South Boston born and bred, Jack Maxwell essentially grew up in bars. Now he’s putting a lifelong love of drinking culture to good use, trekking around the globe in Travel Channel’s new show Booze Traveler. We caught up with Maxwell on a break from filming in Australia to talk booze and wanderlust before the show’s Nov. 24 premiere.
A couple of us kids from the projects figured we’d make some money, so we would shine shoes in barrooms.… It was a different time back then. I don’t know if it was a safer time, maybe a more naïve time. So, I’d be shining shoes and when people have a couple of cocktails, they change! These same grumpy people… these old men, these Irish guys, would say “Jackie! How are you, kid?” And it’s not that they were shitfaced. It was just that they had a couple of drinks, and it took the edge off. And I would love the stories, even more so than the money. I’d be down on bended knees shining the shoes, and they’d be telling these stories. And sometimes they’d be fantastical; they’d be adventurous, and they’d be exciting. Sometimes not true, I’m sure, but never boring. I said, “Wow, that’s it. A pub is the public living room. Everybody gets together to share stories and have fun.” I learned early on that alcohol has this magical, socializing effect, and there’s no better way to get to know someone than to sit down and say, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” or “Can I give you some homemade moonshine?” or whatever it is that we’re doing around the world. They open themselves up to you and they want to share their world, their wisdom, their family—their lives—with you.
That’s beautiful! Can I steal that?
It’s the worldwide currency, not affected by the NASDAQ. It’s the currency that never deflates!
It’s first and foremost a show about the people, the places and the cultures—some explored, some yet undiscovered—through the lens of a cocktail glass, or a bottle of wine, or a shot glass. You know, that’s what gets us in to the people, to the culture. So we try their drinks because it’s part of who they are. When they say, “We just slaughtered a yak for you, and we’ll pair it with a nice horse milk vodka. Will you have some?” I say, “Of course! But why did you make a vodka out of horse milk?” “Oh, it’s all we have!” [I say] “Beautiful! Let’s try that! Let’s try that right now!”
I would never say that, because he’s a published author and a chef. I just love adventure. I love discovery. I would never write myself off as this super expert who knows everything about alcohol, but I’m learning. And through me, hopefully, you will learn. And I honestly drink them. There’s no producing here. When you see me drink a whole drink of a frog in a blender—I drank the whole thing, I honestly did. And it’s a live frog they put in the blender, bones and all. But that’s just one of the elements … It’s not just the shocking drinks of the world. It’s the real drinks of the world. Not everybody sits down with a cabernet or a craft cocktail at the end of the day. But we all do it for the same reasons. To take the edge off, to get together with friends and family, to mourn, to celebrate—alcohol brings us into all of that for different reasons. I’ve realized through my travels that drinks really allow us to understand that we have much more in common than we do differences.
Well, it’s not so much about the places as the things I did there. For instance, when I was in Japan I was told that sumo wrestlers are the kings of the world in Japan. They’re the biggest celebrities. So it was hard to get to even watch them do their thing. Then, when we were watching, they said, “You can’t go down onto the dirt floor, because that’s reserved for only royalty and special people.” And then one of the big sumo guys—he was like 500 pounds—came up and took my hand in his, like I was a little kid, and brought me down to the dirt and pointed to the floor and said, “Sit here.” So I got to sit on the dirt floor and actually watch them and—in one of the most touching things that ever happened to me in my life—they brought me into the “sumo circle,” which they say no one does. Even the celebrities of Japan are not allowed in the sumo circle because they take it so seriously, and I actually got to fight a sumo. To be honest, it wasn’t a real fight because it’s like running into a wall and he could have squashed me like a mosquito in two seconds. So that was an experience that was so touching, and so physical and so wonderfully a part of their culture—I’ll never forget it.
In Lithuania, I got to go on my first hot air balloon! We just saw a guy with a truck who said “I got a hot air balloon in the back of the truck!” So we just jumped on it and we went on this hot air balloon [ride] over a castle in Lithuania. You know the biggest shock to me? It was so quiet. When you’re above the earth, it’s so quiet and wonderful. And then afterwards they gave us some of special alcohol…and then we broke bread and popped corks with them and drank. It’s those experiences that I remember.
[Also] Cod fishing with this guy in Iceland and trying his landi—which is the moonshine—and his rotten shark. And Peru! This native tribe who the public really doesn’t get to see—we found them after this long hike into the woods, into the Amazon, into the jungle, after cruising down the Amazon. He taught me how to [throw] poison darts after we had a bit of a language thing, we had a translator. And we ate piranha—they cooked us piranha. Then all the woman of the tribe got together and started chewing this root—it’s a potato-like thing. And they all spit it into a bowl and said, “You do it.” So we all chewed this thing that we spit into a bowl and then after a day or two it ferments and it’s “spit beer.” And we drink it. That’s memorable to me. It’s not about the Eiffel Tower or the London dungeon. It’s about the people and how they take me into their culture and allow me to experience what it’s like to be them for a day or a moment or a cocktail.
Well, I’d be lying to say I look at a live frog swimming in a blender and then she hits blend and it doesn’t give me pause … [But] I have to go not only to the edge and then look into the abyss, I have to dive into it. When we find a tribe in the Amazon that took us forever, or, in Mongolia, a nomad family that took us two days to track down with a professional tracker. Once we find them and they say, “Drink this camel milk vodka,” I couldn’t say no. Because you had me here, you took me in. How can I accept all of that but say no to the cocktails that are a part of your culture?
Oh yeah, this is really who I am, you know? This is not about drinking around the world; it’s about traveling around the world, and again the drinks are a part of the culture, so that’s what we do. But when I go out with friends—boy, that would not be fair, when I’m with friends and family, and they say, “Hey, let’s have a cocktail” and I say, “I can’t. I only drink at work.” That wouldn’t be very nice.
I have to say, this experience has changed me. I’m a martini guy. I like that whole era, the Rat Pack. I like the good old rum, the old fashioned. I’m not into the fancy, frilly, fruity drinks that really aren’t cocktails. I want to taste my spirit. But I’ve learned to really open my horizons, even more than I thought they were before. So I’ll ask a bartender, “What’s your favorite thing to make? What’s the thing that nobody orders that you think they should?” Because you can have adventure inside of a barroom, inside of a lounge, inside of a cocktail glass—you don’t have to go around the world for that.
Oh yeah, you know it’s funny. I would go into barrooms—and again I shouldn’t say this—shining shoes and back in the day, it was a different day. I had some friends whose grandfather would give them some wine. So then when I’d be with them I’d have a little sip of wine. When I’d go into the barrooms, it was mostly beer and whiskies back then—right, highballs? And once in a while they’d say to me at 8 or 9 or 10, “Hey Jackie, try this!” And of course as a kid you don’t like alcohol, especially that whisky. And they’d say, “Come on, I’ll let you shine my shoes if you [drink this].” So I’d take a little sip and it was horrendous, because you know, I wanted a milkshake. I was eight years old, I didn’t want cocktails. So the first time I had too much to drink, I had what I thought was a glass of orange juice, but it was a screwdriver—it was vodka and orange juice.
I was 12. Luckily, it was short glass. I drank the whole thing. And as I was drinking it—I was really thirsty, it was a hot day—I remember I drank it right down and I said, “You know, this orange juice must have gone bad.” It was horrible. Then my uncle comes in and says, “Where’s my drink?” I said, “That orange juice was horrible!” “That wasn’t orange juice, Jackie! That was vodka!” I was mortified and proud. I said, ”Well, maybe I’m an adult then. I just drank an adult drink.”