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In Praise of Slivovitz, Eastern European Plum Brandy
Let me share a recent conversation from when a friend stopped by for dinner.
Guest: What are you drinking?
Me: I'm having a nightcap of slivovitz.
Guest: What's that?
Me: It's Eastern European plum brandy. Try some, it's good!
Guest: [skeptically sips] Gah! What the hell, Max? I thought we were friends!
And that, friends, is why I mostly drink alone these days.
It's true, slivovitz isn't always easy to love (though the same could be said for the suddenly hip Fernet Branca), and it's hardly a world-class spirit. As one Chowhounder eloquently put it, "it tastes like jet fuel to the uninitiated." But if you haven't tried slivovitz before, I want to make the case that you should. There's a niche in every bar that only punchy, fruity brandies like grappa or slivovitz can fill.
The bookish among you may have heard of slivovitz by way of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, where it's the chosen drink of the self-hating Alaskan Jewish detective protagonist. It's an extreme characterization of your average slivovitz drinker, but not wholly inaccurate. But hey, as seedy alcoholic representatives of a spirit can go, sliv could have a far worse ambassador.
I'll admit to a home team bias in favor of the stuff. I drink gin to feel spicy, Scotch to feel accomplished, and bourbon to feel patriotic—but I drink sliv to feel at home. As a child of proud "we don't know if we're really Polish because the Russians invaded and changed the borders twice a year" ancestry, raised on dinners of lush beets, sweet carrots, and pungent pickles, I have a hardwired taste for the heady, fruity, and feisty flavors of slivovitz.
But there's more than childhood sense memories to speak in praise slivovitz—it's part of a long, proud tradition of Eastern European drinking to celebrate, forget, and everything in between. If you have an old Slavic grandfather with a penchant for hooch, you probably know what I'm talking about—especially if you're Jewish. Fernet may be the liquid handshake of bartenders, and vespers the chosen cocktail for James Bond villains, but sliv is the zaftig potable of adorably bitter Jews everywhere. I may not have honored my ancestors by learning their Yiddish, but at least I can drink their ghosts under the table.
Slivovitz was probably developed as a homespun way to deal with excess plums; purists will assure you that the best stuff is still made in small batches at home. The crafting process is simple: mash some ripe plums, let them ferment with some of the cracked pits, and distill the juice. Dilute the distillate to 40 to 50% alcohol, and if you're not partial to the, well, particular taste of plum moonshine, age it for 2 to 10 years in a barrel, preferably oak.
Most commercial slivovitz is bottled around 100 proof, so it runs hot on the nose and palate. But the aroma is unmistakably plummy, the jammy sweetness of stone fruit tempered by strong notes of almond and oak. The better brands in my experience have some age on them. This is hardly top-shelf liquor to begin with, and oak tames some of the raw alcohol fire that results from less than stellar distilling.
How to Drink Slivovitz
Straight slivovitz is best suited to what I'd call situational drinking. In the depth of winter I'll knock back a well-chilled shot to take the edge off a rough day, ideally just before tucking into a plate piled high with fried potatoes, braised cabbage, and sour cream. It's also perfect for lonely nights of morose self-reflection: harsh enough to point out all the mistakes you've made, but sweet enough for some blanket forgiveness. In such cases, I find chilling the bottle an unnecessary dalliance. The same goes for pouring it into a glass.
From a pure taste standpoint, slivovitz reaches its height when served in a warm cocktail. It's essential to my mulled wine and cider, as it enhances the drink's aromatic properties while adding layers of fruit flavor.
It also makes a lovely hot toddy: a shot or two, with honey, lemon, and hot water makes my family's version of the famed yiddishe cold remedy, the guggle muggle. Some finely chopped dried apricot and candied ginger in the bottom of the mug isn't a bad idea either. A couple of these, in toddy or ice cream form, is a vital part of my cold recovery regimen.
Slivovitz is surprisingly versatile in the kitchen, and aged versions can substitute for brandy in most recipes. I'm partial to a splash in spice cakes and tart crusts, where its harsher attributes are baked out. Its bulks up fruity flavors in sauces, compotes, and preserves with a more straightforward fruit flavor that brandy can provide.
Brands of Slivovitz
Since you can find slivovitz all over Eastern Europe, there are plenty of brands to choose from, especially if you visit a liquor store in a neighborhood with those communities. But your average well-stocked liquor store may carry one or two. I conducted an informal tasting of some brands commonly found on the American market. All retail for about $25 for 750 ml. Some, not included here, tasted like what cough syrup would drink if it had a cough. Here's what made the cut for me:
- Maraska (Croatia): Carries the flavor and aroma of light candied plums with a hint of toasted almond. Close to an eau de vie in flavor and body, it tastes the most honestly of plums without hitting you over the head with jammy stone fruit flavors. At 80 proof it goes down much easier than other bottles. Chill well, then knock back a neat shot with your uncle Bogomir.
- Navip 8 Year (Serbia): Heavier in body and flavor than Maraksa, and a good deal sweeter. It's marred by the uncomfortable suspicion that the "fresh, sound, ripe" plums the label advertises were a little overripe when fermented. But its sweeter profile makes it a good choice for cooking: use it to flambé some caramelized fruit for a quick dessert compote.
- Rudolf Jelínek 10 Year Gold (Czech Republic): This was my sliv of choice before my tasting, and it's my sliv of choice now. It's aged the longest of any of my samples, boasting a more complex, oak-mellowed flavor. If you didn't know what you were tasting you could think it was brandy crossed with bourbon. Not very good bourbon, but bourbon nonetheless. Use this for all your hot drinks: mulled wine, mulled cider, and yes, guggle muggles.
At the end of the day, I don't love my sliv for how it tastes. It has its virtues, but I'll admit there are much better spirits for your dollar. I love slivovitz because it reminds me where I came from. Slivovitz is a cultural tradition for me and plenty of Ashkenazi Jews, one that I feel is worth preserving. And when you compare it another element of our liquid culture—Manischewitz—slivovitz starts to look like a pretty good drink.
Spirits carry stories of the people that made them, and offer a visceral way for natives and curious outsiders to experience their history. Gin speaks to Western imperial fascination with the exotic flavors of its colonies. Plucky and punchy bourbon is as American as the grits and apple pie it so improves. And slivovitz? To me, it represents an ethic us Eastern European Jews are all too familiar with: we're all in this together, for better and for worse. So in the interest of cultural history, drink up.
Disclosure: Navip sample provided for review.