If food is the best tool to learn about new cultures and to bond with new friends on your travels, then alcohol falls a close second place behind. In my travels, I have found that alcohol is an all-encompassing symbol of their country of origin, with each countryman speaking fervently about their native soil, water, grape or grain and what makes their ‘spirit’ stand out from the rest. Let’s face it, nothing quite disarms the guarded like a little bit of alcohol, turning strangers into the closest of pals. Here are my spirited travel plans for 2014 and I hope it inspires you to plan yours!

Irish whiskeys

Triple distillation is a hallmark of Irish whiskeys. Image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 (Hammersbach, 2011)

FEBRUARY: Irish whiskey, I wish
While Scotch has undoubtedly been the whisky of choice for many over the past few decades, 2014 will be my year of ‘rediscovering’ Irish whiskey. The name “whiskey” itself is an Anglicization of an ancient Gaelic word “Uisce beatha”, which aptly means “water of life”. Once the most popular spirit in the world, Irish whiskey began its decline in the late 19th century and today there are only around eight distilleries in Ireland compared to more than a hundred in Scotland. And of these eight distilleries, only five have been around long enough to be able to sell aged whiskey to the public.

So why Irish whiskey? For one, most Irish whiskeys are triple distilled, as compared to Scotches, which are mostly double distilled. Irish whiskeys also generally have a smoother finish as compared to their Scottish counterparts, which are more known for their smoky finish.

And this is why I’m heading to Ireland in February to prep myself for the resurgence of the world’s fastest growing spirit. It’s also a great place to start off my first trip of 2014 with hopefully some of the luck of the Irish rubbing off on me. Let’s hope I find my four-leaf clover.

Sláinte!

JUNE: Beerly good time in Belgium
In the sweltering summer, no alcohol is perhaps as sought after as a cold beer.

Scourmont Abbey in Belgium

The Scourmont Abbey in Chimay is one of the most recognised Trappist breweries in Belgium. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Jean-Pol Grandmont, 2005)

Belgium is one of the foremost producers of beer with over 180 breweries ranging from small independent microbreweries to international breweries such as Hoegaarden and Stella Artois. But what is drawing me to Belgium on the beer leg of my 2014 alcohol adventure is the search for Trappist beer.

For those unaware, Trappist beers originated during the late 18th century, when monks fleeing the French Revolution started occupying Trappist monasteries. However, the actual production of beer only started at the end of 1836, and was in the beginning only for consumption by the monks.

In order for a beer to qualify for Trappist certification, the brewery must be in or near a monastery and must be produced by the monks. In addition, profits from the sale of the beer must go towards supporting the monastery or external social causes. There are only 10 such breweries in the world, with six of them in Belgium. The others are in Austria, the Netherlands and the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Op uw gezondheid!

OCTOBER: For Kyoto’s sake!
To pursue my newfound interest in sake, where better and when better than to head to Japan for Nihonshu no Hi (Sake Day). Sake Day has been celebrated on the 1st of October since 1978 and marks the official start of the sake brewing season. Sake has been traditionally brewed from October to April due to several reasons. The first is that sake is best produced in cooler temperatures, and the second is linked to the end of the rice harvest. Historically, rice was used as a form of currency, and farmers would pay taxes to the shogun in rice after each harvest. Whatever rice was left over was used for brewing sake during the non-farming months.

Sake barrels in Kyoto

Sake barrels adorn the Heian Jingu in the heart of Kyoto east of the Imperial Palace.

Today, rice farmers still continue to work as sake brewers during the non-farming months, but the rice used for brewing no longer comes from leftovers. In contrast, sake in Japan is made from premium sake rice and not the usual table rice. Price and quality corresponds to the polishing ratio of the rice. Like fine wines, origin of the sake, characteristics of the rice and water and the kind of koji (mold) all add to the complexity of the sake.

My trip will kick off in Kyoto where I will attend the Kyoto Nihonshu Horoyoi Festa, a 2-day event where some 40 participating restaurants and sake brewers will provide a platform for me to bar hop and taste a variety of sakes and matching dishes.

I will then complete my sake tour at Hiroshima, where the small town of Saijo comes to life once a year. Home to nine sake breweries, visitors flock to this town on the 6th and 7th October to sample over 900 brews from all around the country. There are also plenty of food stalls and live performances to complement the event!

Kampai!

Bottle of Tokaji Eszencia

The Tokaji Eszencia is the most esteemed of the aszu wines, with a fermentation process of at least four years. CC BY-SA 3.0 /GFDL (katagi yuji, 2009)

DECEMBER: Hungary for sweet Tokaji
Finally in December, I plan to head off to Hungary in search of the intriguing Tokaji, a name synonymous with Hungarian wines. Tokaji hails from the Tokaj region of Hungary, and is the result of a very special ‘Noble Rot’. Also known as Botrytis cinerea, this fungus attacks grapes causing them to shrivel and decay. While that doesn’t sound very romantic, the resulting effect is a sweet wine with an amazing complexity to its flavour. Wines created from ‘Noble Rot’ grapes have a flavour reminiscent of honey, are more viscous and usually contain a higher alcohol content.

It is not easy to recreate the conditions for ‘Noble Rot’, as infestation by the Botrytis fungus requires moist conditions, yet the climate must stay dry enough after so that the grapes are not destroyed. Harvesting is also a painstaking process of hand picking over several sessions, when the grapes are at its most ideal form.

Tokaj is one region that is particularly suited for recreating the conditions for ‘Noble Rot’, referred to as aszú in Hungary. Even then, conditions for aszú only occur around three times a decade, making this a particularly sought after and desirable wine.

Thanks to some careful planning and with the luck of the Irish on my side, I think 2014 might just be a good year for aszú!

Kedves egeszsegere!