I mentioned that the people of Georgia are very religious, relishing in their Orthodox Christian roots. Indeed, this provides a sacred and rooted background for the country’s family-first society.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to throw a party. Quite the opposite. Make no mistake, though their commitment to faith is sincere, this is not a country that is shy about having fun together. In fact, Georgians are gracious hosts that love to drink. Wine is, of course, a big part of their repertoire. Most meals are paired with wine and it’s the drink-of-choice for casual gatherings.
When it comes time to push the envelope, Georgians turn to another traditional grape-based beverage: Chacha, prounced “ja-ja” by locals. It’s essentially the same thing as Grappa. Winemakers take the leftover pomace – crushed grapes, seeds, and stems – and distill it into a concentrated brandy of sorts. The clear firewater doesn’t always go down easy – it can have a major bite and it does not taste like ice-cream pie – but one shot will keep you warm the entire winter.
While chacha is industrially produced and served in bars and restaurants, most of what you get in guest houses and informal gatherings is of the homemade variety. If you ever see a group of Georgians gathered around a plastic water bottle, look closer. They are probably not drinking water. The cool thing is that if you are offered homemade chacha, you know that the person who made it has also made wine (that’s how they got the pomace). You should probably befriend them immediately.
The video below shows how chacha is made in the rural mountain villages using a small still and the leftover wine mash.
Regardless of what’s to drink, my favorite aspect of Georgian drinking culture is in the way they make time for toasts – each gathering is appointed a tamada, or toastmaster, that is the leader of the party. Throughout the night, the tamada stands up and addresses the congregation, be it a large wedding party or an intimate group of friends. The formality of this depends on the occasion, but setting aside time to make toasts throughout the night is something Georgian culture holds in revere.
Now, not every group of friends at the bar goes through the formal ceremony of appointing a tamada. But every group of friends has that one person that seems most fit for the role. I am sure you can think through your crew and immediately pick out the person who would be best. One person would start, and then others would chime in, toasting to the evening and the company of friends, happiness, and other special occasions. In my case, because I was obviously a guest in the country, locals were constantly raising their glasses to me in bars, restaurants, and guest houses. I very much enjoyed this, not only because it feels nice to have someone make you feel welcome, but because it always made me feel like I was celebrating something, like we were making an effort to constantly remind ourselves of our good fortunes and fondness for one another. It reminded me that I was alive and that I was happy about it. It reminded me that we were there to have a good time.
In the above picture, you can see a statue in a square in Tbilisi. There are similar ones in other cities throughout the country. The man represents the tamada. In his hand is the horn of a sheep or cow. This is another cool tradition. At monumental life events, like the birth of a child, people will drink out of these special horned cups. They can range in size, from a typical serving to more than one or two liters. A special toast is made, and the person or people of honor must drink the entire contents of the glass in one go of it. This can be quite a spectacle, as some men drink more than a liter of wine at a time.
It certainly puts my college days to shame.