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June 19, 2017

Permanent Visitor

Jack Maxwell has made a career out of global bar-hopping.



David M. Gutiérrez
  • The Travel Channel
  • The Travel Channel
  • The Travel Channel
  • The Travel Channel
  • The Travel Channel

There’s something to be said for traveling the globe one drink at a time.

Almost every culture and civilization has enjoyed some form of alcohol, and it’s the job of Jack Maxwell, the actor-turned-host of the Travel Channel’s Booze Traveler and Booze Traveler: Best Bars to explore what’s out there – and sometimes what’s out there is incredibly strange.

Whether it’s watching complex swordplay with Cossacks on a frozen river, drinking deer blood and fermented horse milk, or enjoying a three-stage bar in Aspen, Maxwell is living his dream.

Maxwell wasn’t always so pampered. “My upbringing was really different than most people I know. I grew up in the Southie housing projects in Boston. There were three sets of projects, and I grew up in what they said was the worst one, called D Street. The other kids in the projects used to make fun of us.”

He believes an unusual gift he received on his eighth birthday permanently changed his life and set him on his current path.

“I got a shoeshine box. To earn a few quarters and dimes to take the pressure off my mom, who was a single parent of two kids, I shined shoes at the pubs up and down Boston’s Broadway street.” Maxwell is quick to point out this took place at a different time when “police looked the other way and there was an understanding.”

“I really fell in love with the stories that come with having a couple of drinks. There’s some really beautiful, old storytelling in an Irish-American neighborhood.” It was also at these pubs that Maxwell discovered what he calls a “social lubricant,” the lip-loosening properties alcohol.

“I was regaled with tales of adventure, travel, and excitement. I saw how people changed after a drink or two – nothing to excess, of course – what a couple of drinks does to someone, and makes them feel more comfortable in this public living room, or ‘pub.' I earned some money while I fell in love with [listening to stories], which I now get to do for a living.”

Cleary, your first shoeshine job allowed you find out a lot about yourself as well.

It got kids out of that cycle of insecurity and self-doubt. Because we were so poor, we didn’t understand why a lot of us didn’t have fathers, or why we lived in such a sh*thole.  Making of bucks was such a great thing for us, and kept a lot of us out of trouble, I’d dare say. Shining shoes let us talk to adults on their level and integrate with them, and to create our own little business.

You have a number of acting credits before you started hosting both series. What was the transition from actor to host like for you?

It’s funny. People think it was an easy transition because I was actor for so long. It wasn’t, really, because I  can’t get behind a character. There’s no semblance of order or professional acting on the set. I had to learn how to interact without acting and without actors, to just really be a person in front of camera, and not a character.

It was the opposite of anything I learned in acting on how to be a good actor. I had to forget all of it and just be myself. I didn’t think I’d be necessarily good at it, but the audition came, and I went out on it, and [the producers] were crazy enough to give me the job. The only thing crazier would be turning it down.

Did your work shining shoes help get people comfortable being on camera?

Absolutely. Even though I’m an actor, I’m not famous. Not even close. So, it’s not like people are starstruck. Because of my upbringing, I don’t think too much of myself, or approach anything in a highfalutin way. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood, and I will always be regardless of my age, status, or stature. And that’s how I talk to people.

I think it’s important to say, “We love that you let us into your life. Thank you for sharing yourself. Have a drink, if that makes it easier, but you can say nothing wrong. It’s just about you and your culture. Don’t worry about the cameras.”

And it’s happened more than once that someone has asked when we’re going to start filming about 10 or 20 minutes after we started. That’s my job, to let people be themselves and to show people for who they are.

Has traveling to these various points around the world changed the way you approach people and socialize with them?

First and foremost, I want to be a good guest. It’s not me asking, “Where can I go and get sh*tfaced today?” I hardly ever even get buzzed on the shows. I want to learn about who [the people I visit] are and about their culture. The drinking just gets us into the scene.

Yes, we do this through the lens of a cocktail glass, but [it’s about asking] who these people are and what do they drink. Why do they drink it? What are the stories they tell? What is the spiritual connection and why choose this drink instead of all the other things they could have had? Why is this a part of their ceremonies?

In both series you’re trying a number of different drinks, some stranger than others. Has there ever been anything you didn’t like or had to fake your way through drinking?

Yes and no. There are things I haven’t liked, but no, I haven’t had to pretend. But being polite is one thing, right? I can’t say, “Wow, I don’t know how you guys can drink this, because I can’t drink any more of it.”

For instance, in Mongolia we found some nomads - no easy feat because they move around a lot and there’s no GPS that works in the Gobi desert. As the tradition goes, to be on their land you have to drink three bowls of camel-milk vodka just to prove that you’re not going to start a war and take their land.

I don’t know how they drank it, but I did because it’s a cultural insult if you don’t drink the three bowls. It was really tough to get it down.

How much are you able to insert yourself into a place before you start touring and meeting people?

We try to plan. I don’t want to misstep or make a cultural faux pas. [I don’t want to] say a certain thing or make certain gestures that might be insulting. I learn a few words to say in their language. But really, for a lot of it we are flying by the seat of our pants.

How do you choose a location?

