We are a pretty loose culture when it comes to social etiquette and rules, but formality still finds places to hide itself. Toasting, or raising a glass of liquor to your companions and saying cheers, has a long history — so long that we can’t agree on the actual origins — yet it remains a standard and nearly universal way to begin a drinking session or meal. And yet, like a lot of refugees from old formal culture, cheers-ing can create confusion and awkwardness in social settings. We aren’t sure which rules to follow because there are so many different guidelines, and their application is unclear. This is not an etiquette column, and so I will not pretend there is a right or wrong way to cheers, but I do believe there are more or less successful toasting behaviors based on your particular drinking circumstances.
There are a number of theories about the origin of toasting, many of which involve people trying to poison one another and using the toast as a way to establish trust. There is little evidence to support these theories, however. The Internet detectives over at Snopes propose a nice theory that toasting came about to fill a void of camaraderie that opened up when cultures stopped drinking from a single vessel. Raising your own individual glass signified the communality of drinking that had formerly been literal when your companion and you passed a huge bowl of booze between you.
From there we elaborated, adding speeches and special words like cheers and prost and creating specific glass movements like clinking. Through it all, though, the driving forces of the toast have been well-wishes toward those around you and honorifics for stuff you like.
So, a successful cheers accomplishes two things:
1. Acknowledges and reinforces the camaraderie of your companions.
2. Honors something you all hold dear.
Throughout time, these two elements have remained true. The tradition of raising your glass to another before drinking predates the time when we wrote things down — evidence of oldness: Odysseus toasts Achilles in The Illiad — but it’s safe to assume that these two elements have remained central to drinking culture for at least most of human drinking history.
The culture of toasting had its golden age (at least in the West) around 1900 when mustachioed men like Mark Twain would fill entire evenings with long-winded toasts about broad topics like women or the country or, in a famous Twain toast, babies, which is a contender for the greatest toast to babies ever given.
Like a lot of things in American drinking culture, Prohibition dashed formal toasting upon the rocks. Nowadays, the long-winded, formalized soliloquies are reserved mostly for weddings and funerals. In their place is the quick raise of the glass along with, more often than not, a noncommittal "Well … cheers, everyone." Most will clink glasses, someone will demand eye contact, people sitting far apart will awkwardly stand and stretch — or, horrors, actually move around the table — to make sure they clink with everyone. It can be an unsuccessful mess. But it doesn’t have to be.
General Toasting Guidelines
• The order is this: Wait for everyone to get a drink, raise glass, words spoken (see following table for suggested words), optional clink, drink. (Some varsity-level drinkers have taken to tapping the bottom of their glasses on the table post-clink and pre-sip. This is an irritating affectation and an unnecessary flourish. Do not do this.)
• Don’t demand eye contact: Eye contact is intense. As long as all toasting parties aren’t dismissive of the ritual, things should be fine.
• Clinking glasses in a group larger than four people is ridiculous: Raising glasses is acknowledgement enough. Further acknowledge the person who initiated the cheers-ing with a nod or a here, here after they finish.
• All of that said: Go with the flow. If everyone is clinking, then clink. If eye contact is happening, so be it. Your main job during the cheers is to participate.
• When in doubt, just cheers to everyone’s health: It’s like a black dress or an old-fashioned — timeless.
Common Toasting Scenarios and How to Handle Them
Though the long toast has largely gone out of fashion, there will still be times in your life that require more than a simple "chin chin" or "à santé." Fortunately for Sloshed’s purposes, these moments are few and far between, and easily categorized.
When to Do It
Your Opening Line
The “Guest of Honor”
Weddings, birthdays, and retirement parties.
This toast is meant to honor and embarrass the person (or people) at the center of the party. It is the closest thing we have to the Mark Twain toast; it is as much a public speech as it is a drinking ritual. As such, standing is appropriate. Also, this toast is supposed be entertaining, so practice it at least once ahead of time.
“So, I’m sure we all remember [Guest of Honor] when they were …” followed by something like “just starting out,” “a rookie cop,” or “a pizza-faced drama nerd.”
The “Here’ to Real Friends“
Reunions of any type, anything in your life resembling The Big Chill.
You want to acknowledge the greatness of the group as a whole. After everyone is settled and has a drink, raise your glass and cheers to everyone. This is a great toast to do when everyone is still standing. It should feel huddlelike and heartfelt.
“You know … it’s been a while. But with you guys it’s always …”
The “Home for the Holidays”
Kicking off a meal during any major holiday. Usually with family; usually around some sort of dinner table.
Holidays often helpfully come preloaded with themes and emotions that you should be feeling and honoring, so just piggyback off those. If you are with family, this would be an okay time to wax poetic about its importance. If the toast is based around a meal, go round-robin-style here, with everyone giving small speeches on the theme at hand. No clinking or eye contact necessary.
“Well, this holiday always reminds me of …” and then fill in what you are supposed to be reminded of. End with “Happy [Name of Holiday], everyone.”
The “Upgraded Everyday”
Any normal drinking session.
Raise your glass, lower your eyes, and then get on with your drinking. If the group is small enough, do a group clink, all glasses coming together like the album cover of Pearl Jam’s Ten.
Any of the common cheers words work here; cheers, of course, but you can definitely throw in a non-English version: prost or skål or salud. (Don’t do this if you’ve just spent time abroad, though; you’ll sound like one of those people who calls the bathroom the loo just because you spent a semester in Sussex.)
One technique I like here is toasting something from whatever conversation happened just before drinks. E.g., If we were just talking about the films of Paul Verhoeven at the bar, I will raise a glass to Robocop or Elizabeth Berkley. I find this acknowledges the group without weighing down the moment too much.
The “Dinner Guest”
At dinner parties, when you’d like to thank your hosts.
You don’t need to stand. A simple “thank you” and cheers to your hosts will suffice, though you could easily incorporate the format of Mark Twain’s time: State something you wish blessings upon — “to the Baltimore Orioles,” for instance — and then bless them — “may their bats be swift and their curve balls curvy.”
“Thank you, [Host], for having us …”
Advanced Toasting Techniques
Lastly, some scenarios call for highly specialized toasts — these come along maybe a half-dozen times in a drinker’s entire life. In ascending order of difficulty, those are:
• The Glass-Drain: You cheers, then you slug down your drink. This is the mike-drop of the drinking world, so don’t just say, "Well … cheers, everyone." Only pull this out at appropriate moments and build to the crescendo.
• The Two-Person Arm Lock: Usually reserved for bride-and-groom-type situations where the toast is also some sort of binding agreement. I’ve only seen this pulled off a few times in non-marriage situations, and it required that Europeans were present.
• The Multi-Sip: For long toasts, you may want to split your words into chapters, taking a drink at the end of each one. The challenge here is to (a) know the natural chapters of your story and (b) keep control of the group with excellent narrative pacing.
• The Silent Salute: No words, just a raise of the glass. Very rare. This is like The Godfather of toasting techniques — you have to hold enough power and influence in the room to be sure your every action will be noticed and followed.
• The Pickup: Sort of like the silent salute, this is a gesture accompanied with buying a stranger a drink. When the bartender points you out, raise your glass. It’s very easy to look like a creep here, so only do it if you look like Ryan Gosling.