Pálinka: A Guide to Hungary’s National Drink
Pálinka. Go on, hold the á…. Paaaalinka. Take the English word pal and then add not Maya, not Aztec, but Inca. Pálinka.
Pálinka is a king amongst all Hungarikum, aka products uniquely produced and created in Hungary. Depending on who you talk to it is either a magical life-giving elixir or dangerous, vile, throat burning hell water. Those who tell you the latter probably fit into one of two camps:
A) They don’t like alcohol or
B) The only pálinka they’ve tried is cheap, cleaning fluid-Esque swill that is served up at 4 AM in the back corner of a ruin bar.
If you are still reading this article it is probably safe to assume that you at least enjoy alcohol on occasion. And it would break our little hearts if you left Budapest without trying some of the good stuff. So, without further ado, we’d like to introduce our exquisite, one-of-a-kind guide to navigate you towards the hallowed halls of fermented fruit juice ecstasy.
What is pálinka?
All countries have their own version of pálinka. Americans drink moonshine, Austrians down schnapps, in the Balkans they sip rakia and the French, always eager to romanticize anything, down eau de vie (the water of life). What all of these beverages have in common is that they have their roots in homemade distillation in the countryside. And pálinka is no different. It’s origins stem back for hundreds of years on the Carpathian Basin. The process that has been perfected over centuries of well-worn tradition.
In 1459 King Matthias condemned the peasantry for “daring to use grain to produce this burnt wine during a famine.” The first mention of the word “balenka” as a derivative of the proto-Slovakian “palenka” dates back to 1572. At that time it was more common to refer to fruit distillate as burnt wine. It was only during the 19th century that Pálinka became more formally entwined with Hungarian folk culture. The three P’s of the Magyars are said to be the wild, flat Planes to the eastern part of the country, Paprika and Pálinka. Thus is conjured the romantic image of the Magyar csikos (cowboy) drinking pálinka from a butykos (traditional flask) while wearing his szűr (decorated horse tamer coat).
During the latter stages of the 19th century and into the 20th pálinka migrated from its domain as a peasant drink of the countryside into the liquor cabinets of the upper crust consumers in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Consequentially, pálinka factories roared into existence during this time. Prince Edward of Wales (who was famously forced to relinquish the British throne) allegedly raved about peach pálinka during his visit to Budapest just before the start of World War II and its use in the so-called puszta cocktail.
In the communist era, pálinka production became severely threatened by the harsh controls placed on the state-run economy. Very few individuals and companies were given a license to continue production. Despite this fact, home distillation rarely ceased and pálinka even became a symbol of resistance for many who fiercely resented the Soviet intrusion into Hungary.
Since the fall of communism in the early 1990s commercial pálinka has bounced back into life. In fact, Pálinka is so quintessentially Hungarian that it is now protected as a geographical product by the European Union and in 2008 the drink was finally formalized by the Pálinka Act which states that the drink must fit these categories:
- It is a fruit distillate
- Produced entirely in Hungary (fermented, distilled, aged and bottled)
- Has an alcohol content of at least 37.5%
- Is made up of 1% fruit and pure water and contains no additives
How to drink Pálinka?
Well, to tell the gods honest truth you can drink pálinka any way you damn well please. However, if you want to do things properly you should abide by a few rules.
For starters, drink your pálinka at room temperature. Sure, freezing cold alcohol can be easier to drink – but that’s only because it kills the taste, and with a drink as aromatic as pálinka you will be ruining the experience if you keep the bottle in a freezer. The aromatic nature of the drink is also why you will find it usually served in an idiosyncratic tulip-shaped glass. You are meant to sip the pálinka – like a whiskey – when you drink out of glass such as this. Although nobody will blame you for exhibiting some bravery and slamming down a shot if that fits your fancy.
Pálinka is almost always drunk neat and on its lonesome. There are some modern-day mixologists who are adding the drink to cocktails – and we’ve already seen that this was done back in Prince Eddy’s day – but that is a rarity. Even in the most Hungarian of cocktail bars a pálinka mixed drink is usually reserved as a novelty item.
The truest way to drink pálinka is out of a homemade bottle. In the final section of this article, we’ve highlighted some of the best places to drink pálinka around Budapest, but if you want a truly authentic experience you’ll become friends with a Hungarian who knows somebody that makes homemade pálinka. Which is far less of a rarity than you might think, particularly if the Hungarian you meet has friends or family from outside of Budapest.
Most Hungarian’s you talk to claim that homemade pálinka is the only true pálinka. It is often harsher than its mass-produced brethren, sometimes reaching 65, 70, and 75% (sometimes even stronger), but at its best is packed with magical flavours that will stay with you much longer than the stuff you get at a bar.
