While you read this story, the Olympics are getting underway. But the games aren’t just about medal counts and bragging rights. The Olympic Village is really a giant global party. And in order to avoid an international incident and foster goodwill among the nations, we’ve put together a guide to drinking cultures and how to say “cheers” in 10 different countries around the world.
Contrary to popular belief, Russians don’t say Na zdorov’ye when they toast. “They customize their toast each time,” says Darra Goldstein, the Willcox and Harriet Adsit Professor of Russian at Williams College, founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and author of A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality. “Usually it begins ‘To friendship,’ can move on ‘to beautiful women,’ ‘to peace’ (especially during Soviet times). It could also be ‘to your health,’ but that would actually be Za vashe zdorov’ye.” No matter which one you choose, you have to shoot your glass of vodka. “No sipping allowed,” Goldstein says.
Italians have two main ways to say cheers, according to Francesco Lafranconi, executive director of mixology and spirits education at Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada. Cin cin, which is often followed by salute, or just salute, which means “to good health.” “It is a good practice to toast and look each other in the eyes,” he says. “We try never to cross someone when toasting.”
Besides some Robert Burns poetry, the traditional Scottish toast is “slàinte mhath!” It translates as “to your health” and is pronounced slawn-sha bah. But don’t be surprised if your host pours you a dram at the door when you leave. The custom, according to Simon Brooking, master ambassador for Laphroaig and Ardmore Scotches, is called “a wee deoch an doris” and serves a valuable purpose: “Chances are the walk or horse-ride home will be a cold, wet one, so you need a little something to warm you up.”
Not surprising, the word for cheers in Canada is, well, “cheers.” “Not very original,” admits Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. But he says you can impress your neighbors to the north by ordering the country’s national cocktail, the Bloody Caesar, which is essentially a Bloody Mary made with the clam-and-tomato-juice mixture Clamato.
“The Irish wait patiently until the head on their stout has settled into a perfect line of white on black, then they say sláinte and clink glasses,” says Kevin McParland, executive director of Irish Pubs Global an international association for owners and manger of, you guessed it, Irish bars. However, on the Emerald Isle sláinte is pronounced slightly differently than in Scotland: slant-sha.
“Cheers is skål in Swedish,” says Per Hermansson, Absolut Vodka’s global director of sensory strategy—who helps develop the brand’s flavors—and it’s pronounced skoal. “There is an old habit/tradition to look at all around the table and nod politely when the host proposes a toast and says ‘skål.’ After saying ‘skål’ people look at each other again before they put down their glass. This procedure is most common when drinking wine.” And if you do shots of vodka with Swedes, don’t be shocked if everybody starts singing.
“We say ‘Santé’ but do not seem to be possessed by drinking protocol as elsewhere,” says legendary bartender Colin Field of The Ritz Paris. “When we toast and clink glasses with someone from another country, we might be a little more careful not to raise the glass higher than that of our guest, but otherwise all the concentration is more upon what is in the glass.”
“The traditional Dutch custom of toasting is to say ‘proost,’ meaning ‘good health to you,’” says Carl Nolet, Jr., executive vice president in the US for Nolet Spirits, which makes Ketel One Vodka and Nolet’s Gin, and has been distilling spirits in Holland for more than 300 years. “When toasting with cocktails or beer, it is customary to look everyone in the eye when you clink glasses as a sign of sincerity.”
The Japanese have made drinking a true art form with a number of sacred traditions. For one, “we like to pour for each other,” says award-winning bartender Kenta Goto. That applies “especially for anyone elder or your boss.” And the common toast is Kanpai, which is pronounced ken-pie.
Over the last few years, Prague has built up an impressive bar scene—and the city boasts a long brewing history. “The classic tradition is looking everybody in the eye at the same time when you say cheers before drinking,” says Pavla Francová, a bartender at local favorite Bar & Books. And in Czech, the term for cheers is na zdraví, which is pronounced nah-dro-vee. If you order beer, Francová says, “before drinking, people usually bang on the table with their glass.”
Try these delicious Olympics-inspired cocktails, and let us know in the comments below about your favorite drinking and toasting customs.