4 Essential Drinks of Central Europe
Photo: Locals Drinking at Kisüzem in Budapest
Everyone knows that food is an important part of culture, and sampling the gastronomic offerings of a particular area is easy enough for the cultured traveler to do: simply seek out the local cuisine and eat it. The sort of cultural exploring that relates to alcohol is usually more of the pub-crawl flavor though, and it's impossible to participate without feeling like an insufferable tourist who is drinking in a high-traffic, tourist-filled area. Pretty uncool.
As an alternative, I like to experience a different culture by drinking the regional alcohol in local bars, with local people. These are my favorite liquid offerings from Central Europe, and recommendations on how to enjoy them. Na zdraví/zdrowie, egészségedre, and noroc!
Photo via Rudolf Jelínek
SlivovitzWhat it is: plum brandy, traditionally using plums of the Damson variety. Clear (if it's aged in glass) or sometimes amber (if it's aged in wooden barrels, typically oak) in color.
Where it's from: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia. A few countries in South-Central and Southeastern Europe also produce slivovitz.
What it tastes like: dry, bitter, and extremely heady. Not for the faint of heart.
How to drink it: chilled, as a shot. If you haven't worked to develop a palate for sliv, drinking it neat and/or drinking a larger quantity may make your eyes water. Also suitable as a digestif or in a hot toddy.
Where to drink it: with locals, preferably people who distill their own and are willing to share, because homemade slivovitz puts the commercially available stuff to shame. Otherwise, visit the infamous Stodolní Street in Ostrava, Czech Republic, wander into any of the bars, and get to drinking.
Photo via Agárdi
PálinkaWhat it is: fruit brandy from Hungary that has existed since the Middle Ages. Not to be confused with the pálenka of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the palincá of Romania, which aren't subject to the same legal guidelines as the Hungarian distillate (hello, 37.5% - 86% ABV requirement!); plus, for Czechs, Slovaks, and Romanians, these can be blanket terms for several different kinds of liquor.
Where it's from: Hungary. Just as Switzerland has laws about what can legally be called absinthe, Hungary has laws for its pálinka. Rea-deal pálinka must be made of ripe fruits that were grown in the country, without any sugar or other additives. Production and bottling must happen locally as well.
What it tastes like: this depends on the flavor. The brandy can be made from plums, pears, apricots, pomace, apples, sour cherries, quince, and mulberries. Basically, if it is a fruit with any sugar in it, it can be made into pálinka. Regardless of the variety, this is another liquor which packs a serious punch.
How to drink it: always drink at room temperature. Shots are the standard serving size.
Where to drink it: every bar in Hungary has it. I've had several good nights drinking this stuff and chatting with the young, predominantly local clientele at Kisüczem in Budapest (Kis Diofa utca 2).
Photo via Taste Hungary
UnicumWhat it is: herbal liqueur. Unicum is dark brown in color and made using a blend of 40+ herbs and spices. It's been around since 1790, when it was created by the doctor of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor of the Habsburg Empire, for medicinal use.
Where it's from: Budapest, Hungary
What it tastes like: a stronger, medicinal Jägermeister, but in a good way, and without the anise in Jäger that turns so many stomachs. It has a warming effect, which is especially nice during the colder months.
How to drink it: Hungarians tend to drink unicum at room temperature, but noobs should go for a shot poured from a frosty bottle. As someone who didn't grow up with Grandpa drinking it before breakfast (yes, older people in particular consider this an appropriate early-morning treat because of its medicinal qualities,) I can still say that this is a very drinkable liqueur which can be sipped comfortably. It's great as an aperitif and as a digestif, and is also helpful in treating colds, sore throats, and upset stomaches.
Where to drink it: again, every bar in Hungary will have this on hand. If you're in Budapest, check out the fantastic local performance/event space called MÜSZI (Blaha Lujza tér 1).
Photo via Karlovy Vary
BecherovkaWhat it is: a 200+ year old Czech bitter liqueur. Like unicum, it was created with medicinal use in mind.
Where it's from: Karlovy Vary, a spa town in the Czech Republic
What it tastes like: a little spicy and highly aromatic, with obvious notes of cinnamon and clove. It basically tastes like Christmas smells. The recipe is a closely guarded secret, but at least 30 herbs and spices are part of the mix.
How to drink it: both chilled and room temperature are fine, but for your first go, drink it straight. Once you've experienced the drink as it was intended, try mixing it with tonic water (known as a "beton," a compound of the two ingredients' names, which actually means "concrete" in Czech) and add a twist of lemon. It is also surprisingly delicious with apple juice. When drunk straight, it's great for an upset stomach and as a digestif in general. Becherovka Lemond, the citrusy cousin with a lower alcohol content, is also an option and perfect for shots.
Where to drink it: you don;t have to travel all the way to the Czech Republic to get your hands on this herbal liqueur. Becherovka is owned by Pernod Ricard, so the U.S. distribution is fairly expansive. Still, if you find yourself in Prague, pick up a bottle from a local potraviny for pre-drinks, or opt for a night of drinking it while you shamelessly dance to cheesy 80s and 90s music videos at Lucerna Music Bar (Vodičkova 36).
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