As the host of Travel Channel's "Booze Traveler," Jack Maxwell has sampled just about every fermented beverage in every corner of the globe, from camel-milk vodka to something called "black death." But it's not just the drinking that he loves — it's the whole drinking culture.
"Turkey, Iceland, Spain, Peru, Nepal, Lithuania, South Africa … they all have their wonderful traditions, that are eye-opening, exciting, warm and welcoming," he says. "So it's not only about what I drink, it's who I drink it with. It's fascinating."
Growing up in South Boston (or "Southie," as its residents call it), Maxwell started hitting the local bars young — maybe even a little too young. "I've been readying for this since I was a little kid," Maxwell tells us. "I was a shoeshine boy in the barrooms in the Southie section of Boston. We’d go into the barrooms, and some of the same people we’d see in the streets earlier in the day, they'd be in there laughing, dancing, slapping you on the back. And I thought, 'Wow, this alcohol has a magic, socializing effect.'"
Decades later, Maxwell managed to parlay that magic into a career hosting "Booze Traveler," where he journeys the world to experience new cultures through the lens of their spirits.
“This is the gig of the lifetime," he tells us. "There's no better way to get to know somebody than over a drink."
To learn more about Jack Maxwell's booze-soaked sojourns, keep reading for the rest of our exclusive interview.
FNM: What are some memorable drinking traditions you observed in your travels?
“Wherever you go, people drink for the same reasons: to toast, to socialize, to take the edge off, to mourn, even," begins Maxwell. "In Japan, the [businessmen] are very formal, very rigid. But after, they have this thing called 'nomunication.' They’re paid to go out drinking with their boss, and dump on their bosses, right in front of them," he laughs.
"In Iceland, I fought with Vikings," he says of a battle reenactment he participated in. "And we banged around with swords and shields, and at the end of it all, they drink a thing called 'black death,' or Brennevin, and they spray it in each other’s faces.”
"And in Mongolia, if you’re lucky enough to find a nomad family, and they welcome you onto their land … they hand you camel-milk vodka and say, 'You must drink three bowls of this.' That's how they know you're accepting of [their] hospitality," he says. "It was really cool.”
FNM: Can you tell us about the more exotic spirits you tried?
“Camel-milk vodka," he says without hesitation. "I just think it's so fascinating. I can see people taking a drink and thinking, 'This comes from an animal?' It's actually pretty good."
“I think Amarula would really catch on here,” he adds, describing a cream liqueur he downed in South Africa. "It's made from a fruit that comes from the marula tree … [When the] ripe fruit falls from the tree and ferments on the ground, even the elephants and monkeys eat [it] — legend goes — to get a buzz."
FNM: Ever drink anything particularly vile?
“Nothing was vile, and here’s why: When these cultures have been doing this for longer than America has been alive, [making] their drink, nothing is bad. When it comes to their drink, as much as it may be different, weird, exotic, or off-putting, I can never react that way.”
“That said, there's 'spit beer' from an Amazonian tribe in Peru," he continues. "We were dancing, there's drums, and all the women start chewing this root and start spitting it into a bowl, and they ferment it … I thought, 'This is going to be interesting.'"
Also in Peru, Jack got to try something he calls "frog in a blender," and it's exactly what it sounds like. “What they do is they slit the throat of the frog right in front of you [and] add some water and spices. At first I thought it was a gag — and although someone might gag — this is what they do. It's known as something medicinal, good for the soul. So of course I had to try it."
FNM: You meet a lot of interesting folks on "Booze Traveler," but if you could drink with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
“You know, I have a great grandfather that I’ve never met," says Maxwell. "I barely knew my grandfather, but his father was from Sicily. He’s the closest relative [I have] ]that was born in another country. I’d just like to know who he was, so I can get to know about me by extension. Just sit with him there, drinking [Amaro] Averna," he says.
"Because you can get to know a lot about yourself when you're drinking with somebody.”