In the pursuit of perfect Palinka III

… but before the story continues … a warm welcome to folks from Germany, New Zealand and Switserland! Glad you came by to have a look! Now back on track …

Last week I drove up to Budapest to meet with Magyar László and Szabó Ferenc Ignác. Lászlo and Ignác do not only make Palinka, they make and sell their own stills. Stills especially made to distill Palinka with. Not traditional alambics, but modern designs, combining water jacketed boilers with a stainless steel column.

Apart from Palinka making and still building, Ignác and Lászlo also train people how to make Palinka. Homedistillers (remember: it is legal to distill your own drinks in Hungary) as well as professional distillers. They offer courses that cover all aspects of Palinka making. From the fruits, the fermentation process, distillation, the art of making good cuts, and ageing. A course where the trainees do all the steps themselves: they make a wash, they distill, and so on.

In short? They make Palinka, they build Palinka stills, and they teach others how to make Palinka.

Not a bad place to be in, since Palinka is having a revival. Not at all a bad place to be in, since the Hungarian government is launching a big program to market Palinka as Hungary’s national drink throughout Europe.

I have talked about Palinka making and Palinka drinking in my previous posts, so let’s concentrate on Palinka still building. What’s normal? What’s new? And how does the Palinka Master (that’s the name of Lászlo and Ignác newest design) distinguish itself from other Palinka distilling devices?

The aim they have is to create a rig that makes Palinka in one run. In one distillation. And to do it in such a way that they have control over reflux and cuts. No traditional double distilled brandy, but a marriage of old and new technology that enables them to make a better product faster.

Ignác and Lászlo started out building stills with five bubble cap plates a few years ago. That upped the ABV to such an extend that they felt too much taste was stripped out. That’s why the second design only had three bubble cap plates. I have seen two versions of the still. One has a dephlagmator on top of the column, just as we would expect. Another version did not have a dephlag. Instead, it had a return line just after the product cooler. Like that, part of the distillate could be returned to the column. Just above the first bubble cap plate, if I am not mistaken.

But now they took their design one step further. No more bubble caps, but a Cooling Management column. I would be inclined to say “a Cooling Management FRACTIONATING column”, but that is not quite the case.

The dephlag is there to create reflux, but not to reach column stabilization. The column holds a rather big sized copper packing, but not to achieve 95%+. Instead, the still aimes to reach a maximum of around 85% in the beginning of the run.

Like in a potstill, the ABV is slowly trailing off, during the run. It starts at 85% and will slowly but steadily drop to 60%. Like that, perfect alcohol collection percentages are achieved: high enough for good cuts and/or ageing, low enough to maintain maximum  taste. An enhanced potstill or a detuned fractionating still? Depends on which way you are looking at it, I guess …

Some more info on the still. The boiler is a water jacketed boiler with a gross capacity of 95 liters. The nett amount of wash you can put in is 70 to 75 liters. Off course the water jacket helps to prevent scorching. The boiler is made out of SS, but the top part is made out of copper. In that copper port sits a big 4 inch sight glass that can be used as a filling port as well. At the bottom is a 5 inch drain. In the final production it will be replaced by a 4 inch drain.

The column is very high (the ceiling measures 240 centimeters …) and is 7 centimeters in diameter. That’s just a little bit under 3 inches. The dephlag sits on top of a sight glass. Practically, the dephlag turns this still into a CM style rig.

The column is screwed on or off  the boiler. Or you can leave the column attached to the top, and seperate the top and column from the boiler together. That means you have the whole width of the boiler to throw your fruit wash in. Convenient.

The Palinka Master is normally heated by gas or by electricity. In case of electricity, a controllable 4.5 KW heating element is put in the water jacket. Optimal running speed is achieved at an over pressure of 0.5 Bar.

Finally, the distiller is equiped with a thermometer to measure the top of column temperature. The 240 centimeter high ceiling didn’t allow for the top cork and thermometer to be placed in their correct position.

What struck me as very interesting, when visiting with Ignác and Lászlo, was not just their enthousiasm in trying to find the best configuration for one distillation Palinka making. I think what surprised me most was the decision to move into the direction of a packed column. On the other hand … why not? Wasn’t I just making Pure Whiskey with the iStill 50 recently? Okay, that is a pure fractionating still, and I used a different approach, but still … I guess my real surprise was that both Lászlo and Ignác have done first tests and assure me the new Palinka Master makes a better product than their 3 plates bubble cap with dephlag. I think in my mind the idea of bubble caps being ideal for taste rich products had settled in so much, that the conscious decision to move away from bubble caps … is what hit me most: these guys are thinking out of the box and getting results that way.

How it was to visit them? It was great. I am invited to return coming summer to give the new rig a run myself. And I was explicitly told to bring the wife and kids as well, so we can have a BBQ party together.

Well, this is my last post on Palinka. The last one for the coming months, that is. What I learned? Too much to summarize in a few sentences, but I will try it anyhow.

I learned that the art of homedistilling is very much alive in Hungary. As is the rediscovery of making world class Palinka. Big commercial distillers are in for difficult times. All homedistilled and microdistilled Palinkas I drunk were by far superior to the commercial products sold in shops. The Hungarians have a proverb that translates into English like this: “A paprika may be small, but it is strong”. The same is true for the recent revival of small batch Palinka making. Small amounts, high quality.

But that is not all. The real story about Palinka is not about homedistilling or about fruits or about cellars or about different still designs. The real story about enjoying great Palinka is about the hospitality and gastronomy that surround it. The great dishes and fantastic friendships that, at least in Hungary, are Palinkas natural companions, is what makes enjoying this brandy a truly world class experience.

Picture below: Ignác and Lászlo side by side with their all new Palinka Master. Proud and rightfully so!

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