James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Baptism by Firewater in Tbilisi

A Baptism by Firewater in Tbilisi

Chacha in Georgia

I had been seeing a guy in Tbilisi for a few weeks when I got the ultimate test of Georgian hospitality—an evening with his family and a bottle of homemade chacha.

When he picked me up that night, he apologized but said we needed to swing by his parents’ apartment to pick something up. I was secretly thrilled and a little nervous. Georgians are friendly people, but most of the locals I’d been hanging out with were people my own age, at house parties and bars. I didn’t even know the proper way to greet people in Georgia, so I almost ended up kissing his aunt on the mouth as we leaned in for the cheeks.

His mother first offered me coffee, but it wasn’t long before tiny thimble-sized crystal goblets were pulled out for chacha. We were only supposed to be stopping in for two minutes, but it was clear that was no longer the schedule. I shrugged out of my jacket, and my friend’s mom nodded approvingly.

Chacha is a high-proof brandy produced from grapes—well, from the leftovers of winemaking. Chacha is becoming trendy now, with flavors like spiced orange or vanilla tarragon, but the homemade stuff locals keep in their cabinets is an integral part of Georgia’s culinary heritage.

Georgians swear up and down that high-quality chacha does not produce hangovers, no matter how much you drink. Foreigners seem doubtful of this, but I’d never indulged in enough of it to know. Here was my opportunity.

“Do you want any water?” my friend asked me. I shook my head, and he smiled. “Good. It would look like weakness.”

Toasting is also an important part of Georgian hospitality, and though this was a casual meeting we couldn’t drink without it. The first toast was to meetings, the second to parents. I don’t speak any Georgian or Russian, so it was up to my date to translate all questions and answers. But on the third toast his aunt leaned over to me with her glass raised and whispered,

“To babies.”

“What was that?” my guy asked.

I shrugged and took the shot. No need to start an international incident.

Five or six toasts later—enough that I had lost track of the number and yet was finally gaining courage to add to the short speeches—we eventually called it a night. My guy, stone cold sober because Georgia has strict zero tolerance laws, helped me into the car and said, “Let’s stop and get you some Borjomi.”

Ah, Borjomi. Another one of Georgia’s great achievements, bottling that life-giving mineral water. Mixing Borjomi and alcohol is a habit I’ve adopted here in Georgia, one that I swear by to get me through the local drinking traditions.

The next morning I woke up without a hangover. Whether it was the Borjomi or that the myth about quality chacha really is true, I’m not sure. But with two more months left in Georgia, there is plenty of time to find out.

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