'Booze Traveler' host explores how world drinks
WILLIAM J. KOLE
Nov. 20, 2014
BOSTON (AP) — Jack Maxwell drinks for a living.
From moss schnapps in Iceland to gut-busting raki in Turkey and homebrew in the Himalayas, he's learned the hard way that tippler's truism: "It's always 5 o'clock somewhere."
Maxwell says shining shoes as a kid in the barrooms of South Boston helped prepare him to host "Booze Traveler," which debuts this month on the Travel Channel. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, the Los Angeles-based actor said his early years in the neighborhood known as Southie — where convicted gangster James "Whitey" Bulger once reigned — showed him what cocktails can teach about a culture.
"That's where I learned about alcohol's magic socializing effect," said Maxwell, who has appeared in "24," ''Lost" and "Beverly Hills 90210." ''People would regale me with tales. Everyone was so social and nice to each other."
Part travelogue, part drinking diary, "Booze Traveler" takes viewers with Maxwell as he travels to Louisiana, Tennessee and 13 foreign countries, including Armenia, Belize, Lithuania, Mongolia and Nepal. Each hour-long episode is a quest to distill the essence of a place through its beers, wines and spirits — a lighthearted look at the world through the lens of a glass.
"Every society in history has come up with some form of alcohol to celebrate, to mourn, to take the edge off a long day," he said.
The series premiere, which airs Nov. 24, puts Maxwell in mostly Muslim Turkey. As the 4 p.m. call to prayer rings out in Istanbul, he jokes: "If I were back home in Boston, I'd be sitting down at the bar for happy hour."
Many Turks are teetotalers, but Maxwell takes it as a challenge to uncover the local libations. He samples raki, a powerful drink made of twice-distilled grapes flavored with anise, and harvests poppies with women who use them in a potent drink.
"We thought we'd have to find a secret speakeasy and a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy," he said. "But it was hiding in plain sight."
As he drinks his way around the world, Maxwell comes off as something of a daredevil — comparisons to bad-boy TV gourmand Anthony Bourdain are inevitable. He'd have to be fearless to stomach the more bizarre beverages he samples: vodka distilled from camel's milk in Mongolia, and "spit beer" brewed with saliva by a tribe in the Amazon jungle.
"The chief himself put his hat on me — his crown — and he taught me how to spit poison darts. They cooked piranha for me," Maxwell said. "Who am I to say no? I'm just a kid from the Southie projects."
Jaw-dropping scenery served as a backdrop for many of Maxwell's adventures. In South Africa, he awoke to zebra, impala and giraffes grazing on the sun-dappled savannah, and he says it was the perfect hangover cure.
"Sitting down and drinking with someone, I realized it's a much smaller world than what I thought," he said. "We have much more in common than we do differences."