Why Do We Clink Glasses?

Proposing a toast and clinking glasses is an age old tradition for honour and goodwill. Usually we propose a toast to someone as a way to wish them well on their birthday, wedding or other happy occasion. By raising their glass and taking a sip, guests are signifying that they agree with the words of the toast – which means that not participating suggests you might be harbouring some ill intent!

Has it always been such a pleasant idea though? It is often suggested that back in ye olde times clinking glasses would be done with enough force for some liquid to transfer between glasses (think of Vikings smashing together their horns of ale or mead). This was supposedly a way to safeguard the drinker against being poisoned, because if the host was going to poison his or her guests they wouldn’t want to risk getting some of that in their own glass! However, there is no proof for this idea and it is generally accepted as a popular myth. Another unproven idea is that waiting for one’s host to take the first sip would guarantee that the wine was not poisoned (assuming the glass were poured from the same bottle).

In some cultures it is also customary to make eye contact whilst making a toast, and maybe even rude not too. Maybe making eye contact stems from showing your companions that you trust them to not slip something into your glass. If you’re looking away then you’re either making sure nobody spikes your drink, or you’re busy spiking somebody else’s!

But if these ideas are myths, where and when did the custom start? Honestly, it’s hard to say. There is evidence for people proposing toasts, raising glasses and drinking to health as far back as the Ancient Greeks; in Homer’s The Odyssey Ulysses drinks to the health of Achilles. And in Ancient Rome the Senate passed a decree that said that everyone had to drink to Emperor Augustus at every meal. The word ‘toast’ is also more literal than you might have thought. Back in the 1600s or so people would actually put a piece of bread, often flavoured with spices, in their wine. Apparently this made bad wine taste better and softened up stale bread. Sounds gross, but it did help give us French toast!


The featured image was borrowed and edited, with thanks, from the Imperial War Museums and is in the public domain.