This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.
"Everyone in Hungary's got someone in their family making palinka," Mark Zentai, a former Hungarian teen idol, shouted into the back of his girlfriend's orange hatchback as it zipped through the dark streets of Budapest.
Palinka, Hungary's rendition of the fruit brandy ubiquitous across the Balkans, is not just liquor. It's a vital aspect of the country's culture. While it closely resembles rakija from the former Yugoslav republics, schnapps from Austria, or Romanian tuica, it holds a place in Hungarian hearts like nothing else.
Last year, amid pressure from Brussels to start taxing homemade hooch, Hungary's Agriculture Minister Sandor Fazekas lauded palinka as the "national drink." A booklet entitled "Little Palinkapedia" sings the brandy's praises, calling it "my favorite uncle" and "my true friend. It's modest, never pushy, and I can share both happiness and sorrow with it," the author, Krisztian Aldozo, writes.
Zentai had a friend of a friend living outside the metropolis who brews up the real McCoy and could explain what the fuss was about.
But Balazs Meszaros is no mere Magyar moonshiner. He made his mark as a chef working for 15 years at top-of-the-line restaurants in Barcelona, Dublin, and Oslo before returning to his native Hungary. He's given up the chaos of the kitchen, however, and has launched a Hungarian social network called Mise en Place that connects chefs and food distributors. With such credentials, it's not surprising his palinka was a far cry from bathtub gin.
Distilling brandy isn't just a culinary pursuit for Meszaros; it was a return to his roots and a means of re-forging bonds with his father after a decade of estrangement. In a cellar in the backyard of his father's house in Pecel, Balazs and his father Stephan started converting fruit into firewater four years ago.
Wearing a bristly grey mustache and just a speedo, Stephan joined us for a survey of their palinka and homemade wine, accompanied by little cheese pastries.
Although palinka-making has centuries of tradition, homemade production was outlawed and strictly enforced under Communism, Stephan said. Only five years ago did the ruling Fidesz party lift the regulations. Now Stephan and Balazs cook it up tax-free, albeit for private consumption only.
'He who drinks palinka ends up in the graveyard. He who doesn't ends up there, too.'
With the change in legislation, palinka has once again become fashionable in Hungary, Meszaros said.
"If you went to a restaurant you were more likely to get whisky, vodka, or liquor, but now that it's fashionable, everybody drinks it," he said.
Part of what sets palinka apart is the quality of the produce, Meszaros agued. Hungary has a long growing season and moderate climate, allowing fruit to ripen properly. The fruit they use is grown in the yards of friends or relatives, then collected, fermented, and distilled twice.
Which fruit, you ask? "Whatever's in season," Balazs said, standing beside his stainless steel and copper still a family friend fashioned. The most common are plum, pear, cherry, and apricot, but the most prized are berry palinkas—blueberry, strawberry, and cranberry—which lose their flavor fastest. Altogether it costs them about a dollar per liter to produce.
The Mezaroses' 2013 plum palinka, despite being a palate-walloping 52 percent alcohol, was astonishingly sweet and fruity, with distinctly plummy notes. The fruit came from Stephan's trees, and those in Balazs's father-in-law's yard. A grape palinka, made in honor of Balazs's wedding, smacked faintly of wine, but all the more so its cousin, Hungarian grappa—törkölypálinka. He called it "face-slap palinka" for its tendency to jolt your body once you toss it back.
Like anything done with family, his palinka is a cut above the commercial, mass-produced liquor available in markets, "because at home, you put your heart into it," Meszaros said.
After a few drinks, and a rambling conversation about love, loss, and liquor, Stephan summed up the Hungarian philosophy with an old Magyar maxim: "He who drinks palinka ends up in the graveyard. He who doesn't ends up there, too."
But over the border in Romania, locals claim their homemade brandy, tuica (pronounced tzoo-ica), gives Hungarian palinka a run for its money.
Alex, a software engineer living in the Romanian border down of Oradea, provided a sampling of bootleg plum tuica, traditionally served in a reused soda bottle.
To say that liquor burned with the ferocity of a coked-up lioness would diminish the anguish experienced by drinking that tuica. It set alight readily and burned furiously with a deep blue flame, proving it was a closer approximation to rubbing alcohol than a palatable liquor.
"Not bad, right?" said Alex, straight-faced.
Further into Transylvania, in the city of Cluj Napoca, some newly made friends working at a print shop specializing in fake IDs and custom-made college diplomas insisted it was the first ingredient for a traditional Romanian all-night party. One guy's father distilled a plum brandy that he aged for eight years in mulberry barrels. It made a speedy appearance in an old Pepsi bottle.
Unlike the palinka imbibed in Hungary, the tuica was copper-hued and tasted faintly of fruit left to soak in a puddle of gasoline.
Little did I know that an all-night party in Romania traditionally begins with four hours of inebriated construction work. Having set out for The Junkyard, the bar-in-the-making where the guys hung out, the Pepsi bottle passed from mouth to mouth while the guys wielded power tools and put up a ceiling. Unlike the palinka imbibed in Hungary, it was copper-hued and tasted faintly of fruit left to soak in a puddle of gasoline.
As of the time of writing, none of them have lost limbs or vision.
Multiple Transylvanians independently confirmed the existence of perhaps the most bizarre Balkan brandy: pufoaica.
"Pufoaica is a type of coat," one with a nylon shell and down filling, a presumed expert on the subject informed. "You usually take the fruits, you put them in the coat, you make it a bag, you tie up everything, and then you submerge the whole assembly into poo—into whatever poo is around the house."
He clarified with too much nonchalance what kind of poo was typically lying around a Romanian domicile: "cow, chicken, the latrine, whatever." After fermentation in the poo jacket, the resultant mash is distilled.
Thankfully, this time, nobody offered a snifter of it.