Okay, speaking accurately, you can’t technically have a national anything without a nation, but it’s not overly whimsical to envision early colonists around the world banding together to tend to their stills, kettles or barrels long before the concept of aggregating together as a unified collective began to gel.
Today, pretty much every nation on the planet has a particular beverage it embraces as its “national” tipple. Canadians have been liquefying rye into the eponymous spirit (whether it actually has rye in it or not) since (probably) the 1700s. Okay, I can already hear the chorus of, “The Caesar is Canada’s national drink.” I hear you but I’m going to argue that a national drink shouldn’t be a cocktail; it should be something born of the land itself. Take it or leave it.
France and Italy took to wine. Poland and Russia transformed potatoes and grains respectively into vodka. The Japanese consumed rice in both solid and liquid forms (as did the Chinese). The Brits developed a taste for vodka flavoured heavily with juniper (gin). Neighbouring Ireland and Scotland indulged in uisge beatha, aka, whisk(e)y. (Though a compelling case could no doubt be made by the Irish that beer — specifically, Guinness — is their country’s national drink.) And those in the Caribbean islands discovered that the sweet residue from sugar production (molasses) could be distilled into something that in some ways was even sweeter (rum).
Many of these national libations have become international sensations. Others remained — and remain — confined, more or less, to their country of origin. Or to ethnic pockets outside their homeland. Think German schnapps, Chinese baijiu, Portuguese aguardiente, Indian feni, and, my focus here, Hungarian pálinka, a spirit that is not only strong but also strongly woven into the country’s cultural mosaic.
Pálinka is basically a fruit spirit, or eau-de-vie. But telling a Hungarian that pálinka is “just a fruit spirit” is tantamount to telling an Irishman that Guinness is “just beer,” of a Frenchman that cognac is “just a brandy.”
Paul Angyal of Toronto’s Angyal Agency, which represents the bulk of the pálinkas brought into Ontario, describes the degree to which pálinka is stitched into the Hungarian social fabric. “It is a big part of it, mostly for historical reasons,” he assured me. “The first mention of it is from the 14th century, when the Hungarian king and queen were given some of it to cure their arthritis and digestion problems. They found it so beneficial, they called it “eau-de-vie” since both were of French royal ancestry. Obviously, the word of the royals helped spread its popularity, and by the 18th century, it was a mainstay at the dinner table.”
Angyal notes that historical Hungary was about three times its current size up until the end of the First World War, encompassing large chunks of what today is Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, Ukraine and even Austria, and that the consumption of palinka was omnipresent throughout this vast landscape.
The pálinka that soothed the king and queen was likely made from distilled wine infused with herbs, and its main use was medicinal rather than recreational. The drink’s status began to change as both the quality of the raw material and the distilling equipment used in production steadily improved.
The popularity of the spirit grew over the course of time. What also grew was the government’s thirst for tax revenues. A pálinka tax was introduced in the mid-1800s, and crackdowns on home distilling lead to further enhancements to quality, as did further technical refinements, including the use of continuous column stills. Laws or no laws, illicit pálinka production proceeded prodigiously (sorry).
Agárdi Miraculum Kajszibarack Pálinka ($58)
This pure apricot pálinka offers intense dried apricot aromas with hints of clover honey, cardamom, and fresh almond skin. Surprisingly soft and gentle for a 40% ABV spirit – though some heat does kick in on the finish. Loads of dried fruit flavours with a delicate spiciness.
Szicsek Aged Sour Cherry Pálinka ($60)
Similar in many ways to the more common kirsch, this pálinka has an earthier side that weaves its way between layers of dried, candied fruit (maraschino cherry?) and suggestions of cedar/sandalwood. Earthy, spicy, and warm on the palate with distinct black cherry/cherry pit flavours and a long, elegant finish.
Panyolai Rubinmeggy Ágyas Pálinka ($52)
“Ágyas (bedded) is a pálinka aged for at least three months together with fruit. The fruit is the same kind used to obtain the fermentable distillate liquid, but it is not mashed and is placed at the bottom of the fermenting container/tank. To 100 litres of pálinka at least 10 kilograms of ripe fruit needs to be added,” Angyal tells me. This is a very unique libation that stylistically hovers somewhere in between a spirit and a liqueur. Loads of black cherry and raspberry jump out of the glass, sailing along on a wave of cinnamon, Black Forest cake, dark chocolate and (interestingly) grape jelly. A brisk tartness hits the palate first, followed up by some intense herbal sweet/sour/bitter notes somewhat reminiscent of cherry cough syrup. This was the most polarizing of the three tasted: I liked it. Other on the panel did not. In any case, very distinct and different.
