Some people take journeys to Lourdes, Santiago de Compostella or Mekka. The Lords of the Drinks are more interested in places that have a good ‘drinking climate’. For example you won’t see us hanging around in Scandinavia anytime soon, access to alcohol for a reasonable price is quite important. During the holidays LOTD’s Micky Bumbar visited Georgia, a country famous for it’s wine tradition. Time for a report on alcohol tourism in the Caucasus.
Of course I didn’t come to Eurasia by accident. Having studied with a number Georgians I already had a basic idea of what to expect. The ones I met in university seemed like decent people who absolutely knew how to party. And earlier research for Lords of the Drinks got me more and more enthousiastic. A country with a wine tradition of around 8.000 years old must be worth checking out.
So the adventure started with a night flight from Holland to Tbilisi, with a short stop in the Polish capital Warsaw. Still humming the slightly modified lyrics of the song “That Midnight Plane to Georgia”, I arrived early in the morning. I didn’t really know what to expect at customs but I assumed I had to pay a small amount of money for a visum. In the neighbouring country Turkey it’s 15 euro. Well, not in Georgia. Instead they gave every passenger at the airport a free bottle of quality Georgian wine. A very nice symbolic gesture. Dutch people in general love free stuff and free alcohol? Won’t get much better than that.
From the airport 2 Georgian friends brought me to the house of one of them, where the table was set with a lot of amazing food and of course the local good stuff in a bottle. Even though it was only 7 o’clock in the morning we didn’t waste time too sober. The craft beer mixed quite well with the national drink called chacha. This is distilled from grapes and usually has an alcohol percentage of around 50. My friend’s father made it himself in his basement and he definitely had the skills. Surely one of the best homemade drinks I have ever tried.
In the evening we met with some more friends at a place called Machakhela for a traditional Georgian dinner. That basically means a long table full of the most delicious food and lots and lots of wine and chacha. Since one of the 10 points on my personal bucketlist was to try out the traditional Georgian hangover cure khashi, I first had to get me one.
The next morning wasn’t too bad actually. The drinks from the night before were of high quality, so there was no headache or nausea. However the shaking hands and slight memory loss made me suspect that it was still an apropriate moment to test the local cure. So we went to one of the places that are open all day to provide people with khashi and alcohol. My Georgian friend already warned me: “You are likely to see the biggest alcoholics of Georgia in here. People who try to cure their hangover or people who have been drinking all night.”
Inside I had my friend order me a bowl of khashi with beer and chacha. It was then when he made a classic mistake. When ordering chacha he asumed the waiter would bring a shot. The waiter however asumed he meant half a liter of booze. Luckily we’re people who adapt easy. The khashi was pretty great and kind of simular to Bulgarian shkembe chorba. The main differences are that the pieces of tripe are way bigger in Georgia and unlike in Bulgaria dried and grinded chile peppers are not on the menu. In the end it was impossible to draw a conclusion on the effect of khashi since the chacha got me quite drunk again. We ended up at the house of one of the neighbours for some good old music and Georgian dancing.
So far the flying start in Georgia. After that I moved from my friend’s house in the suburbs to a hostel downtown. In general Georgians have very long workdays and otherwise I would just be bored. As I spent my days in Tbilisi I found out that Georgians are not really the big drinkers I thought they were. Their style can be compared to Greeks or Italians, as food and company are valued a lot higher than getting smashed.
However Georgians do love to toast. Before each drink at least some words or wishes must be spoken. The larger the company the more people put in an effort to come up with an original speech. Some of them even get a little poetic. By the enthousiasm and volume of the “gaumarjos” that follows one can measure how well the audience liked the spoken words.
When out in the countryside you really get a good look at how big the Georgian wine tradition really is. Unlike in Tbilisi, where most people live in blocks, all the houses have grape vines in their yards. Simply everyone makes his own wine, without exception. If you search for it you may even find a winemaker who uses the traditional qvevri’s, the huge clay vases that are typical for this country.
In general Georgia isn’t too expensive if you pick the right places to go. Some bars sell beers for 7 or 10 lari, which is 3-4 euro. But out of the touristic places you will find half a liter of beer for less than 1 euro. Wine and chacha may also come for a reasonable price. Still the best purchases you can do at the bazaar. There is a huge market near the football stadium Dinamo Arena. A liter of homemade chacha or cognac can be bought for 2,50 euro. A liter of homemade wine costs slightly more than 2 euro. For sure it’s worth to take some liquid souvenirs for the people back home.
Personally I took 4 liters of cognac and chacha back to Holland. That could have been 6 if my plane didn’t leave at the crazy hour of 5 in the morning. Obviously the only convenient solution was a last drinking sessions with some friends. When I arrived at the airport I was quite tipsy and convinced I would be banned from flying in this condition. I treated the whole situation at the airport as a military mission, checking in with friends in Holland after each control I successfully passed. Maybe they were just happy to see this drunk guy leave the country but I made it back home, a bunch of good memories richer.
In general the Georgians are quite open and hospitable. The Caucasus might have a violent reputation but at least Georgians don’t seem to be the least bit agressive. This makes the country an excellent destination for people who enjoy a good drink.