An actor by trade who lives in LA, Jack Maxwell has been preparing for a gig that involves bouncing around the globe to share exotic (and sometimes ceremonial or religious) hooch amid colorful stories with locals since boyhood.
Maxwell, a Boston native who grew up in the Southie projects as an alter boy at St. Peter’s on Flaherty Way, and a shoeshine boy for the rascals and raconteurs filling the barrooms with long-winded stories, is the host of the new show Booze Traveler, which premieres tonight at 10pm on the Travel Channel.
But it’s not just for the bragging rights of being a boozer abroad. For him, the appeal of the show tapped into his desire to travel far and wide, and go the opposite way of many lifer Southie residents who see the close proximity of the local packie, bank, and grocery stores as all one needs to never leave the area. And, of course, to meet a lot of people over a lot of alcohol.
I spoke with Maxwell over the phone to discuss the new show, his Boston roots, and why in the world anyone would eat not one piece of rancid shark meat in Iceland, but four.
So this all started in the church and the bars of Southie.
I shined shoes as a kid at the barrooms (in Southie), back in the day for guys who wore nice shoes, wingtips. From eight to thirteen I shined shoes in the barrooms, and I’d be regaled by the all the wonderful tales: Some traveled, some didn’t, some did things they shouldn’t of done. Sometimes they’d be telling me or the whole room, or just talking out loud. Just these Irish storytellers. For me it was better than TV. I learned then that alcohol has this magical effect. There’s no better way to get to know someone than by buying them a drink, or sharing an exotic alcohol. Whether it’s something that’s 80% ABV from Lithuania, or drinking spit-beer and learning to shoot poison darts in the Amazon [from the show].
Booze and poison darts seems like a bad combo.
It’s all fun and games till someone takes it in the neck. [We attended] a ceremony to take us in and make sure we’re okay, sit on ground that’s all dirt then they cook pirhana and talk to you. Their chief took his crown and put it on my head, gave me a weapon and a dart in a long bamboo pole. I missed a few times, then hit the neck of the target made of wood. They offered me a spit-beer as a wonderful compliment. They even corrected how I spit into the beer. You gotta spray it.
Do people abroad drink for the same reasons all over the world?
Doesn’t matter if it’s a tribe in Peru, or fisherman in Iceland, people drink to celebrate, to mourn, to take the edge off a long day. I was in a house that was put up in 45mins in Mongolia. The man of the family/tribe comes in and shakes his head, tired. Just like in Southie, if someone comes home after a long day, and maybe their wife brings him a cold beer. This guys wife offered him some camel milk vodka, and he was so happy to have it. Kicked off his shoes (universal thing right?), sat down, and got comfortable with a drink. His day changed and face brightened. That’s everywhere. Mongolia, Southie, everywhere in between.
Any plans to bring the show back home?
We hope to go back in Season Two, [and we] did a couple domestic epsisodes in TN and LA. There’s talk about going back to Southie and showing everyone of the beauty of having a couple cocktails in Boston, the greatest city.
Worst thing you’ve encountered on the show?
Rotten shark. Back in the day in Iceland when sharks would wash up on shore, [the people] would eat every part of it. This guy in an episode took me cod fishing and he had rotten shark hanging outside on the rooftop, eats it like beef jerkey. Tasted like gelatenous amonia. He asked if I would try it, and my gag reflex kicked in. But I chewed it and swallowed it. He gave me a second piece [with some] Icelandic moonshine. Gotta be 140-170 proof. I thought it was going to burn a whole right through the plactic bottle. He said “well, no one has ever had a third piece.” So I ate another.
How did he interpret that?
He said: “Now you’ve proven to be a man, you can come to my house.” It’s the wost thing I’ve ever had in my life.
You’re building up quite a palate.
In Peru I had a drink that put a frog in a blender. You choose a big bullfrong, and a woman slices its neck and pulls the skin over the head in one fell swoop. It has some moonshine, tree root, and molassess, and you see the bones crunching and blood squirting while blending, and you have to drink it.
Has the show given you insights into exotic spirits that could become popular in the states?
In South Africa there’s amarula, made with marula tree fruit. Very delicate. Once it drops you have two or three days to pick it and use it in a drink. It’s so special that elephants know what time of year it drops. You see them staring at a tree waiting, and supposedly [they] get drunk off it once it drops. Baboons too. It goes into their national drink, like a wonderful Baileys with a fruity aspect, great over ice. Maybe best milkshake ever had in my life.
In Turkey they have Raki, an anise flavored alcohol they mix 50/50 with cold water. The anise oils emulsify, kind of like sambuca or ouzo, and its really good. They sit around having drinking parties, the bigwigs and the intellectuals, and they call it the “locksmith” because it [unlocks] your mouth and solves the world’s problems.
Thoughts on Southie?
It’s such a small provincial place, and when I was a kid it wasn’t the most welcoming place to people not from there. Thanks to my mother I had the opposite [perspective] to that.
You still have a thick Boston brogue. Do people call that out?
All around the world they hear the accent, and I’m not trying to “sell” it, but at the same time I’m not going to take shit from people thinking it’s cool to say you’re from Southie. I’m just from there. I’m proud of it, and I’m not going to run from that.
BOOZE TRAVELER. PREMEIRES MON NOV. 24 ON THE TRAVEL CHANNEL.
Dan is a freelance journalist and has written for publications including Vice, Esquire, the Daily Beast, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, MEL, Leafly, Thrillist, and DigBoston.