The charming, gravelly voiced Boston native has signed on as star and host, visiting 15 different locations across 13 countries while on the job. Spain, Austria, Iceland, Lithuania, Turkey, Nepal, Belize and Peru are a places where he connects with locals and becomes acquainted with their traditions, all of which sparks fascinating and often hilarious, libation-fueled adventures. However, as he explains it, "This is not just a show about drinking. It's about people, places and cultures through the lens of a cocktail glass, or a bottle of wine, or a martini shaker."
The series premiere was Nov. 24, so here's a taste of the fun to come:
How did you get hooked up with the Travel Channel for the show?
Well, I auditioned for it, quite honestly. I have an acting background, and I've hosted a couple of shows, but nothing like this. I went on the audition, and they were crazy enough to give it to me. Everybody wanted the job, because, wait a minute, we go around the world drinking, meeting people and talking about it. Yes, please. I'm happy to say I've got the best job in the world.
Over the course of the season, you visit 15 places. Which one put you most out of your element?
The most unfamiliar place, I guess, would the Gobi Desert, being with a nomad family that it took us two days to find and being woken up by 100 camels every morning, because they were calling to their babies, and the babies were calling to their mothers. You think a rooster wakes you up early in the morning? These camels. Have you ever heard a camel bray? I don't even know if it's called braying. It was so strange, but wonderful. You wake up and it feels like you're on the top of the Earth at the beginning of time. There's nothing modern. There's no technology. You have nomads waking up. Not even a coffee maker; they make coffee on the fire. It's the most quiet, serene, peaceful, wonderful thing. Yet nothing that I'm used to, because I'm from the big city, right? I'm from Boston. I don't want to be cliché and say you get in tune with nature, but it's beautiful to wake up that way, braying camels not withstanding.
You have some pretty incredible experiences along the way, which we can't wait to watch. Give us a preview. Tell us about the beer bath in Austria?
Now, the beer bath. That was really strange. There's all this, ‘Well, I'm going to soak myself in some suds.’ It's odd because, well, the skin is an organ, so I thought ‘OK that's one way to get it into your bloodstream, as opposed to having a couple of cold ones.’ It's a novelty thing, and it's very relaxing. The beauty is that while you're in this hot tub of hot beer—minus the alcohol, because it's not fermented—you get to pull on the draft right there next to you. You get this wonderful juxtaposition of ice-cold suds in a big stein, while you're soaking in suds, and then you get to sleep on a pile of hay. Yeah, that was kind of out of my element, too. I can't say I do that every other Thursday.
What is something that you learned during your travels, booze-related or not?
I found out that you can make alcohol out of anything. In Mongolia, we made it from camel milk. Camel milk vodka. It's one of the most horrendous-smelling things on Earth, this camel milk. It looks like rotten cheese when it's fresh! I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be some strong vodka,’ and it was, but, it was very tasty. I had schnapps in Austria made from pinecones. Or—how about this—turnips! Turnip schnapps. I didn't like turnips as vegetables on a plate, and you’re going to make alcohol out of it? It wasn't my favorite, but it was really tasty. In Nepal, [we had] this bhang lassi, they make this milkshake, and they stir in grains of marijuana and hash. That there, even though it's not alcohol, that is their elixir. But also, I learned how nice and generous people are around the world. I go, and I say, ‘Can I talk to you about you, your family, your culture?’ Because when someone says, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ they're really saying, ‘Can I get to know you?’ When we did that, they just took us in with open arms, and it was really so wonderful the connection that we all have of wanting to sit down and break bread or share cocktails.
Had you done a lot of traveling prior to working on the show?
No, not extensively like this. I mean, we've covered 13 countries and two states. For the last six months I feel like I've been on the Mayflower. Travel and seeing things. I don't get to travel like a tourist. I want to see what the locals see. I go up to people on the street and say, ‘Hey, where can I get the best this?’ or ‘Where's the best dive bar?’ or ‘Is there a family around here that you know that would be great to talk to?’ And, then someone tells me about someone that they know, who knows a guy, who knows a guy, and it builds the show. It's really wonderful to be able to do that.
Spending so much time on the road, do you travel with any reminders of home or do you do anything that makes you feel more at home?
