How to make Hungarian palinka

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Hungarians have a proud tradition of making pálinka at home and if you’re thinking of making your own then here’s a basic introduction.

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Feeling Adventurous?

Pálinka is the national drink of Hungary and is much loved, or indeed loathed by anyone that’s tasted it. Hang around Hungarians and it won’t be long before someone ushers you over and proudly produces a clear plastic bottle from their bag, a special treat that’s inevitably been brewed their grandfather or uncle.

For the uninitiated, pálinka is a brandy traditionally made from plums, pears, apricots or cherries and it’s strength can range anywhere from 40% – 80% depending on how it’s been produced.

Don’t attempt it for the first time without some previous brewing experience or some supervision from an expert, it can be dangerous.

Fermenting Your Fruit

If you want to be truly traditional then head to your local farmers market just after harvest to get the freshest produce. Don’t skimp, 8 kilos or more is a good start. Next you need to take the fruit home, wash it and most importantly de-stone it. Stones contain trace amounts of cyanide and you don’t want to be offering too much of that to your friends and neighbours.

Once the fruit is ready you need to get yourself a fermentation bucket, pile in your fruit and then add some water if needed along with yeast. Some people add other nutrients and vitamins but it’s not a requirement. Finally try the fruit beforehand, if it’s not too sweet then go ahead and add some sugar. But beware, it will increase the strength of the pálinka and purists might look down on you.

Between 4 – 6 weeks should be about right to fully ferment the fruit. What’s really important is stirring the mix every day. Once ready the fruit will sink to the bottom of the bucket and clear fruit wine will rise to the top.

Distilling the Pálinka

The next step is to distil. This process requires more technical equipment. If you don’t fancy the expense or effort then you can take along your fermented fruit mash to a distiller and they’ll do the work for you, for a cost. But if you are feeling adventurous you can do the whole process at home provided you’ve got some space. You’ll need yourself a still and a whole day to spare.

The process of distillation is based on evaporation and condensation and is traditionally done in a particular type of copper distiller called a kisüsti. The mash is poured into one pot and a furnace slowly heats the mixture to 78 degrees celsius, the boiling point of ethanol. During the process, toxic elements dissolve in the steam. The gas then travels through pipes where it cools, to a second pot where it condenses.

To produce the finished product you then need to distil this liquid for a second time before ageing the finished pálinka, usually in metal casks and sometimes with added fruit to give extra flavour.

Want a more in depth explanation of the process? Check these detailed instructions:

Enjoy Your Pálinka

There is a right way to drink pálinka. First and foremost never refuse one when offered, unless you’re driving or pregnant of course. Palinka can be enjoyed before a meal, during one, and indeed after. In fact just about any occasion calls for a little tipple. Being so celebrated there is even a yearly pálinka festival in Budapest. There are also plenty of places to buy and taste good pálinka if you can’t make it yourself.

Some people might tell you that pálinka is a shot not sip-type of drink, but that’s a misconception. Good palinka should always be served in a tulip shaped glass so it can be swirled and sniffed, allowing you to capture the aroma like you would with a fine wine. And speaking of aroma, pálinka is best served at 10-20 degrees Celsius to ensure the best flavour.