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Hungarians and their Palinka!

When we visit Hungary, pálinka is always a part of the package! Our relatives make their own and it seems to be one of those things everyone is happy to share and show off. I never quite know what to make of it except once it is “down the hatch” my belly feels strangely warm and I am more willing to try to speak in Hungarian because my inhibitions are down. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between feeling brave and staying focused when pálinka is involved. Let’s hope I didn’t say anything really ridiculous to my relatives!

In the photo above, you will notice that some of the pálinka is absolutely clear — that is the true version. If you look closely, you will see that the far left bottle does not say pálinka because there are specific rules as to what constitutes true pálinka. However, if you are a beginner, you might want to start off with the lighter versions because pálinka can be pretty intense!

For some reason, there isn’t much pálinka being brought into the United States at the moment. We have been asking around and it seems there are no answers just yet but there are a lot of people are looking for pálinka in the U.S. and have been unable to get their hands on it. It isn’t as plentiful as it used to be, that’s for sure! We will keep you updated as we learn more about what’s going on!

When we take our tour groups to Hungary, we always sample pálinka and we often we go to a distillery to learn more about the process. At the moment, the only way to get pálinka is to visit Hungary and bring some back in your luggage or have a friend who is visiting you bring it over.

A few years ago we had the opportunity to catch up with Szilard Nedoba, who had been importing pálinka at the time. We don’t know when pálinka will be consistently and all across the U.S. again. but, in the meantime, you will have to be content with learning more about the process until you are able to find some or visit Hungary:

What are the traditions behind this drink? What exactly is it and why is pálinka so popular?

Pálinka is so integral to Hungarian culture that it’s celebrated during festivals and ranked and rated at contests. People in Hungary take pride in their fruit brandy; some consider it a part of a healthy lifestyle and use it for wellness or medicinal purposes. True pálinka only comes from Hungary and is made with fruits native to and harvested from the fertile Carpathian Basin region of Europe. The drink’s history can be traced back hundreds of years, and it’s no doubt that ancestors of today’s Hungarians were plucking sun-ripened fruit from trees to ferment and distill into a drink with impressive powers. Authentic pálinka should allow the fruit to stand on its own merit without the addition of sugars, flavors or coloring. It is 100% natural and gluten free.

What are the secrets to high quality pálinka? What is the typical alcohol content?

The geographical and the climatic endowments of Hungary allow the production of fruits in excellent quality. Good raw material is the basis for good products, and this is also true of pálinka.

These are the four secrets of making excellent-quality pálinka:

• Fully ripe, healthy and intact fruits – rich in taste and aroma – are used as raw materials;
• Careful mash-making and fermenting;
• Modern and sophisticated distillation;
• Resting and bottling – perhaps aging – the pálinka

In addition to this, it has to be known how much real pálinka can be distilled from how much fruit. For example, in the case of apricot, 14-15 liters (3.69 gallons) of excellent pálinka can be made from 100 kg (220 pounds) raw material. The first, and perhaps most important aspect is that good-quality, ripened, selected and cleaned fruits should be used in the course of processing. The traditional double distillation process results in a strong alcohol content of 40 to 70 percent, but on U.S market we launched the 40% Alc.

What is the difference between házi (home distilled) or less expensive pálinka and a higher quality brand? Do you have any ideas about how to tell the difference between a lower quality and a higher quality?

The quality of pálinka is largely influenced by the quality of the fruit used, hence the distiller has to choose good quality and perfectly mature fruit with rich taste. Homemade pálinka is not always distilled from ripe fruits which means those cuts will lack the flavors and never get the fragrance. Házi pálinka is definitely higher in alcohol and difficult to drink for most people.

What are the typical flavors of pálinka? Are there any unusual flavors?

Pálinka is often sold in tall and round elegantly shaped bottles to show off its clarity or color. Some popular types of fruit brandy include apricot, plum, cherry and pear but these days there are other flavors available. Unusual flavors include elderflower and sloe.

Can we go into some more detail about the process? How long does it take to distill pálinka?

The first step in the production process is the preparation of the fruit mash. The stony seed is removed from the fruits that have such (cherry, apricot and plum) in order prevent the cyanide contained in these seeds from ending up in the distillate. Some fruits (apple, pear and quince) are ground in order to make the mash soft.

The second step in the production process is the fermentation. Some fruits, like quince, require an additive to start the fermentation process (citric acid). The fermentation is carried out in an anaerobic environment. The ideal temperature for the fermentation process is between 14–16 °C (57–61 °F) and the process takes between 10 and 15 days.

The third step in the production process is the distillation. Pálinka is either pot stilled or column stilled. Pálinka distilled in a pot still is always double distilled and is considered the more traditional process. In the first step, the alcohol is extracted from the fermented mash and the result is called low alcohol. In the second step, the taste of the fruit is extracted from the fermented mash. The second distillation has the biggest influence on the quality of the pálinka and thus requires special skills.

The last step in the process is aging. Pálinka can be aged in wooden casks (made of mulberry and oak wood) or in tanks made of metal. Not all varieties of pálinka can be aged in wooden casks because the wood can cancel the fruity taste of the drink.

Click here for a short video on the history of pálinka!


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