Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Drinking in Georgia: A Beginner's Guide

One of the joys of visiting Georgia is the wine. Georgians love wine. They love to drink it. They love to make it. They love to toast with it. But people there don’t just sit and sip on their wine. They toast and then they guzzle. That’s one reason why they drink more white wine then red wine. Sure, they make red wine, and they love it, but they admit guzzling glass after glass of red wine in a night is a lot harder than white wine.

So let’s say you sit down at a Georgia dinner, and you are poured wine. What’s the proper etiquette? You must wait for a toast. Who gives the toast? A special chosen person called the tomador. This is the table commander. He is the man in charge. He also has a second in command, but I don’t remember what that guy is called. So the tomador will say a toast about something, and then the second guy will elaborate on the toast. Then everyone drinks their glass of wine all the way or almost all the way. Don’t sip it. Down that thing. If the toast was to something normal, you can leave a bit left in your glass (friends, meeting, country), but if it something very important (to the dead, God, etc), you should drink the whole thing. Then they fill your glass back up and you wait for the next toast. There’s no drinking it in between toasts. (However, in my experience, albeit limited, we were allowed a glass of juice or water as well that we could drink from freely.) How much time is there between toasts? Sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes five minutes, sometimes longer. It depends on the tomador. Are you allowed to say your own toast? Eventually, but you better wait for a bit, and then you have to ask permission from the commander.

The toasts are usually from a set list. There’s the normal toast for meeting, for friends, for the dead, for God, for women, for peace, for etc… For me as a visitor for only two weeks, this was pretty fun. I don’t know how I’d feel there as a volunteer there for two years though. Maybe I’d get sick of the repetitiveness, but I think a lot of it depends on the table commander. Generally, they should be gregarious and interesting.

Where do they get all of this wine from? Often, they make it themselves. The eastern part of Georgia are where most of the vineyards are, but many people also have some grape vines growing in their own yards. The harvest season is in September, and apparently September and October are the times visit because Georgians celebrate this time of year (it’s also not 40 degrees in Tbilisi like it is in August). Even the people who don’t grow their own grapes may buy kilos of it to make wine out of. One family I talked to bought about 500 kilograms a year of grapes. From this, he’s make about 300 liters of good pure wine, and 300 liters of good, watered-down wine. (I am not really sure how accurately I remember the numbers, but it was a lot of grapes and a lot of wine.)

Wine is not all that they drink in Georgia though. They don’t just throw away the grape stuff after they extract the wine. They distill it to make a drink called chacha. Homemade liquor. Usually above 60 proof, possibly much much higher. Not being content with just this, they also make homemade vodka from other fruits like plums. My friend Irakli and I actually ran into his uncle distilling some vodka in the apartment lawn on my birthday. He invited us to sit down and try it. Later he measured it with this floating gauge to find out it was about 65 proof. The homemade pickles helped get that stuff down. Oh, you toast chacha and vodka the same way as with the wine.

How to make vodka

They also drink beer, but they don’t toast it. You can casually drink it like you want to.

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