Pálinka (Hungarian: Pálinka, Romanian: Pălincă, Slovak: Pálenka) is a traditional type of brandy (specifically, an eau de vie) that is produced in Hungary and Romania, mostly in Transylvania, a region in central Romania formerly belonging to Hungary.
Pálinka is always made from fruits only. The most common varieties are made from plums, pears, and apricots. Nevertheless, pálinka is also made from apples, cherries, honey and even from mulberry and quince. It can even be made from pomace, the residue from winemaking. Using any of these ingredients, the drink is double-distilled.
The production of Pálinka is regulated by the order 1-3-1576/89, which took effect on 1 July 2002. According to the regulation a drink can only be called Pálinka if:
1. it is made 100 percent from fruits or herbs indigenous to the Carpathian Basin and grown in Hungary or from pomace grown in Hungary, and does not contain any additives
2. is processed and bottled in Hungary
3. its alcohol content is between 37.5% and 86% (V/V).
As a consequence of the regulation, a whole family of popular products was rebranded as párlat (generic distillate). Traditional pálinkas mixed with honey were rebranded as párlat as well, even if there was no unorthodox step in the process of distillation. A cheap mixture of fruit juice and ethanol, "szeszesital" ("alcoholic beverage"), is available in Hungary, but now Hungarian law requires that "szeszesital" be labeled as such, and not referred to as pálinka.
In 2004 the European Union accepted pálinka as a Hungarian specialty, and hence its production is limited to Hungary (and four provinces of Austria for pálinka made from apricot). This caused some confusion in neighboring countries, as some claimed that producers of fruit brandies would have to pay a royalty to Hungary . This is however not the case. It is the brand "pálinka" that is protected by Hungarian and EU law, hence producers outside of Hungary are not allowed to use the brand "pálinka" for their products, but they are free to produce fruit brandies and sell them under different names.
The first records of Hungarian spirit date back to the fourteenth century, and refer as "Aqua vitae reginae Hungariae" to the aqua vitae of the wife of the King Charles I of Hungary. This spirit was probably a brandy blended with rosemary, and had its use in medicine, as both the king and the queen suffered from arthritis.
The word pálinka derives from the Slavonic stem "páliť", to distill. In Hungarian the word is most probably of Slovak origin, as "Tótpálinka" (literally Slovak pálinka) was used in Hungary to refer to alcoholic drinks derived from wheat.
The word pálinka became widespread in Hungary in the seventeenth century, but it still referred to distillates made from grain. The meaning was later transferred to fruit brandies, while wheat distillates were referred to as "crematura". Distillation became a privilege of the landlords, which led to the proliferation of home stills. Law forbade the use of bread-stuffs for distillation, hence the use of fruits. Private distilleries and factories started to appear towards the end of the eighteenth century, which led to legislation and to the introduction of a Pálinka tax.
The patron of Pálinka distillation is Saint Nicholas.
- Kisüsti (literally "Small pot, cauldron") is a double-distilled pálinka made in a copper pot not exceeding a volume of 1000 litres.
- Érlelt (Aged) is a pálinka aged for at least 6 months in a wooden cask smaller than 1000 litres, or for at least 12 months in a wooden cask of 1000 litres or above.
- Ó (Old) is a pálinka aged for at least 12 months in a wooden cask smaller than 1000 litres, or for at least 24 months in a wooden cask of 1000 litres or above.
- Ágyas (literally "On a bed") is a pálinka aged for at least 3 months together with fruits. The fruits can be of the same sort used to obtain the distillate or of another sort. To 100 liters of pálinka at least 10 kgs of ripe fruits have to be added.
A popular saying in Hungary says: what can be used to prepare jam can also be used to produce pálinka. (Clearly, for a fruit to be suitable for jam production it has to contain some sugar.) This saying suggests that pálinka can be made from a large variety of fruits, and indeed it is made from most of the fruits available in Hungary.
The most common pálinkas are made from apricots, pears, and plums. Other fruits that are often used are sour cherries, apples, mulberries and quince. Nevertheless, pálinka made from chestnuts is also available.
Pálinka made from pomace (törkölypálinka) is very popular as well, and is a typical drink in the wine producing regions of the country.
Pálinka is best consumed at 18-20 °C because it is at this temperature when the fine smell and taste of the fruits can be best enjoyed. If served too cold, the smell and the taste will be difficult to notice.
The form of the glass used to drink pálinka has a big influence on the drinking experience. The ideal shaped glass is wide at the bottom and narrow at the rim, that is, it has the shape of a tulip. The relatively narrow neck of the glass leads to the nose the smell released on the relatively big surface at the bottom of the glass, and so it magnifies the smell of the drink.
Contrary to common belief, pálinka should not be drunk as a shot, but it should rather be consumed by sips.
The quality of pálinka is largely influenced by the quality of the fruits used, hence the distiller has to choose good quality fruits with a rich taste.
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 (e.g., cherry, apricot, plum) in order avoid the cyanide contained in these seeds from ending up in the distillate. Some fruits (e.g., apple, pear, quince) will be 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 (e.g., citric acid). The fermentation is carried out in an anaerobic environment. The ideal temperature for the fermentation process is between 14-16 degrees Celsius, and the process takes between 10 and 15 days.
The third step in the production process is the distillation. There are two types of distillation processes used: in a pot still or in a column still.
Distillation in a pot still ("kisüsti" pálinka refers to a pálinka distilled in a pot still no bigger than 1000 litres) is considered to be the traditional way of distillation. Pálinka distilled in a pot still is always double distilled. In the first step the alcohol is extracted from the fermented mash, the result is called "alszesz" (low alcohol). In the second step it is the taste of the fruits that is extracted from the fermented mash. The second distillation is the one that has the biggest influence on the quality of the pálinka, and hence requires special skills. During the second distillation one distinguishes between "előpárlat" (foreshots), "középpárlat" (middle cut) and "utópárlat" (feints). The "előpárlat" is not used, even though much of the taste is contained in this cut. The "középpárlat" is the one that gives the body of the distillate.
Distillation in a column still involves a single distillation. The process is faster and cheaper than distillation in a pot still, and hence, the resulting pálinka is cheaper.
The last step in the process is aging. Pálinka can be aged in wooden casks (made of, e.g., mulberry 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.
The most alcoholic pálinkas are (informally) referred to as "kerítésszaggató" in Hungarian, which literally means "fence-ripper" (referring to a drunkard's loss of balance). These potent, home-made, "házi" (home-made) palinkas are not commercially available but are nonetheless very common.