggestion” in a product launch strategy.


The breadth of the whisky church today means there are ever more rituals forming, be they for individuals or groups, and that’s something we can all raise a glass to. 

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