The spirits of a nation

The spirits of a nation

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Although it’s not for all tastes or seasons, strong alcohol has deep roots in European culture, and, as in so many other things, traditions vary greatly as you move across the continent. For many travelers, tasting the national cuisine is a must. For an additional shot of authenticity, sample the country’s most iconic tipples out at the pub or with a meal; alternately, pick up a bottle at the duty-free shop en route home. How many of the following have you tried?

Czech Republic: Becherovka, an herbal bitter based on more than 20 herbs and spices, was originally concocted as a remedy for illnesses of the stomach. The popular liqueur is produced in Karlovy Vary, where there’s a museum dedicated to its production. It can be taken “as is” or as an ingredient in a cocktail such as the “Beton,” a mix of Becherovka and tonic water.

Denmark: Akvavit, whose name derives from the Latin term “water of life,” is popular throughout much of Scandinavia. It’s distilled from potatoes and grain and infused with various herbs including dill and caraway. It’s often imbibed neat and chilled as part of a festive celebration of as an aperitif. Try Aalborg Taffel, one of the country’s best selling Akvavits.

France: Pastis is an anise-flavored spirit that finds particular favor around the Mediterranean. In cafes, neat pastis is served alongside a jug of water and the drinker dilutes it according to his or her taste. When mixed with water, the oils in it react by giving the drink a cloudy appearance. Ricard is one of the most popular brands, although fans of the stuff rave about Henri Bardouin and Pastis 51.

Greece: Ouzo is made from a base spirit of grapes or grain and flavored with anise. As with other anise-flavored spirits, adding water to it causes it to turn milky. Ouzo enjoys PGI (Protected Geographic Origin) status in the European Union, and is exclusively produced in Greece. The heart of production is on the island of Lesbos. Ouzo makes a regular appearance alongside the small plates of appetizers known as meze.

Hungary: Pálinka is a clear fruit brandy made of apricots, pears, plums or cherries, although it can be hard for a novice to discern the fruit taste amongst the overpowering alcohol sensation. Quite a few Hungarians distill their own Pálinka at home. It can be taken as a shot or sipped slowly, and is usually served at room temperature.

Italy: Grappa is a strong alcohol based on the by-products of the winemaking process, including grape seeds, stalks and stems, which is known as pomace. Grappa, distilled since the Middle Ages and considered a poor farmer’s beverage of choice, got a boost in the 1960s when the Nonino distillery in northeastern Italy began producing a higher-quality product from a single grape variety. Grappa is traditionally consumed after a meal.

Latvia: Riga Black Balsam, made from some 17 botanicals along with honey and caramel, is an inky concoction that manages to be both bitter and sweet at the same time. It is sometimes used to fight a cold or combat digestion problems. It can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, in coffee or tea, or in various cocktails. It is sold in an easily recognizable brown ceramic bottle with a black and gold label.

Netherlands: Jenever or Genever, also a popular tipple in neighboring Belgium, gains its flavor from juniper berries, making it a cousin to gin. It is commonly available in two varieties, young or old. Holland’s most popular hard liquor is typically served in a goblet-shaped glass and poured nearly to overflowing, meaning it’s acceptable to take one’s first sip while the glass remains on the bar or table. The House of Bols in Amsterdam traces the history of one of the world’s oldest brands of distilled spirits and offers an interactive cocktail and genever experience.

Poland: Zubrovka is a specific type of vodka that’s been infused with the distinct and aromatic flavor of a specific type of grass. Each bottle of Zubrowka, or bison-grass vodka in English, contains a blade of Hierochloe odorata. The grass grows in remote glades of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval woodland that’s home to some 800 European bison.

Switzerland: Kirschwasser is a clear brandy made from distilling a specific type of sour cherry, the morello. The drink is popular not only in Germanic-speaking parts of the nation but also Germany’s Black Forest region. The cherries used are not pitted, and the resulting product is not sweet. In addition to a slight cherry taste, you might also detect a hint of bitter almonds. It is traditionally imbibed neat and cold, either as an aperitif or digestif, depending on the region; it also finds its way into Black Forest cake and fondue.

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