I have very little input in that, though last year the producers asked me where I’d like to go. I said Cuba and Ireland, so that’s where we went. The year before that it was Sicily. I had relatives there and met a fan I didn’t know I had.

There’s a lot technical aspects [to deciding] because we do a lot of episodes in a year. We schedule around festivals. We have to plan around weather. Also, we look at what would be interesting visually.

We have an episode every year called “On the Rocks.” It’s an episode where we go where it’s ridiculously freezing cold, but stupendously beautiful. We drove down Lake Baikal in Siberia and drank vodka out of an inverted shotglass we created. This year, we’re going to Norway.

What’s been your biggest surprise touring bars?

That happens everywhere. For example, if I said Vietnam, you would have a visual picture of what you think it is. If you haven’t gone, maybe you think of the Vietnam War or you see the horrendous “Napalm Girl” photo. Or France, people think of the Eiffel Tower or a café they sat in and had wine and a baguette. Everywhere I’ve gone, I have a picture of what it’s going to be like, and every time I was surprised. It’s because of the people I meet.

It sounds like there’s a consistency in what you’re finding in your travels.

If there’s there one thing I’ve learned more than anything: people around the world – doesn’t matter what their color is, their religion of politics, if they’re urban or suburban dwellers, rich or poor – we are so much alike. It’s shocking we have so much more in common than we have differences.

And it’s not about that we drink. It’s the sense of humor around the world that’s so great. Every one wants to have a good laugh, joke around with their friends, to love and be loved.

I thought a lot of people were going to be so different that I wouldn’t be able to relate at all. Not true. I was recently in Norway and met the indigenous Saami people. They were so badass; the Vikings wouldn’t mess with them. The Vikings thought the Saami were mystical and had an impenetrable coat that protected them.

We met this guy who spoke very little English and had such a great sense of humor. We were joking back and forth, and even though we couldn’t quite understand each other, we got it. And just through the inflection of my voice and the intentions, he knew I was busting his chops and I knew he was busting mine. And it was so fun. Without really understanding each other, we still bonded.

Is there a place you’re hoping to see?

If you asked me that when I started, there would have been a big list of places, but I’ve checked off so many. I’ve been to six of seven continents. The only one left is Antarctica. Until penguins start moonshining, I doubt we’ll go to there.

But, I’d love to see more of the islands in the Caribbean. I’d love to go to Fiji. I’d love to see the North Pole. And I know we’re going to get to these places I’d love to see eventually.

Was there moment you were surprised this all happened to you?

Yeah, I pinch myself all the time.

Are any of your old bars still around? Can you still visit?

It’d be impossible. Lots of South Boston has been gentrified.

Does this job spoil going out for you in a standard social setting?

It changes the landscape, of course. It could remind me of a drink I had somewhere else and how different it was. It doesn’t spoil it, but how are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree? I’ve had bad drinks around the world, too.

I’ve had six thousand dollar scotch at the Macallan estate in Scotland, and I’ve had moonshine right out of still that’ll burn a whole right through your throat. I’ve had the best and the worst, so it does change things. But, it always boils down the people. I’ll just start talking to the people next to the bartender or me. And those people have their own stories, so that makes it all right.

Do you see yourself as an explorer or a social anthropologist?

I’m no expert along those lines like Josh Gates of Excavation Unknown. I love learning about new things, but I don’t take on that responsibility, because they’re not history or science shows. My shows are about having a good time with people, learning about them, seeing them in their real environments.

But if we can learn along the way, educate ourselves about the history of a place or people, I think that’s fascinating, and I love that. It’s just not the main part of the show, so there’s less of a burden to uncover every secret of these places. More so, it’s just to get to know the people. They all come from somewhere and they all have a past.

But our shows do it gently, slowly. We don’t dig with sharp tools. We just brush back and forth a little bit to see what’s there.

What’s some basic travel advice?

Don’t make too many plans. Duck into little cafes. Don’t take the beaten path, even though it sounds like a cliché, because that’s where the good stuff happens. When I come back, it’s never about the buildings and monuments or museums. It’s always about the people who I’ve met. That’s always what I naturally remember.

Have you been denied access anywhere?

No, I don’t think so. Even Turkey, who is 99 percent Muslim, let us in. I thought I would have to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who would take me down a dark alley and pull something out of a paper bag for me to drink. They drink on the street there.

Isn’t that against the law?

I met a Muslim guy who makes wine. I told him alcohol is against his religion and I asked if he was a good Muslim. He feigned offense. “What do you mean? Of course I’m a good Muslim. I made the journey to Mecca. My heart is Muslim. My soul is Muslim.  But what about my mouth, Jack?” I’ve been surprised we’ve had access to so many places.

What would the Little Jack the Shoeshine Kid think of all this?

First of all, Little Jackie would say, “Alcohol tastes horrible.” When I was a kid, some of these guys at the bar would let me try a little, tiny sip [of a drink]. I would say, “I don’t know what this does to people. It sure does good things, but it’s some bad medicine.” You’re supposed to think that when you’re eight years old.

But I would tell this little kid to listen to these stories and take them in because they will inform who you are later on in life. Listen to these people. Pay attention and forget about the 50 cents you’re going to make. Pay attention because it’s all about people in life.

Booze Traveler airs Mondays at 10pm on the Travel Channel.

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