Why do we raise our glasses for a toast?

It’s become ubiquitous to propose a toast during meals, at big events or at any time when there’s a drink in your hand. It’s considered an almost entirely international cultural act that feels so automatic that you don’t really think about it. But even researching this, the word ‘toast’ starts to sound strange. The origins of the tradition are complex and surprising, but are not lost in time as some suggest!

There are many suggestions to explain why we raise our glasses, why we clink glasses and why we say the things we say when we toast. Some say that clinking glasses was a symbolic way to display trust between people that no drinks had been poisoned. It has also been suggested that the toast is just an extension of a prayer for the health of the participants, shortened to just a few words. It is likely that the toast developed in Europe through a combination of these stories.

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Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel – The Toast

The term ‘toast’ derives from the late seventeenth century when it was common to float toasted spiced bread on the top of alcoholic drinks. The practice really took off in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it became usual at a dinner party to toast the health of every member of the party and drain the glass every time. This surprised foreign visitors to England, possibly because of the sheer volume of alcohol that was consumed. Perhaps this was the time when the English became identified as heavy drinkers!

The tradition of draining the whole glass explains many of the terms used in different countries.

  • Bottoms up!
  • Cul Sec (French: dry bottom)
  • Fenékig (Hungarian: to the bottom)
  • 乾杯/kanpai (Japanese: dry the glass)

Eighteenth-century club culture led to further development of the toasting traditions. Club meetings would being with ‘The Loyal Toast’, raising glasses to ‘the King’ or ‘the Queen’ and then work their way down the hierarchy, toasting the most powerful male members of the group first and finishing by toasting favourite women. During the revolutionary 1790s, radical clubs toasted ‘Confusion to the race of kings!’.

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