I love any excuse to pour myself a glass of prosecco, but do we know why we all raise a glass and say “cheers” (or “salute” in Italy or “prost” in Germany) when we toast to any kind of event of accomplishment? It’s a celebratory gesture, and everyone knows the deal: raise your glass, wait for some words of wisdom, shout “Cheers!”, clink your neighbor’s glass and down the hatch it goes.
The practice is fairly standard across the board and goes all the way back to the first century BCE. The Roman Senate decreed that at every meal, subjects would toast to the health of Emperor Augustus. I’m taking this to understand why the Italians can hold their wine so well.
The word “toast,” though, was most likely drawn from the old practice of dipping a piece of spiced, sometimes burnt, toast into wine. The seasonings and scorched flavor from the toast would infuse and temper the wine while soaking up some of its acidity.
As for “cheers,” we actually stole that from the French. “Chiere” originally meant “face” or “head,” but changed in the 18th century to mean “gladness.” Since then, it’s been an expression of encouragement and wishing good fortune upon each other.
It’s pretty self-explanatory that congratulations and celebrations are usually accompanied by drinking, so that part makes sense -- but we specifically tend to toast with bubbles because champagne has largely and historically been associated with status and luxurious, aristocratic parties as well religious events, like weddings and baptisms. Sound like affairs that call for celebration, yes?
So, we know where “cheers” and “toast” come from, and why champagne is the ideal beverage to accompany the toast. As to why we *clink* our glasses together, there are a few discussions.
The most basic reason is to appease the senses. Your senses of smell, taste, touch and sight are triggered by what you’re drinking, so how do you stimulate your sense of hearing? *clink*! Plus, celebrations cause groups of friends to come together, so clinking around the table just promotes a sense of togetherness.
The folktale-style reasons are more interesting, though.
For one, the tapping of the glasses has been thought to ward off evil. This idea goes back to the medieval era, when they thought spirits could either be scared away by noise or placated by the drops of wine that would fall to the floor for them after cheers-ing. That’s kind of why Germans bang their mugs against tables so loudly, too.
We were also looking out for poisoning. Poison was a convenient way to murder your enemies back in the day (still is, I guess), and the premise was that if you clinked your full-to-the-brim glass to your neighbor’s, both of your drinks would spill into the others’ glass, ensuring that no one was up to any funny business.
Now, we just clink glasses because...it makes a cute sound? Adds a little ambiance, if you will. But as far as what’s in the glass, that’s still important -- whether you believe in superstition or not, it’s bad luck to cheers with water. It could be water in a wine glass, but it doesn’t matter!
The Ancient Greeks (and they knew their sh*t) would lift a glass with water for the dead, since they believed those who had passed on would sip from the River Lethe in the Underworld. Since toasting with water is so closely associated with death, they said that toasting to someone living with water was basically wishing bad luck, or even death, upon them. Not a good look at a wedding or something, ya know? Plus, they believed it would reflect on your impending doom as well.
That, and the gods were vinos, too. They’d consider a toast with water an insult and wreak havoc upon your life.
So, just keep your glass empty if you must!