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The history of pálinka
 
 

A historical overview based on the writings of Géza Balázs.

While fruit brandies are produced all over the world - from pisco in Chile and Peru and rakije in the Balkans, to Italy's grappa and Edelbrand in Germany and Austria - none match pálinka for diversity of flavour and character. There are hundreds of varieties of Hungary's oldest drink, all of which take on the subtle characteristics of the Carpathian Basin's unique fruit varieties, climate and soil, as well as local traditions passed down through the generations.

The word pálinka is of Slovak origin; "Tótpálinka" (literally Slovak spirit) was used in Hungary to refer to alcoholic drinks derived from wheat. The meaning was later transferred to fruit brandies, while wheat distillates became known as "crematura".

In the 19th century, breweries and pálinka distilleries operated in tandem. Comenius described the equipment used to make pálinka in "Orbis sensualium pictus" ("The World in Pictures"), his famous book written for children in the Hungarian town of Sárospatak. Distilling itself was the right of landowners, while laws were introduced to prevent peasants from making pálinka at home. The use of wheat was banned and distillation was forbidden on religious holidays. Despite this, the church still oversaw alcohol production. Records show that Cistercian monks in Heves County were brewing beer and distilling pálinka in 1715. The role of Jewish lenders and businessmen also grew with the production of alcohol and Saint Michael was designated patron saint of distilling. Textbooks and publications also began to appear on the subject around this time.

The larger scale production of distillates, pálinka and liqueurs from 1799 resulted in guidelines being drawn up for distillation and the priority rights granted to landowners were made law. It wasn't long before a pálinka tax was introduced and by 1850, distillation was a state monopoly. In 1920, there were 260 pálinka distilleries in Hungary, a figure that grew to 1,070 in 1970 before falling back down to 815 in 1982. In the meantime, various laws were introduced to restrict production, including prohibition during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 and splitting of production 50-50 with the state from 1952 to 1970.

Illegal home distilling became popular in the 18th century when peasant breweries were shut down. The practice was fuelled by the desire to make use of fruit that had fallen from the tree and could not be eaten coupled with the knowledge that making pálinka at home was much less expensive. Because the end product was often inferior, this produce was reserved for personal use and only offered to friends and guests.

Although this practice is dying out, illegal distilleries established for commercial purposes have made it necessary to intensify checks and introduce stricter laws in recent years.
 

 
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