What is Pálinka?
While Hungary is known for its incredible wine selection, what you may not know is that the country is also known for its fruit brandy, Pálinka. This liquor is known as the traditional fruit brandy of Central Europe and is to this day the most popular drink in Hungary. Dating back to the middle ages, Pálinka has long been a staple of Hungarian culture. Let’s dive in!
Pálinka is defined as a liquor, popular for its powerful flavor, potency, and fragrance.
With an ABV of 40-70% it’s enjoyed by Hungarians as a proper way to either start or end a meal. Similar to how the French treat brandy.
It is typically made by fermenting sweet and juicy fruits like plums, apples, apricots, peaches, pears, and cherries. It is then distilled twice, which explains the strong alcohol content mentioned before.
Pretty simple, and some researchers even boast being able to do it at home. We always say, try it from the experts first and then give it a DIY shot.
One of the main things that set Pálinka apart is that it is meant to be enjoyed at room temperature to maintain the taste and ABV. A national treasure, no doubt, therefore there are laws involved! Particularly the local law LXXIII of 2008, AKA "pálinka law", which is based on the regulation of generic fruit spirits of the European Union. It states real Pálinka can only come from Hungary and it is made with the native fruits that come from the Carpathian Basin region of Europe.
The process is considered precious to Hungarians, it can take up to weeks at a time from picking fruits to bottling product. After the fruit is collected, they are placed into barrels and mixed with sugar. Water may be added when using certain fruits like apples that are not quite as juicy on their own.
The fruit mixture is left in the barrels for four to seven weeks and is stirred on a daily basis to make sure all of the flavors are mixing together. As the weeks go by, the fruit eventually makes its way to the bottom of the barrel, giving you the clear, fruity notes that distinguish Pálinka.
The mixture is then heated on a low temperature in a distilling pot that is connected with a pipe to another pot used for cooling the liquor. You can see now why the making of this spirit is considered a work of art! But it wasn’t always so widely admired.
This brandy was once considered the drink of the working class. However, it is now one of the trendiest drinks in the country and is enjoyed by everyone from locals to tourists. If you find yourself in Hungary, it is available to purchase just about everywhere from restaurants to shops and cafes.
if you’re really about experiencing Pálinka and Hungarian culture in one- check out The Budapest Pálinka and Sausage Festival, held multiple times a year, with over 300 different Pálinka available for tastings. While it can be enjoyed before or after a meal, it is more common to consume it after eating because it is said to help with digestion. Many Hungarians even claim the drink is a remedy for sickness.
If a trip isn’t in your future plans soon, they do sell it online. It can typically be purchased in tall or round elegantly decorated bottles that show off the clarity of Pálinka.
A Brief history-
Hungary has always been known for its delicious wines, it’s infamous golden wine from the 1800’s has marked its place in history. Pálinka, however, stole the spotlight.
Research shoes the first mentions of something resembling Pálinka exist in records dating as far back to the 1330’s.
Something called Aqua vitae reginae Hungariae, in the times of King Charles I of Hungary, the spirit was primarily for his wife, who suffered immense joint pain from what was probably arthritis.
Pálinka was first produced in the middle of the 18th century and has evolved and come a long way since that time. Because it is considered the “fire water” or “moonshine” of Hungary, home distillers who probably invented the drink, were quickly outlawed.
Laws and rules as ridiculous as banning wheat and distilling at home on religious holidays paved the way for illegal Pálinka. The governing body even forbade the use of bread-stuffs for distillation, but tha’s when the use of fruits began.
This was mostly due to the fact that the church oversaw the production of all alcohol, but (silver lining) because they kept such good records those monks, we know that in Heves County they were brewing beer and distilling Pálinka in 1715.
For the rest of the century demand rose, guidelines were made, and production began steadily rising. By 1850 Pálinka was taxed and a monopoly was born. In 2004 Pálinka gained a geographical indication, a PDO int he EU. Still, some regions of Hungary better than others for specific fruits, despite having local variations they are still all protected with individual detailed regulations.
There is a total of eight Pálinkas with local PDO so pick your poison- Plum Pálinka of Szatmár, Apricot Pálinka of Kecskemét, Apple Pálinka of Szabolcs, Plum Pálinka of Békés, Apricot Pálinka of Gönc, Sour cherry Pálinka of Újfehértó, Pear Pálinka of Göcsej and Pomace Pálinka of Pannonhalma.
Out of all of the fruits Palinka is made from, pear is the most popular flavor in Hungary.
In fact, there is a special version where a tiny pear is placed inside of a bottle and soaked in the Palinka for months until it grows into a full sized pear. Pretty cool!
If you ever find yourself in Hungary, trying Pálinka is something you will want to add to your bucket list. Whether you choose to enjoy Pálinka by sipping it from the traditional tulip-shaped glass it is served in, or if you drink it like a true Hungarian and down it as a shot, you won’t be disappointed.
Thanks for reading, and as always...