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That’s the spirit! – The rise of pálinka

Pálinka, the traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, has seen a huge resurgence in the past few years at home. But in order to maintain its position, producers would need to team up and create a brand for abroad

On the wooden counter of a stand, a dozen plump, transparent bottles are lined up. The bottles are alike except for their colored labels. “Incredibly spicy with notes of green and white pepper and lemon balm,” reads one. “Almost caramelized black cherry scent – recommended for special occasions,” goes another. By the sound of it, they could easily be mistaken with perfumes. However, the bottles contain some premium pálinkas of Gyulai Pálinka Manufaktúra, put on display at the sixth Budapest Pálinka Festival.

The journey of pálinka from the hip flasks of tractor drivers to fancy designer bottles is the result of the drink’s reinvention and its improvement in quality. Commercial distilleries began their developments in the early 2000s, largely due to trainings and tours organized by professional associations. “To learn the best practices of cognac, brandy and grappa, we traveled to Austria, France and Italy,” said Gáborné Panyik, professor at the Faculty of Beer and Distillery at Corvinus University.

Unlike old “kerítésszaggatók” (moonshine) made from rotten fruit with very high alcohol content, today’s makers use high-quality harvest in pharmacy-clean distilleries. Modern (often computerized) machinery has replaced old equipment, and a new pálinka-drinking culture has also developed. The assortment is incredibly diverse: at the festival, more than 200 different pálinka variants are listed, including wild fruit like Cornelian Cherry, rosehip or vegetables like beetroot, asparagus and bear’s garlic. Hip bottles and rare fruit, for example elderberries, are great for casual evenings out, while classy containers and traditional varieties such as Szatmári szilva (plum) highlight special events.

An increasing number of distilleries are opening tasting houses on their premises. Most recently, Gyulai Pálinka Manufaktúra – the brand you are most likely to come across these days thanks to their heavy marketing – launched a new tasting house in Gyula. For some time now, pálinka routes in three regions have been awaiting the spirit-keen tourists. It seems that pálinka has evolved quite like wine, but in far less time.

In the past couple of years, pálinka has seen a spectacular rise: it has been the only alcoholic drink not to have been shaken by the crisis; in fact it has managed to achieve a huge rise in consumption. Yet this rapid growth can be misleading, according to Róbert Maros, organizer of the festival and head of Magyar Pálinka Marketing Nonprofit Kft: “During the crisis, pálinka could expand as the consumption of other, mainly import premium spirits dropped.” Growing demand has made this spirit appealing to investors, many of whom opened their own distilleries or created new brands.

However, about a year ago, demand peaked and left many makers with containers full of unsold spirits. An obvious move to empty those tanks would be to sell their content abroad. But because most of the HUF 7–8 billion in EU-backed funds was spent on technological developments, market-building never happened. “We have pálinka, but we don’t have a brand,” Maros noted.

Building a brand from excellent quality material should not be so difficult, but with pálinka it has several hurdles. One is financial: currently the government is way too preoccupied and cash-strapped to work out and support a pálinka marketing program. Another one concerns varying production methods (see below) and unfortunately cannot be solved with a capital injection. Yet as long as the producers are not on the same page, it is impossible to create a national brand for export. “First, the industry should agree on what pálinka is,” Maros said. He also suggests that tasting criteria – which according to many, currently favors single distilled pálinkas at national competitions – should be reviewed.

Another proposal promoted by Maros is blending. “All major whiskeys or brandies are blended and sell well because they guarantee the same taste regardless of the year. Yes, some say that pálinka, just like wine, varies by year, but people expect consistency from spirits,” he added. In part, that is the reason why “Az év pálinkája” (Pálinka of the year) was created. The blend of ten high-quality plum pálinkas was just revealed at the Budapest Pálinka Festival.

Consistency is also needed to comply with the protected designation of origin that pálinka was granted in 2002. To guarantee quality in the long term, the Faculty of Beer and Distillery at Corvinus University is working on a system that would give a trademark to pálinkas passing multiple analytical and taste tests. “Pálinkas by commercial distilleries need to be identifiable,” Panyik said. “But to get foreigners to like it, home-made spirits must be of high quality, too.”

 

 

Pálinka can be distilled in different ways: most often in a pot still or in a column still. Also, it can be distilled either once or twice. There are distillers who believe that traditional pálinka can and should be created with double distillation, while others claim that single distillation is better as it helps preserve the aroma and taste of the fruit.