Here at the Scotch Whisky Experience, we’re on a mission to help all of our visitors fall in love with whisky, the national drink of Scotland, but our team is made up of people from all over the world, many from countries who have their own unique drink and customs that surround it. When we asked retail team member Judit to tell us about Pálinka, the distilled spirit of her home country of Hungary, we found there were plenty of similarities to Scotch (although the final flavour is very different!)
“Pálinka is as important for Hungarians as brandy for the French and whisky for the Scots. This is our national spirit, an essential part of Hungarian culture, gastronomy and everyday life.
Like Scotch, pálinka has protected designation of origin, a legal definition for iconic regional products that is recognised and enforced by the EU. The spirit is fruity but fiery at the same time, and there are plenty of options to choose from. Like Scotland’s whisky region of Speyside, there is a high density of distilleries in Hungary (approximately one per square km). However, unlike in Scotland, some of the best pálinka is homemade.
While Scotch whisky’s main ingredient is high-quality barley, Hungarians make their aqua vitae (yes, we also call our spirit the water of life!) from the fruits they find in their summer garden. It can be sun-kissed apricot, blue plum, wild sour cherry, peach, juicy pear, grape, apple or quince and many more. We have a proverb: “all fruits want to become pálinka one day, but some of them give up their dreams.” When the fruit has given up its dream of becoming pálinka, you make jam instead!
The Hungarian Lowland – this is where I am from – is an ideal home for fruit gardens. All counties have their best production, which like the whisky regions of Scotland, helps you to find your favourite pálinka flavours. Fruits need to be selected very carefully; only ripe, healthy, clean and pitted fruit can go further for fermentation. Natural fermentation needs a couple of months; this is much longer than Scotch but also a much slower method. Unlike the wash, this syrupy liquid is kept on low temperature so the process won’t cause any chemical detraction of the fruits’ quality.
After the fermentation, the so-called “cefre” is distilled twice, just like Scotch whisky is. As we all know, whisky cannot be whisky without maturation in oak for at least three years, but this is where pálinka is different. Good pálinka does not need any maturation: it is ready for consumption as soon as the alcohol level is set (usually 37.5-55% by law).
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Here comes the best part, enjoying the drink! Pálinka is drunk straight and is best served at room temperature. Nosing and tasting is typically done from a tulip-glass that is quite similar to the copita-style whisky tasting glass. Diluting your pálinka with water (as is done with Scotch whisky to open up the flavours) is not the tradition in Hungary, however there is another way to open up and detect more aromas in your drink. Just rub a drop on your hand as it was a fine perfume and discover the fruits behind the alcohol.
Pálinka is consumed as a shot (not sipped slowly like Scotch whisky), and this way most of the aromas come to you in the aftertaste. At that point you can enjoy all the sweet Hungarian sunshine that has been locked into the beautifully ripe fruits.
This strong and aromatic spirit is consumed as an aperitif, as an essential part of the family meals, celebrations, holidays, and many believe it is also good for the health! A Hungarian always has a bottle of pálinka at home and this is the first thing to bring over for any guests to the house. It is always great pride of the landlord to offer his self-made spirit.
We also drink “for your health”, so say: Egészségedre!”
We are grateful to the following Hungarian pálinka distilleries for allowing us to use their images in this blog post: