There's a shelf in every liquor store that gets less love than the others—you know the shelf I'm talking about. It's usually tucked away in the corner, gathering dust, filled with bottles with hard to pronounce names: the grab bag of foreign booze! Depending on the proclivities of the particular shopkeep, these bottles can be exotic, and sometimes frightening looking. Today we're going to demystify a few essential spirits that hail from Central and Eastern Europe.
Fruit brandies could be considered the poster spirit of Eastern Europe. There are a number of countries that subscribe to slurping the stuff, and while they drink essentially the same spirit regardless of where they sip, they do so with different tongues (check out Wikipedia for a breakdown of name by country).
The fruits used as a base range from apricots to pears to cherries to grapes, but plum is far and away the most popular. Slivovitz, as it is most commonly known, is an object of our very own Max's affection (check out his ode to Slivovitz here ). These liquors vary widely in quality and character, but are often hot and bold—this isn't where you go for subtlety. Premium and aged expressions exist, but are harder to find stateside.
No stay in Prague is complete without a round of Becherovka and a hearty "Na Zdraví!" Though it's a bracing contrast to the transcendent suds that make the Czech Republic far and away the beer-drinkingest country on the planet, Becherovka has its own inescapable charms.
A liquid gold that straddles the worlds of liqueur and amaro, Becherovka is the best of both worlds. Still used as a home remedy for arthritis, it smells sweet and fragrant, with huge cinnamon aromas out front, and allspice and clove supporting. The taste is a bit of a journey, starting out sweet and honeyed with crazy cinnamon again, but finishes bitter with licorice and herbal roots. For whatever reason, I can't drink it without thinking of Christmas. If you're a fan of cinnamon, look no further. Becherovka captures the essence of cinnamon without the sweet cloying side of say, Goldschläger, and the herbal balance complicates yet complements its role. Most often taken straight from the freezer, I like mine as an aperitif, but of course it will do well in settling a heavy Czech meal, and we've been seeing it quite a bit as a mixed-drink ingredient at cutting-edge cocktail bars.
A close cousin of Italian amari, Zwack Unicum is a heavy, bitter, herbal drink. It was originally created as a medicinal tincture to cure the stomach ailments of Joseph II in 1790, or so the story goes. Like I always say, if it's good enough for the Holy Roman Emperor, it's good enough for me. Joseph II was definitely on to something when he accidentally gave this spirit its name—upon tasting the bitter drink, the story goes, he declared, "Das ist ein unicum!" or "That's unique!" Unicum has hung on for over 200 years as one of the national drinks of Hungary, most frequently taken as a chilled shot.
Dark and brooding, Unicum is probably most similar to Fernet Branca, but it lacks Fernet's minty freshness. Flavored with over 40 herbs and spices and aged in oak casks for 6 months, Unicum smells earthy and funky, like a dark Eastern European wood. Sipping this beast is an exercise in palate destruction. Bracing and deeply herbal, it has a syrupy thickness which coats the palate and throat. It's amazing as a digestif, and though the flavor is definitely not for everyone, I'm sad that my bottle has run empty.
Zwack released a reformulated recipe, marketed in Hungary as Unicum Next, and here in the states as simply Zwack Liqueur. Sweeter and milder, with a distinct cherry note, Zwack liqueur is a gentler version of the same experience, perhaps a good point of entry for those unconvinced of the merits of monolithic bitterness. It's still a delightful after-dinner experience, but don't expect your Hungarian Grandpa to be fooled.
Do you have a soft spot in your liquor cabinet for booze from Central and Eastern Europe?
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.