History and nowadays
As it might already be clear from the BARKA website, history of fruit based spirits are rooting back to the 14th century, when distillation of different kind of grain and wine based products started to become popular. During the years families started to distil fruit ferments, mainly because after harvest season there was an excess of fruits, and in those days people tried not to produce any wastage or if there was any, they were aiming to use it in a smart way. Probably this is true for most of the European countries, back then quality and discerning drinking wasn’t the priority, rather high alcohol content and getting to a delirious state as quickly as possible.
As centuries passed, taste obviously changed, became more sophisticated, Hungary achieved a quality standard and demand jumped to high levels for these type of spirits with a strong international presence. However the socialist government and hence the nationalisation of the distilleries almost completely destroyed the industry in a blink of an eye. But thanks to the tradition and craftsmanship deeply rooting in the Hungarian culture kept the community alive. With the help of creativity and persistence of new generations that brought a renaissance, by now the industry achieved an outstanding quality represented also by the brand, BARKA.
Why is it highly premium and an “honest” spirit?
The whole concept of purely fruit based spirits, especially of Palinka is very simple. Solely fruit is used to prepare the ferment and distilled to the final product without any other ingredients, it has to perfectly replicate the flavour of the underlying fresh fruit losing the least amount of aromas. I personally believe that there are opportunities in ageing however the unaged nature of the spirit makes Palinka so unique. Apart from the fruit, the climate is one of if not the single most determining factor in achieving exceptional quality. Especially in Hungary due to the outstandingly high hours of sunshine and the ideal humidity level, fruits are ripening under the sun developing their aroma profile where the rain is a contributor factor to set the perfect balance.
Unlike grain-based spirits, fruit is highly seasonal and quality can vary on a yearly basis. It is fair to say that Palinka is an honest category as it is impossible to walk around quality. If the master distiller has done a terrible job, the fresh fruity aromas didn’t come through to the distillate, also no additional aromas can be added through ageing to make a slight improvement. If the ingredients and the process was even just slightly poor, the result will suffer enormously. For exceptional quality, every single stage of the production has to be flawless, Palinka really appreciates all the work and effort, and in fairness, this is how it should be.
Aromas and Flavour
Fruit is a different kind of animal to grain or other herb based spirits, it is a game of balancing and timing not just during the distillation process but throughout the harvest. Different fruits need different type of care and approach, that’s where beauty is coming into the picture.
We have to differentiate between stages of ripeness. Unripe fruits cannot be used for distillation as the characteristic fruity aroma compounds haven’t developed yet and also the sugar level is extremely low. The ideal stage is somewhere between the almost-ripe and fully ripen level around 80-90%. By this time, all the aromas developed nicely and the fruit has an ideal sugar level. This perfect state is inevitable for the final product quality however in terms of handling, fruits are extremely vulnerable, they require care not just at harvesting but also during preparation. We also shouldn’t forget the acidity level that ideally has to be high, however its importance varies by different fruit types. Two other components, lactones and terpenes are probably the most important ones. In ripe fruits lactones are responsible for the full bodied jam and raisin flavours, where terpenes are giving the more floral, perfumy notes to the fruit. These aroma compounds called primary aromas, by production and resting they transform to secondary aromas and became even more complex.
In the next post we will start looking into cocktails in much more depth. We break drinks down to their fundamentals to understand how they are built up, how the taste changes by adding different ingredients and what are the reasons behind. Starting with lemon juice, probably one of the most commonly used and important ingredients in mixology, we will see how and why it effects the flavour profile of our base spirit and trying to make some practical conclusions that can be helpful in creating new drinks in the future.