Pálinka, the Peerless

Pálinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy, so Hungarians say.. Our grandfathers liked to start the day with a small glass of good pálinka and were convinced that they owed their health to the benevolent effects of the distillate. Well, we're not sure about that, but to be honest, we don't even care – it just tastes too good.

The first records of the Hungarian spirit date back to the 14th century, referred to as ‘Aqua vitae reginae Hungariae', the aqua vitae of the wife of the King Charles 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 - so not the kind of party-starter we know and love today. The word ‘pálinka' derives from the Slavonic stem pálit by the way, meaning to burn, to distil. Initially, the term referred to distillates made from grain, it was applied to fruit brandies only later. A birthday, a wedding, a funeral isunimaginable to Hungarians without a shot of pálinka, either to enhance the joy, or to ease the pain. Pálinkás jó reggelt!, is a traditional Hungarian greeting meaning Good morning with pálinka!.

Today, only fruits distilled in Hungary with a minimum alcohol content of 37.5 percent can be considered authentic pálinka. Still there are so many varieties. To avoid confusion at the counter, let us take a look at the main types you can choose from. Kisüsti (literally a small pot) is a double-distilled pálinka made in a copper pot not exceeding a volume of 1000 litres. Érlelt (meaning aged) is a pálinka aged for at least 3 months in a wooden cask smaller than 1000 litres, or for at least 6 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 (bedside) is a pálinka aged for at least 3 months together with fruit. The fruits used to obtain the distillate can be of the same sort or of different sorts. Törköly (pomace pálinka) is a pálinka made from grape pomace. It's actually one of the oldest types of pálinka; it helps digestion, and is usually consumed in small quantities after meals. Want to go for the best of the best? Look for the products of award winning distilleries, such as the pálinkas by Nobilis, Etyeki Czímeres, Agárdi, Tarpa, Kisrét and Zwack.

So much for theory, let's get to practice – how to enjoy Hungarian pálinka. The aromas come out best at room temperature, so you shouldn't drink pálinka straight from the fridge, but for most of the people the comfortable temperature is around 10-15 °C. If the temperature is right, lift your glass in the air and call Isten, Isten, literally meaning ‘God, God'. Here, you find yourself at a fork in the road. You either do it in the shabby-pub-on-the-corner way, sending the whole portion down quickly, slamming the glass on the table and make a life-is-hard face (the strong alcohol should help with the grimace). Or you can go all gourmet and savour the aroma by swishing the liquid around in your mouth and under your tongue so that your taste buds can fully absorb the beverage. To double-check if you had made the right choice, you might even go for the so-called dry test: after drinking one glass of pálinka, wait five to ten minutes and then inhale from a second glass - you should be able to detect only a fruity aroma if you are drinking true pálinka. Egészségedre!

Best places to drink pálinkas in Budapest.