The exact origins of the celebratory gesture of raising a toast are lost in the mists of time. There is enough evidence to suggest that cultures as old as those we know performed some version of making a toast.
Indeed the exact mechanisms also vary from culture to culture and time to time in history; just as much as the world used to accompany the toast can vary from language to language.
Making contact with a shared alcoholic drink, and wishing your fellow drinkers ‘good health’, ‘long life’ or celebrating a particular event, such as a marriage, is it seems inherent in mankind’s nature, and why not?
One proposed origin is that the idea of chinking glasses together would inevitably cause some of the contents of your glass to spill into the other person’s, and some of theirs into yours. This might mean that were one glass poisoned, then both would become so. However, apart from the obvious possibility that this process would not actually work – particularly if one party was deliberately trying for it not to – and instead might simply cause wasted drink, or stained floors, clothes or beards, there is absolutely no historical evidence to support the idea.
The fact that people over the ages have invented, and promulgated, a made-up story is in itself ample evidence that we simply do not know. A shared drink – which would avoid poisoning, is a hallmark of cultures as ancient and longstanding as the indigenous populations of many parts of the world, including Polynesia, where for example in Fiji, the locally produced Cava, a powdery tea-like drink with allegedly hallucinogenic properties, is passed around the group. It is to be hoped that it works, because the substance really does not taste very nice!
In ancient Greece, perhaps the first place in western culture where the record-keeping can be believed as historically accurate, there is evidence of drinking to someone’s health. In The Odyssey for example, where Achilles’ health is toasted by Ulysses. The Romans similarly placed a great emphasis on drinking to one another’s health, indeed to the degree that the Senate once passed a decree that demanded everyone drink to the Emperor Augustus - at every meal. Attila the Hun is described, in Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as making at least three toasts with every course of a, presumably exceptionally long drawn out, banquet.
The term “Toast” itself is literal. In medieval times, it was simply not acceptable not to use up all food, and this meant finding ingenious uses for, amongst other things, stale bread. Also the origin of re-cooking bread such as French Toast and Bread and Butter Pudding, adding toasted bread to wine, was considered to improve it, as it would absorb excess acidity and bitterness in the way that ageing wine in oak does these days. Adding spice to the toast would further improve the flavour of the wine. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff demands – “Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t.” The practice of toasting continued in culture and it was traditional for the person being honoured to receive the wine-soaked toast at the end.
Toasting clubs grew up and often became simply excuses for mammoth drinking sessions, and gave rise to drunkenness and lewd behaviour. Toastmasters became popular, and possibly essential, around the eighteenth century. It was probably around this time that the use of actual toast was lost. As well as proposing toasts - their continued role - they acted as referees, to limit people becoming too over-zealous and continually toasting everyone in the room, thus risking becoming inebriated and consuming far too much alcohol, with all the potentials for disaster that entails! Westerners discovering Chinese ganbei (bottom’s up - finish the glass!) for the first time, might consider it something of a shame that this role seems not to have developed in China!
Toastmasters are now as much meeting organisers and directors. They need to be good at public speaking, and part of their job remains the refereeing side of things, but the meetings may not involve alcohol or toasts at all these days.
Plenty of drinking games and ceremonies were established around toasting and many of them were proposed and made to honour particular ladies. Indeed for a man to declare his love for someone, he would often cut himself and allow some of his blood into the drink, then raise it to the lady concerned and drink her health. Shakespeare, again, in The Merchant of Venice: “I stabbed my arm to drink her health.”
Of course, as with all aspects of alcoholic consumptions, the drunkenness of many toasting sessions created a backlash against them and many anti-toasting movements came into being, possibly the embryo of the prohibition movement that eventually caused the outright banning of alcohol in the United States and parts of Scandinavia. The anti-toasting movements were not initially successful in getting the events banned, but they did lead to a more restrained and civilised approach and ultimately to the toasts we make today.
In France, as in many other European countries, the customary greeting when making a toast is “Santé” or ‘health’, but also used is “Tchin tchin”, which actually comes from the Chinese for please please (a legacy of when the French soldiers returned from the opium wars). Cin Cin is also used in Italy, and Chin Chin in Spain, and occasionally Britain, although you have to wonder whether its users are aware of its history. ‘Cheers’ itself is originally from the Latin for face or look (countenance), and for many people has come to mean that it is bad luck to say this to someone without looking them in the eye at the same time. Most other cultures have words conveying one or other of these sentiments, although the phrase ‘bottom’s up’ in English is obviously reminiscent of ganbei in Chinese, but without quite the obligation to drain the glass every time!
About the author: Rod Smith MW is the owner of the Riviera Wine Academy offering wine tastings, dinners and courses tailored for yacht and villa guests as well as training for crew and general wine consultancy. One of only 312 Masters of Wine (MWs) in the world, and just a few in France, Rod is a charismatic presenter and authority on wine as well as a respected public speaker and international judge.