Saturday 18 September 2010

Hungarian whiskey

Half of the Irish Whiskey Society committee was lured to Hungary during the summer by one of our number, a native of that land, the famous Zoltan Vari. Naturally, given our shared interest in whiskey, we took the chance to inspect much of Hungary's fermented and distilled output while there.

Hungarian wine is well-known (and very, very good) and we were prepared to encounter the local distilled hooch, palinka, too. What we didn't expect to find was whiskey.

We stopped in the town of Békés, to tour its palinka factory. Palinka is kind of a fruit brandy, typically unaged and sold in various guises - perhaps on its own, or in a bottle with macerating fruit or blended with honey. It can be made from many types of fruit like plum, apricot, raspberry, etc. Home distillation is not allowed in Hungary but it is common to ferment your own alcohol and then have it distilled at the local palinka factory. We tried a couple of these homemade versions on our trip.

It's a very traditional drink in Hungary. One range of commercial palinkas mentioned in the leaflet I have here is "Palinka for pig killing feast (strong)".

The particular distillery we visited has a picturesque steam engine outside:

Until a few years ago, this engine provided the steam to heat the distillery's pot stills. The logo of the company still incorporates a steam engine.

Here are those pot stills:

For small batches of spirit these are used. The palinka is double-distilled. There is also a column still for larger-scale production.

This distillery seemed to be very willing to experiment. Maturation in glass with fruit for a few months seems routine but here they were testing out cask maturation too. They had both white wine oak casks and casks made from mulberry wood.

The owner of the distillery looked at his stills and looked at his casks and realised he was only a sack of barley short of making whiskey. So he acquired some malted barley, distilled it and filled it into casks. He did this for a few years. The casks had been sitting there quietly for between 7 and 10 years when we chanced across them - genuine Hungarian whiskey. Since it was just an experiment, the whiskey has never been bottled and there is no plan for its sale.

Naturally we wanted a taste so were allowed to extract a sample there and then. It was certainly unusual. The overwhelming note I got on the nose and taste was rice cakes. It was not unpleasant.

They were happy to let us take a whole bottle back to Dublin. We had a "cask strength" tasting coming up in July and this would be a bonus mystery dram. An embargo was placed on mentioning this unknown whiskey before the tasting so that is why I did not write about it at the time.

At the Irish Whiskey Society the reaction was mixed. Some did not like it at all but quite a few indicated they would take a bottle if it was not too expensive. It's certainly a curiosity. And perhaps a future competitor to Irish whiskey?