Pálinka: Hungarian Fruit Brandy

Palinka (brandy) bottles, Magyar Palinka haz, Jozsefvaros.
Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Pálinka, Hungarian fruit brandy, is a strong alcoholic beverage appreciated for its potency, flavor, and fragrance. Pálinka can be purchased throughout Hungary, sampled at restaurants, and ordered online. Some people make their own pálinka, and festivals in Budapest and throughout Hungary celebrate pálinka as one of the country's favorite beverages.

Though it’s easy to get drunk when drinking pálinka, those who make pálinka don't consider that as their goal. Making pálinka has become an art in Hungary, much like the practice of making Hungarian wine, and many people enjoy pálinka as a civilized way to begin or end a meal.

Authentic Pálinka

True pálinka only comes from Hungary and is made with fruits native to and harvested from the fertile Carpathian Basin region of Europe. The drink’s history can be traced back hundreds of years, and it’s no doubt that ancestors of today’s Hungarians were plucking sun-ripened fruit from trees to ferment and distill. Pálinka is strong, with an alcohol content between 37% and 86%. Authentic pálinka should allow the fruit to stand on its own merit without the addition of sugars, flavors, or coloring.

The brand "pálinka" is protected by Hungarian and EU law, so producers outside of Hungary are not allowed to use the brand name "pálinka" for their products, but they can produce similar fruit brandies and sell them under different names.

Pálinka is made with sweet orchard fruits such as plums, apricots and cherries. It's typically served at room temperature because part of the joy of drinking pálinka is its fragrance and flavor, both of which can be dulled if the brandy is served too cold. The brandy, drunk out of a small, tulip-shaped glass, can be taken before or after a meal, but some suggest enjoying it after a meal as a digestive.

Celebrating Pálinka

Palinka is so integral to Hungarian culture that it’s celebrated during festivals and ranked and rated during contests. Some people even take pálinka-judging courses so they can assess the fruit brandy professionally. Pálinka judges are skilled at discerning how brandies in a competition differ from one another and which ones are better than others when flavors and fragrances are compared.

In Budapest, festivals that celebrate pálinka include the Pálinka and Sausage Festival in October and the Pálinka Festival in May. These festivals offer an excellent opportunity to sample a variety of brandies from makers from all over Hungary.

Pálinka-Making Process

Pálinka is made from harvested fruits, and in the past, making fruit brandy was a way to use up fruit that was not eaten at the end of the season. The fruit is collected and placed into a vessel or barrel, then stirred to help the fermentation process begin. Fermentation takes place over the course of several weeks.

Then the fruit mash undergoes a distillation process. Though companies that make fruit brandy use large, modern distillers, some people make pálinka in their backyard with fire and a copper cauldron. Once the pálinka goes through initial distillation, it is distilled a second time.

Buying Pálinka

Pálinka is often sold in tall or round, elegantly shaped and decorated bottles to show off its clarity or color. Some popular types of fruit brandy sold include apricot (barack) pálinka from Kecskemét, plum (szilva) pálinka from the Körös Valley, and apple (alma) pálinka from the Szabolcs region of Hungary. Some pálinka is sold with fruit in the bottle.