Forward way ahead to 2010 and you’ll see something happen in Hungary that you’ll likely never see again: a government dissolving its own monopoly. “The state allows home distillation of up to 82 litres per year tax exempt for private consumption only,” Angyal explains. “The equipment used has to be acquired from certified dealers and is subject to regular inspection.” Whether this really was a move to give the national spirit back to the people or simply a shrewd political move by the government of the time is best left to the reader’s own discretion.
Today’s commercial pálinka (and a fair amount of the home brew) is a far cry from some of the dubious distillates from days of yore. Officially recognized by the European Union as a product unique to Hungary (referred to as Hungaricum), the quality is guarded by the “pálinka law” of 2008. It decrees that in order to be called pálinka, a spirit must be fermented exclusively from fruit (excluding concentrates and dried fruit) that has been grown, distilled and bottled in Hungary with an ABV of at least 37.5 percent.
High-quality orchard fruits – apricots, cherries and plums – are the most popular raw materials for production (though berries, apples and even quince are occasionally used). Stones are removed, thereby exposing the flesh of the fruit, while fruits without stones are mashed. The fruit is then left to ferment without the addition of sugar over a span of – ideally – 10 to 12 days.
The fermented fruit mash is then distilled using either the pot-still (or kisüsti) batch method or a continuous column still. No matter which method is used, care is taken to reserve the mid-run distillate (aka, the heart), which is the source of the purest spirit.
Once distillation is complete, the spirit rests in tank for three months to give the various components a chance to “marry” and develop a harmonious character. However, the distiller does have the option of extended aging.
“Aged pálinka matures in oak barrels for six months,” Angyal notes, adding that when a bottle is labelled “old,” it will have been barrel-aged for three years. “There are distinct taste differences,” he affirms, “especially with plum and apple varieties; both tend to mature very well, developing more complexity than the younger versions.” Érlelt on the label denotes “aged,” while Ó indicates “old.”
As with practically any libation, there are ways to maximize your pleasure when consuming. Of course, before you get into the “how,” you first have to deal with the “when.”
There’s a Hungarian saying, Pálinkás Jó Reggelt!, that loosely translates to “Wake up with pálinka!” Though there may be some upsides to knocking back a glass before (or as) breakfast, in the long run it’s probably safer to stick to coffee.
“Pálinka should be consumed as either as an apéritif, or after meals at a temperature of around 18 to 20˚C and only very slightly chilled,” Angyal suggests. “The recommended serving glass is tulip-shaped to allow the aromas to develop and be channelled out of the glass.”
When tasting, Angyal recommends taking a small sip and rolling it around in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. “Once this ‘warmup’ is completed, the rest can be drunk all at once,” he adds, noting that the recommended serving volume is around two ounces.
Angyal also points out what he refers to as “a peculiar popular custom” surrounding the consumption of pálinka: the “dry test.”
“When the glass is empty, hold it in your hand for four to five minutes; the warmth of your hand will release intense, pleasant aromas. In the order of evaporation, first the etheric head notes, followed by the more fruity, citric heart notes and finally the fruity base notes. This is the completion of the pleasures offered by this unique experience.”
The only problem when it comes to enjoying the pálinka experience in Canada is finding the stuff. Angyal’s “pálinka presence” in Ontario has gone something like this: “In 2010, there were none. In 2011, there was one. The next year another was added, then again another and another, but none at the same time. There was no continuity in availability, although the demand was there — an order came in, sold out and the next order came only months after.”
But the pálinka landscape is widening in the province, largely due to a (relatively) new online initiative launched by the provincial liquor board.
“The opening of the e-Commerce channel was a godsend,” Angyal enthuses. “Thanks to it, there are now 22 pálinka varieties available in Ontario from our suppliers for purchase online with hopefully more to come.”
Pálinkás Jó Reggelt!, indeed.