Before my recent trip to Hungary I did the requisite research: I looked up the important holiday words (Please, Thankyou, Hospital, Bail, Embassy) and, most importantly, what the local speciality spirits were. Two popped up – Palinka and Unicum.
Palinka has various descriptions ranging, depending on the opinions of the person doing the describing, from fruit brandy to schnapps to death in liquid form. It’s a clear spirit distilled from fruit and still retaining some of the fruity flavour of its ingredients. Palinka as a term has been pretty widely applied to a variety of fruit based booze over the years, but since 2002 it has been enshrined in EU law as coming from Hungary (and a few places in Austria in the case of apricot palinka) and restrictions have been placed on the definition. Only certain fruits can be used (Plum, apricot, pear, cherry, quince, grape and maybe chestnut) and there are also designations for various aging techniques (lengths of time, wood or steel containers, with fruit in or not). Unfortunately I didn’t get to taste much in the way of variety – one with some fruit in and the rest just clear, young (as far as I could tell) fiery palinka.
Pajor Mézes Ágyas Cigánymeggy (Cherry) Palinka – Mézes means honeyed and ágyas (literally ‘bedside’, according to Wikipedia) indicates that the palinka has been matured with fruit in for at least 3 months. This was the first that I tried and the least favourite on the table. Coloured red from the steeped fruit and tasting strongly of fresh cherry it was very sweet and cloying from the honey.
Kecskeméti Barackpalinka – Apricot palinka from the Kecskemét region, one of the combinations of fruit and area that has been made a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). I couldn’t make out the producer on the label and my internet searches weren’t helped by the fact that almost all kecskeméti apricot palinkas use a similarly shaped tall thin bottle. This one had a fantastic fresh apricot nose, with both sweet and sourness coming through. However, it tasted like rocket fuel, with the neat alcohol aquavit-like dryness swamping any fruity flavours that survived the distillation process.
Valódi Szilva (Plum) Palinka – This was the type of palinka that I was told was most common and popular, and I can both see why and not at the same time. On the nose it had very little plum, retaining a general sour fruit note and little else rather than alchohol. To taste it had a strong sour schnapps flavour which I rather liked, but which noone else at the table did. This was unfortunate as our waiter gave us a complimentary round of them at the end of the meal and being the most polite person at the table I felt compelled to drink them so as not to offend our hosts. Or so I claim. The evening is hazy from then on.
Gündel Birsalma (Quince) Palinka – The only other time I got to try some palinka, after a meal at Bagolyvar (the more downmarket sister restaurant to Gündel, one of Budapest’s oldest and most expensive restaurants). This was the best of the lot, with loads of quince on the nose and a nice combination of booze and fruit to taste.
In general Palinka was not my thing – smells like fruit, tastes like death. I pinned my hopes on the second spirit on the list – Unicum. Unicum is a brand name for a type of herby, bitter digestif produced by the Zwack family since 1790 and seemingly everywhere in Budapest. Along with the regular Unicum they also produce Unicum Next, a lighter sweeter version that I grabbed a bottle of to bring home. Zwack don’t only stick with Unicum, being also a producer of Palinka and other spirits, running tours around both the Unicum factory and their distillery in Kecskemét.
Regular Unicum is a thickish black liquid that looks rather worrying. It has quite a punch on the nose, with strong bitter herbs, liquorice and wood. To taste it’s, to me, almost unpalatable – very bitter indeed with a heavily tannic aftertaste behind the initial pleasant herbs that removes any enjoyment I might have had from it. It reminds me a bit of the bitters that I used to buy little bottles of at the supermarket checkouts when I lived in Vienna – easy for me to smuggle back to the UK as illicit booze for my 16 year old self to try and get drunk on. Filthy stuff with a flavour that stopped me from ever drinking enough to get tipsy.
The Unicum next is quite different – browny red in colour and much more liquid. On the nose it has the distinctive bitter herbs as well as a sugary sweetness and hint of citrus – a bit like candied orange and lemon cake decorations. To taste it removes the bitter punch of regular Unicum, keeps the spice and herbs, and adds a syrupy sweetness to the finish. The citrus peel, that I assume is in the bitter mix, comes out and adds a hint of bitterness to the aftertaste. It’s got an almost ‘Christmassy’ taste to it and a slug of it in a glass of red and you’d have instant mulled wine. A block of ice waters things down a bit too much, but a frozen bottle would be perfect – thickening up the spirit and adding a refreshing cold kick to the rather pleasant flavour.
Keserü likör/bitter spirit – Hungarian herb bitters, 40%
Citrosos gyógynövény-likör/citrus & herb infused spirit – Hungarian herb bitters, 30%