Alcoholic beverages have been produced for as long as mankind can fathom, and their consumption has frequently been associated with rituals and ceremonies, in happiness or sorrow. With such an ancient background to rely on, different cultures have moved towards different beverages and divergent traditions associated with drinking. Some of them are casual, others very formal, some have political origins, and others have had their genesis forgotten in time.
In Europe, tradition has it that you need a drink to commemorate something. A birthday, a wedding, a promotion, a passed exam, a returned-home friend, you name it. Also, sad occasions justify a drink, perhaps in a memorial or a funeral service. In any of these occasions, someone will ask for attention, raise his glass, invite the gathered persons to do the same, and give a short speech- the toast- normally praising whoever is being celebrated or remembered. Given the country where this happens, the drink involved, and the manner of the toast may differ greatly, although the goal remains the same.
In the South of Europe, Wine is the drink of election for a toast, although you may find some other drinks being preferred, such as the Spanish Aguardiente, the Italian Grappa, or the Greek Ouzo. The toast is normally exclusive to festive gatherings, and a short speech ending with words meaning something like “to good health” in the local language are uttered and echoed by the party-goers, with the drink in hand being downed in one go. The wilder the party gets, the more toasts happen, with headaches and hangovers left to be dealt with the following morning.
The Eastern European countries tend to use very strong liquor for their toasts, mostly Vodka, Palinka or Rakia, depending on the country in question. Most of these nations have a somehow nostalgic habit of celebrating the ones who left their country, some never to return to their homeland. Speeches tend to be more patriotic and passionate, and drinks are downed after calls for “good health” by all involved. Some end up throwing away the empty glass over their shoulder for good luck, but drinking from a shoe is probably no more than a myth.
In Britain and Ireland, Whisky and Beer tend to be favored, and any sports event is more than enough justification for a drink, either to celebrate the winner or to commiserate the looser. What matters is to say “cheers” with everyone else and try to avoid the fight that tends to follow.
North and West Europe have their beer festivals, where spirits are normally high and mugs of Beer and Ale are happily downed after folk songs, with the German saying “prost” being widely used by the merry crowd.