In the pursuit of perfect Palinka II

So I met with mr. Pista Német (I changed his name for reasons of privacy) last week. Pista is an old time master distiller of a formerely state owned Palinka distillery. Apart from his professional occupation, he makes his own Palinka for close to half a century now. In other words: this man knows his Palinka. We met, we ate, we drank, and we talked.

Unfortunately, he didn’t want me to take pictures of his wine cellar. It got flooded after the organization that provides drinking water made some mistakes while digging up some water pipes further down the road. Or “up” the road actually. But I could make some pictures of the Palinkas we drank and of some of the equipment he uses. And he invited me to come back  in July. His cellar will be repaired and that calls for a celebration, right?

Why is that cellar so important? It is important, because that’s the place where Hungarians age their wines and Palinkas. Don’t just think “basement”, because a cellar is much more than that! In Pista’s case, the cellar is actually placed below the basement. The basement is where you ferment your wines, the cellar is situated like half a story lower and dug out into the mountain side. It is lower so you can easily transfer your wines or mashes directly into the barrels that fill up the cellar. Mr. Newton helping mr. Német. And it is dug into the mountain side to give the barrels a constant temperature of around 11 degrees Centigrade.

How the cellar looks? Well, it is round, about 2 meters high, and 10 meters deep. Stone walled. Barrels of various sizes on either side. Snug, like a Hobbit hole. Maybe not as comfortable, but certainly a lot more interesting.

Normally, Pista told me, the cellar would hold two read wines and a white wine. And maybe about seven or eight different types of Palinka. In 15 to 250 liter barrels. For now, it just contained two red wines and two Palinkas. Luckily, three of his most precious Palinkas were taken out of their barrel and put into glass demijohns just weeks prior to the cellar being flooded, so there was something left we could taste.

Hungarians are a very Burgundic people. “Gourmants” if you like. You don’t just visit someone, have a drink, and talk. When you are invited, you get to meet the whole family, and everybody is running around cooking or serving drinks or food. Meeting with Hungarians is about sitting down, having a drink, eating a few dishes (and probably a few more), with some more drinks. You don’t just meet, you really get to know each other. “Taking care of guests” is an art form, that goes back to Hungary’s nomadic roots, where guests are treated like kings. Good and great in every aspects, except when you are trying to loose weight.

My first lesson in Palinka making? Palinka is not just about the drink. It is a way of meeting people, of creating a shared history, of getting to know one another. You don’t just drink Palinka. You eat. And in that process you get to drink Palinka and you may get to know a few good stories about how it is made.

“My Palinka,” Pista said, “is actually not just an alcoholic beverage. It is a medicine that helps digest food and lowers the blood pressure.” He told me that’s what his doctor told him. The doctor came over, had a drink or two and told Pista: “Your Palinka is a medicine! People should have a few glasses every day!”

I must say I doubted this claim at first. I must say that I am still not convinced that Palinka lowers the blood pressure. But I know for sure that anybody should have a few glasses every day! Why? Because it is darn good!

When I asked him, Pista told me that the true secret to making a great Palinka is in distilling slowly. Very, very slow is the way to go. When I asked him why, he explained it as follows: “Palinka is such a great brandy, because it is fruits being fermented and then fermented fruits being distilled. Fruits, wash, yeast, everything goes into the boiler and is heated up together.”

Contrary to the way things go when making a whiskey, there is no fast strip run. A fast strip would scorch the fruits and ruin the Palinka. The first run is done slowly, not to scorch the fruits, the second (spirit) run is done slowly, to be able to make perfect cuts.

Pista also told me the slower distillation speed gives the vapours more time to contact with the copper. Copper is essential, because it helps to minimize the amount of sulphers you get over. He also told me the copper has a positive impact on furfural transferal. In other words: it helps to keep tails abay as long as possible.

What we drank? We started with a 50% strong “Körte Pálinka”, a Palinka made out of pear. Great drink. Pear clearly there. As an aperative, so to speak.

After the entry, we switched to a 2008 “Törköly Pálinka”, a Palinka made out of the pressed grapes that remain after wine making. I think the Italians would call it a Grappa. Even though the health benefits of this “Grappa” Palinka are supposed to be the best, it is a variety that I do not like so much. I guess because the taste of the grape is not so dominantly there …

Okay, after the main course, we switched to another Palinka, a “Szilva Pálinka” this time. Serbs may know this drink as Slivovitce. Again 50% strong with all the taste of plumes there. Great drink.

Just before we switched to the pancakes that pretty much finished the great meal, we switched to “Barack Pálinka” or peach Palinka. A bit sweeter and therefore a great companion to deserts. This seems to be an easy to make Palinka, because peaches give of a lot of taste. Maybe for that reason, it is not at the top of the lists of what Hungarians consider perfect Palinka. But I liked it a lot! So much so, that I tried a few more glasses.

Not to speak of the great Tokaj wine that we drank. King of wines, wine of kings? That kinda stuff.

And maybe there was some truth in Pista’s claim that his Palinka actually is a medicine, because the next day, when I woke up, I didn’t have any head ache. I felt perfectly fine. Palinka vs. Asperine: 1 – 0.

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Pictures above:

The mill used to crush the fruits empties in the receiving vessel (a square made out of beton of around 300 liters) directly.

Pista also smokes his own hams and makes his own salami.

The wooden “rucksack” was used by women collecting the grapes.

Some bottles Pista uses to “bottle” his Palinka in.

The “Törköly, Szilva, and Barack” Palinka we drank.

Some more bottles.

3 thoughts on “In the pursuit of perfect Palinka II

  1. Odin, It’s interesting that everything goes in the still, much like making gevever. It would seem that this is the secret for true flavor extraction.

    Big R

    • I think your conclusion is completely correct, Big R! In further talks I had with other Palinka makers, I learned that most of them do not even use a water bed still. Just a gas or wood fired alambic style potstill. Sometimes with an extra bottom (with holes) in. Sometimes with a sort of stirring device (usually hand operated!). And sometimes without both. The key to fine Palinka making is not just about slow distillilng with the fruits being present, it has also to do with the way they prepare the wash (if you can call it that). When you add water, you can distill a bit faster, but the wash is “thinner” and hampers taste transfer. So the best in the craft of Palinka making use close to no water and distill a very thick fruit soup that I know I would scorch in minutes if not seconds. Another thing is about adding sugar to the fermentation. Some do it to up the abv and get more alcohol. The best in the craft do not add sugar, to get maximum taste concentration. Another important thing is that most fruits already have a lot of yeast on their skins. What kinda yeast? Well, normally the kind of yeast that happens to feast upon that special kind of fruit. So after the fruits are milled, they are just left to ferment. No need to add extra yeast. No need to close the fermenter …

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