20 June 2011

Slovak Spirits

Slovakian liquor stores generally highlight three interesting spirits – one strange digestif, one common-seeming brandy and one truly different thing that belongs to a singular classification. All are shockingly cheap, none are of undrinkable quality. While nobody would classify Slovakia as a great drinking destination, there are some interesting and quirky things to sip on here.The digestif is called Demänovka, and is referred to - in the peculiar taxonomy of Czech and Slovak imbibables – as a “bitter,” which is only somewhat descriptive. Partly concocted from a mead-like honey liquor, the herb qualities in the drink are less bitter than aromatic. Clove and cinnamon are probably part of the recipe, even if they aren’t named. It is dry enough to drink a lot of, unlike more cloying and intense digestifs. Perhaps this could be used well in a good mixed drink with a dark rum or a bourbon. I rarely have access to ice, so that’s just speculation.
The commoner in this grouping, “slivovica” comes in many forms and bottles. Sometimes dressed up, sometimes sold cheaply, this plum brandy is the same as any fermented-fruit alcohol in that its quality has more to do with the producer than something inherent to the recipe. The Slovak model skews toward unthinking clout, with searing alcohol content and a plum flavor that’s unadulterated by aging or finesse.
Of the three, “borovička” is the most unique. A Slovak invention, the strong national drink is often referred to as “outlaw juniper brandy” because of the illegal distillers who first produced it in the 16th century. Made from juniper berries, and thus obviously similar to gin, borovička has a strange, essential woodsiness that is entirely its own. The production process is completely different – gin gets its herbaceous qualities from vapor infusion, not from fermented juniper – and the taste isn’t quite the same, but the effect with lime and tonic is nearly identical to gin’s cantankerousness. A gin and tonic is refreshing, a borovička and tonic has an outlaw dash thrown in. It has less astringency than gin does, but a stronger taste of its base liquor. Slovak people tend to drink it warm, in a post-prandial ritual that is supposed to cleanse the digestive tract. I feel that it’s probably best taken on ice or mixed with something a little easier on the throat.
Slovak beer is generally pretty good, but not outstanding in any way. As I’ve said many times before, though, I’m not really a big beer drinker. Ignore the green can of Kozel – it’s actually a Czech beer.
One can be forgiven for thinking that all Slovak beers – like their Czech counterparts – are extremely alcoholic. Every beer produced here has a number on the front, followed by a percent sign. Most display 10%, 11% or 12%, with even 14% showing up from time to time. This - thank goodness - has nothing to do with alcohol content. Instead, the numbers reflect the degree of maltiness in the pre-fermented mash. Higher percentages tend to be darker and stronger tasting, lower numbers usually signify lighter, pilsner types. The numbers actually refer to the specific gravity of the mash, measured in Plato units. I have absolutely no idea what that means. Apparently, mass-produced pilsners are usually in the 6% to 7% range, while stouts and Belgian trippels can run above 20%.

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