And what about the flavours! As we’ve already made mention pálinka must be produced from fruits found in Hungary. But that leaves a whole lot of fruits at the pálinka maker’s disposal. Of course, there are some traditional fruits. that you will see more often than others: barack (apricot), körte (pear), szilva (plum), alma (apple) and cseresznye (cherry). These fruits are also accompanied by close cousins such as Vilmoskörte (William’s Pear), birs (quince), őszibarack (peach) and meggy (sour cherry). And that is only getting started.
Where to Drink Pálinka
It’s a hideaway, underground place on the cusp of District V right below the 4/6 line on Zichy Jenő utca. The street is fairly sleepy with a few bars and shops here and there. One of which, thankfully, is Az Öszvér; a veritable pálinka drinker’s paradise.
The menu for this bar is a laminated laundry list of pálinkas from all around Hungary with every flavour, type and strength you could possibly dream up. All told there are 135 pálinkas on the list and they also have some great Czech craft beers on tap.
It is a simple place with a warm wooden interior and usually some sort of rock music on in the background. If you are interested in sampling a few different flavours and obtaining that unique head rush which accompanies a prolonged pálinka session then this is the place for you.
Pálinka Bar Shop Museum
This is a fantastic, brand new institution that just opened up last year on the famous Király street. Your experience is just what it says on the tin: museum, shop, and bar. The museum is home to a quick and tidy exhibit which provides a comprehensive, interactive overview of pálinka production and information about the history of pálinka. It’s a fun and breezy introduction to the famous drink. But the real reason to head here is for the tasting.
When we went we were treated to a private ‘sommeliers’ tasting with the wonderful Natália. This is the most expensive of the three tasting options at 6,500 forints, but if you are willing to splash the cash it is well worth it. You will be guided through a whirlwind tour of premium Pálinka and have the privilege of tasting some rare flavours such as white cherry and gönci apricot. Less expensive tasting options come in at 4,000 forints (5 normal pálinkas and 2,000 forints (3 pálinkas). Your museum ticket also comes with a free shot of szilva pálinka which you get to ‘distil’ yourself through an interactive game.
A Magyar Pálinkaháza
“The Hungarian Pálinka House” is the one-stop-shop for all of your fermented fruity needs. This is hands down the best place to select bottles of pálinka in Budapest. Its chock full of so many choices that your head will spin. The shop is right on the main drag boulevard of Rakoczi ut on the border between districts VII and VIII. Its a faded out old brown and tan storefront with dim lighting so be careful not to walk by without peeking in.
Once inside you’ll be treated to a kaleidoscope of pálinkas from all around the Carpathian Basin, hand-selected from some of the best distilleries out there. If Brigitta or Adriána are working they will provide amazing tips at how to pick the pálinka that is right for you.
The shop was established by the Szicsek distillery in 2003 and has been a favourite amongst pálinka swilling locals and visitors ever since. All of the top flavours from Szicsek – which is based 2 hours southeast from Budapest in Tiszaföldvár – are on display, but there are plenty of other distilleries to choose from. They also sell plenty of pálinka accessories such as the distinctive tulip-shaped glasses which provide the best possible drinking experience.
Hintalo means ‘rocking horse’. I know that Ló meaning horse and I suppose Hinta suggests the rocking. Funnily enough, there used to be another dive called Kék Ló – aka the Blue Horse – just down the street. It was a great pub in its own right but was unfortunately closed down late last year due to some sort of kerfuffle with the government. This left Hintalo as the only horse in town. Hintalo was completely renovated earlier this year was recently fitted out with an incredibly cosy interior.
Upstairs and downstairs both have their own vibe – upstairs being better for groups and downstairs if you are solo and want to mingle at the bar or find a comfortable sofa. There are 10 different pálinkas available here at various price points and strengths. They have a comprehensive list of eclectic liquor from around the world and some great local beer. It’s not a pálinka bar, per se, but it sure as hell is a wonderful place to drink pálinka.
Zugfözde Pálinka Museum
If you are interested in wandering a bit farther afield and making a day trip out of your pálinka adventure, we recommend heading out to Visegrád and checking out the Zugfözde Pálinka Museum.
The museum is open every day of the week besides Sunday and entrance costs a paltry 800 forints per visitor. However, the best time to go is on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 6 PM. At those times you will be treated to a personal tour of the distillery and museum by the pálinka master himself. After the tour you will get to try 4 of the delicious pálinkas they make right there in Visegrád.
And Visegrád is a tremendous day out in its own right. The castle-perched town is nestled along the banks of the Danube about 45 minutes north of Budapest. To get there catch a train from Nyugati heading towards the Czech Republic and disembark at the Nagymaros stop. From Nagymaros you just have to take a 10-minute ferry ride across the Danube and be treated to a wonderful day of pálinka infused wandering through ancient castles and medieval palaces.
Some of our Favourite Distilleries
Keep an eye out for these brands that our local insider tried out while researching this article. They are all delicious, but please remember to drink responsibly.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to the beloved brandy that is Palinka. If you did, why not check out some of the other tips and recommendations we have for Budapest, and explore the pearl of the Danube like locals.