You’ll often hear people say slàinte before drinking whiskey. Why? Allow us to explain.

What do you say before you have a drink? ‘Cheers’ is a classic. But all across the world, people have different ways of toasting and wishing good health to their company. It could be ‘salud’, as heard in Italy or The Sopranos, or ‘skål’ in Scandinavian countries, or ‘slàinte’ in the Celtic dialect.

The full term is slàinte mhaith in Ireland or slàinte mhath in Scotland, both of which are Gaelic and pronounced Slanj-a-va. It translates to ‘good health’ in each dialect, but in both cultures, people often shorten the toast to just slàinte. Which is pronounced slawn-cha, like the first syllable is lawn with an s in front. The second syllable is cha, as in cha-cha-slide.



The start of slàinte

It’s hard to know exactly when we started using alcohol to toast to good health, but there is a belief that the Romans started it all during ceremonies or rituals to honour the gods. There’s also a legend that the touching of glasses arose from concerns over poisoned drinks, so clinking the glasses in a manner that would cause each drink to spill into the other would alleviate this concern. Customs such as making eye contact while toasting or ensuring only alcohol is in your glass are also common, with some superstitions even believing that you’ll suffer through seven years of bad sex if you fail to adhere to these customs. A terrible punishment for a terrible crime. 

Today, raising a glass is common practice and you’ll hear slàinte /slàinte mhaith in many an Irish pub. For St. Patrick’s Day, there will be a lot of people saying slàinte before they drink. If somebody does say slàinte or the full slàinte mhaith to you this weekend, in Irish you can respond “sláinte agatsa”, which translates “to your health as well”. If you’re feeling more Scottish, then say “do dheagh shlàinte”, (pronounced like ‘do slawncha’) which means “your good health”, “air do shlàinte”, which translates to “on your health”, or even slàinte agad-sa (both are pronounced phonetically, mercifully), which is”health at yourself!”

The word derives from the Old Irish ‘slán’, which means ‘whole’ or ‘healthy’, with the suffix ‘tu’ , which became ‘slántu’ and then eventually sláinte.  You can trace the roots of toasts like these back to the German ‘selig’ (meaning ‘blessed’), the Latin ‘salus’, which means ‘health’, ‘safety’, or ‘salvation’ (the derivatives you can see in the Mediterranean toasts of today like salud), and the the Indo-European ‘slā’, which translates to ‘advantageous’ or ‘luck’.  Shouting “advantageous!” before a drink does sound like a lot of fun, to be honest.

Of course, you could keep things simple and just say slàinte. That’s what I do, and will be doing, this St. Patrick’s Day. With an Irish whiskey in hand, of course.