Pálinka, my love…

Pálinka is appetizer before a family lunch, mood enhancer on a friendly party, an obligatory turn at celebrations, and it’s an insult to reject – though this latter is just a bad habit. Hungarians have a saying that means ‘Good morning with pálinka!’ and there are many other ‘nicknames’, you can call it: ‘fence-ripper’ (kerítésszaggató), ‘don’t-tousle-me’ (nerángass) or ‘my grandpa’s muter’ (nagyapám némítója). What you can use for making jam, you can also use for making pálinka – that’s how our old saying goes. You can even still beetroot or poppy-seeds.

Barackot válogató nők (1964) - Thorma János Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

It is strange that this spirit was called in many ways even centuries ago; it always inspired people’s fantasy – maybe because your thoughts fly more creatively after a few shots. The most widespread name ‘pálinka’ comes from the 16th century and has Slovak origins. In the beginning, it referred to only distilled spirits made of grains, and centuries later, its meaning was expanded, mainly meaning liquors made of fruits nowadays.

The earliest Hungarian records imply that they appeared in the 13th or 14th century, when people used ‘égettbor’ (hard liquor made by distilling wine) or aqua vitae (distilled wine with herbs) against gout and arthritis. For example, King Charles Robert’s wife Queen Elisabeth cured herself with wine-spirit mixed with rosemary. As of the 15th century, hard liquor was already made for drinking, and more and more people consumed it since the 16th century. Spirits were made of distilled grains, marc, draff or fruits, and even spoiled wine. The ancestor of fruit liquors is the plum pálinka (‘szilvórium’) that was first mentioned in Imre Thököly’s accounts.

Vendégek a Pilvax étteremben, Budapest, 1961 - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Distillation was first regulated centrally in 1799, and pálinka tax was first levied in 1836. Spirit distillation became concessionary as of 1850. Regulations were continuous later on as well: prohibition was introduced during the Council Republic. The period called ‘half stilling’ (feles főzés) lasted from 1951 to 1970: half of the pálinka made by cooperatives had to be surrendered to the state. They typically skimped healthy fruits from stilling, which resulted in bad quality, sometimes undrinkable, pálinka. During the following decades, swills and flavoured spirits were still traded under the name ‘pálinka’ and were popular due to their low prices.

Traditions of the period were saved on the pages of the documents about folk viniculture of Somogyszentpál from 1967. These records were uploaded in our database by the Rippl-Rónai Museum of Kaposvár.

A Magyar Likőripari Vállalat dolgozói (1983) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Presently, the pálinka law of 2008 regulates from what and how people can distillate pálinka. According to the amendment of 2010, private persons are also allowed to distillate pálinka for personal consumption, with certain criteria. As of 2004, the word ‘pálinka’ can be used exclusively to the distilled spirits made of fruits and grape marc grown in Hungary and bottled in Hungary, containing at least 37.5% alcohol, being free from any kinds of additives, flavourings or colourings – except for the aging on fruit bed in wooden barrels naturally.

Pálinka consumption – almost a cult – has rich folk traditions in Hungary. Rhymes on pint-bottles can be considered as folk poetry as well. They are drinking-songs that personalize the pint-bottle that praises its drink in first-person singular, exhorts to drink and names or introduces its owner. You can see pint-bottles digitised in 3D with unknown poets’ rhymes on them, uploaded in our database by the Finta Museum of Túrkeve.


Translated by Zita Aknai