You know, that's a really good question. I've never thought of [doing] that because I wanted to immerse myself. This is the adventure of a lifetime, of course, but first and foremost it is also a job. I have a responsibility to whoever might be tuning in to be their eyes and ears and representative. I didn't want to feel necessarily connected to home or be homesick. I wanted to jump in with both feet. I wanted to learn about the people, their cultures, their families. I did tell stories of Boston. In Nepal, they'd say ‘Mount Everest’ and ‘I grew up being a Sherpa, what about you?’ I'd say, ‘Oh, I went to Red Sox games, played stickball and shined shoes in Southie.’' And they said, ‘What does all that mean?’ So, I guess my touchstone to home was the stories I'd share with the locals who wanted to know about me, as I wanted to know about them. Like two little kids in the neighborhood that just met from different places. ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where do you come from?’ Looking at each other so differently. Like, ‘Wow, you look different and you sound different and you come from a different place.’ I love Boston. I love where I come from, but I just wanted to jump in. I didn't want to miss a moment on the road. I didn't want to miss an experience. Not a second.
You live in LA now, but you spent a good part of your life in Boston. What's your experience with Boston's bar scene? Were you a bartender there?
Well, actually, that's a misconception. I was never a bartender. I grew up in the barrooms shining shoes. A couple of us kids from the projects were allowed to go into the barrooms, and from ages eight to 13 I shined shoes and listened to wonderful boozy stories while buffing up someone's wing tips. They would just be regaling us with stories, whether they're talking to the room, to me, to their friend. I fell in love with alcohol's magic socializing effect at an early age.
While filming, what is the drink that stands out in your mind?
We've been gone for six months to 15 locations, and there are so many that are memorable. When I was at the Suntory Distillery in Japan, I had some wonderful, old, aged scotch that was fantastic. In Armenia, arak, which is their national treasure. Amarula in South Africa, with cream, which is how they make it in the bottle. Elephants go to that tree to eat fruit to get drunk, it's so good; that's one of my favorites. Tennessee moonshine, believe it or not. I had a thing called moss schnapps in Iceland that was really good; birch schnapps that was good. I wouldn't say that the turnip schnapps was my favorite, but at least I'm consistent. In Turkey, there's this thing called raki, which again is a national icon. Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey, made it the drink, so as a tribute to him they drink this wonderful anise-flavored liquor that's almost like an ouzo type thing. It's clear, and check this: you mix it with water, which is also clear, and when you put those two things together, it becomes this swirl of creamy white cloud stuff. It's like this magical chemistry and they drink it and solve the world's problems. They call it The Locksmith because it opens your mouth and you just want to talk all day.
Where are you headed next?
I hope to come back for a second season because there are so many more places to explore, adventures to have, people to meet, and drinks still out there to try. Good ones I never thought would exist. On this trip, we had a native tribe in the Amazon that fed me piranha, showed me how to shoot poison darts, and then said, ‘here, try this’: Everyone puts this root in their mouth and after they chew it up for five minutes, they spit it into a bowl, let it ferment over a couple of days, then drink it. It's spit beer.
That sounds interesting.
That's a word you say when you don't know what to say. Because I said the same thing when they said, ‘How is it?’ I said, ‘Um, it's interesting.’
Any final words of wisdom from Jack Maxwell?
In Peru, there's this drink that's good for your bones that they sell right at the market. A woman took a frog out of a terrarium, she sliced his throat, skinned him, put him in a blender, hit ‘blend’ and filled it up with some other things. Then I had to drink it. It was a big gulp. It wasn't a shot glass or a Dixie Cup. It was bigger than big and you have to drink the whole thing, otherwise you're insulting them. So, bottoms up! I drank the whole thing right down. That's the thing about travel. We go and see and do things and see places that we never knew existed. When you're willing to jump in feet first like that it really endears you to them, because they say, ‘OK, this guy is here to really experience life as we do. Let's sit down and have dinner with him. Let's break out the good scotch or the good sake—or the good frog in a blender.’
"Booze Traveler" premieres Monday, Nov. 24, 10 pm Eastern and Pacific on Travel Channel. Travelers to and residents of Boston can follow his one-day, custom-built guide to his hometown here.