Distilling the History of Pálinka

The sun sets over the horizon, glowing through a silhouetted bottle stoppered with cork.
A stoppered bottle of Pálinka. Photo © Roland Molnár, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Almost always served as a shot, pálinka is an integral part of Hungarian drinking culture. The word’s origin comes from the Slavic word páliť (distill). Typically made from plums, apples, pears, apricots, and sometimes cherries, it is a type of brandy that was traditionally an essential part of a villager’s diet, which also consisted of items such as bread, lard, and fatty bacon. A shot of pálinka would help with digestion and send the imbiber back out to work with a smile.

Today, pálinka remains an inescapable part of Hungarian culture, finding its way to most tables as the night wears on. Jokingly referred to as “firewater,” it typically weighs in at a 40-percent alcohol level, but is no match for the more powerful varieties of the drink commonly referred to as kerítésszaggató in Hungarian, which literally means “fence-tearer.” These merciless homemade concoctions are not available in stores but are nevertheless common. Simply ask a local Hungarian if they have any and they will take great pride in explaining that their home-brewed pálinka is not only better than the commercially available kind but that it will knock your socks off as well. Trust me, they’re not kidding.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Prague & Budapest.