Every country in Europe has their own special kind of alcoholic drink. For a Hungarian, pálinka is this spirit: it is a brandy made of fruit with at least 40% (but can be as high as 90%) alcohol content and is always made best at home, preferably by a relative. While staying in Hungary, you absolutely can’t miss out on this special liqueur. Traditionally pálinka is drunk before, after, and during a meal, in small, 0.2 dl doses (that’s half a shot, in case you were wondering). Hungarian pálinka is like Serbian rakija, Romanian tuica, Slovakian Slivovitza, or Italian grappa, with the main difference being that Hungarians make it out of any and every fruit imaginable. It is a delicious, but rather strong beverage with high amount of naturally occurring sugar often concealing its true power, so caution is advised.
What Is Pálinka, and How Is It Made?
Hungarian pálinka is a double distilled hard liqueur. The first batch is usually around 90% alcohol and tastes foul, so it must be distilled one or two more times to get a smooth, but still very strong drink. Fruit is fermented in barrels and then the resulting mash (“cefre” in Hungarian) is distilled. It is made 100% from fruit, and although adding a little sugar to help the fermentation process is a common practice, it is looked down upon and is somewhat taboo to talk about. Typically around 1/5th of the barrel will have clean water in it. For pálinka, all of the fruit is used, including skins, seeds, stems, basically everything you can find underneath the tree. According to an official decree made in 2008, only alcohol made strictly from Hungarian-grown fruits with no added ingredients can be called pálinka officially, and the drink must be have at least a 37.5% alcohol content.
Pálinka has relatively high sugar content, even if there is none added, as the fruit itself contains fructose. This accelerates the effects of the already pretty high alcohol content, making for a very bombastic drink, which might catch you off guard, even if you are an experienced drinker. Hungarians love to give a little too much to foreigners as well, so there are two ways to make sure you can miss a session with the porcelain god:
- Always eat food with your pálinka. An empty stomach is no place for hard alcohol, and you get can easily get sick and ruin your night.
- Allow 15 or 20 minutes between drinks, to make sure you feel the effects of the drink, as it is quite strong, and if you drink a whole bunch at once, it will hit you hard all at once, and can make you very sick indeed.
What is it made of?
The saying goes that if you can make jam out of it, it can be made into pálinka. But the most traditional pálinka flavors are plum, pear, apricot, and cherry. These four you can find in every single part of the country, along with grape. The remains of grape stalks and skins that you get after making wine are also fermented into “törköly”, a special and very harsh kind of pálinka, but rarely, grapes themselves are used to make pálinka instead of wine. More exotic fruits have found themselves in the bottom of a barrel, and there are some regional curiosities. In the South East, walnut is fermented along with the green skin it comes in. Poppy seed pálinka was a big hit last year, also fermented in the pods, and, trying to make use of global warming, fig pálinka is popping up more and more often. Dates are sometimes made into pálinka, and in the North, dogwood berry and sloe pálinka are not unheard of, either. Every berry is now being used to ferment small batches of pálinka that are sold at quite a high price, as they are a very exclusive and rare drink. Cranberry, raspberry, blueberry, gooseberry, blackberry, mulberry and strawberry pálinka have all been made before, and are all delicious.
Where to Get It and What Does It Go with?
Pálinka is best enjoyed before a meal. Having a shot or two increases the appetite, and usually, big hearty meals are eaten with it. It goes splendidly with meat and stews. Because it has a very intense fruit flavor, it doesn’t go too well with spicy foods, black pepper, or sweets, but pairs extremely well with greasy and savory dishes. A hearty bean stew or gulyás requires a shot before and a shot once you’re done eating.
There are many restaurants that cater to Hungarian pálinka. Rézangyal have their own long standing pálinka brand and their amazing restaurant, or the age old Mester Restaurant, who specialize in the famous Zsindelyes brand. The Magyar Pálinka Háza is a great store selling premium pálinka, but if you are looking for the real secrets of this drink look up Pálinka Museum on Király Street offering an enormous range of the best Hungarian pálinka on the market. And if you are partying, Instant and Fogas have a very wide selection of pálinka from a number of different companies. Christmas markets are a traditional place to try this amazing drink.
Homemade Pálinka – Should I Try It?
Homemade pálinka or Házipálinka is NOT moonshine, and is very much legal, encouraged, and has a long standing tradition behind it. The best pálinka varieties are homemade, so we definitely recommend trying some, and some people may even get offended if you refuse! Homemade pálinka is safe and is widely available, you can find it in every town, and like all homemade drinks, there is a very wide range of quality. Make sure the stuff you are buying is good, by taking a local expert with you, or by buying from an authorized vendor.