About “pálinka”

Among the hodgepodge of proposals presented by Viktor Orbán to solve the “economic crisis” was an announcement that promised changes in regulating the distillation of pálinka. This momentous decision was introduced with great fanfare. It was described as the pinnacle of ninety years of struggle for liberation against the backdrop of the tyranny of the state. The “tyranny” referred to is the very sensible regulation that the owner of orchards who would like to distill pálinka must take the fruit to a state distillery and pay taxes on the product. Where Orbán got the 90 years of struggle no one knows because ever since 1850 the same regulation has been in place: one can distill alcohol but not illegally and without a proper knowledge of the process.

There are several arguments against making the illegal process of home brewing legal. First is the hard-earned reputation of a Hungarian specialty that is recognized by the European Union as unique to the country. The production of pálinka is regulated in the European Union by order 1-3-1576/89 which took effect on July 1, 2001. According to the regulation, an alcoholic beverage may be called pálinka in the European Union only if it is made 100% from fruits or herbs indigenous to the Carpathian Basin and grown in Hungary. It must be produced and bottled in Hungary and its alcohol content must be between 37.5% and 86% ABV (alcohol by volume). The brand “pálinka” is protected by Hungarian and EU law, hence producers outside of Hungary are not allowed to use the brand “pálinka” for their products. Thus, pálinka is a Hungaricum just as is tokaji, the wine.

In the last twenty years or so a few devoted people spent a lot of money and energy to come up with top-quality brands of pálinka. With hard work they even managed to spread the fame of this Hungarian specialty abroad. Pálinka aficianados attend exhibitions and tasting festivals and even established a 13-member National Pálinka Council that together with the Hungarian government watches over the quality of this fruit brandy.

As it turned out, no one consulted with the National Pálinka Council concerning the “liberation” of crooks. Orbán’s announcement caught them unaware and not surprisingly they are not thrilled. Among other things they worry about the fate of the hard-earned reputation of Hungarian pálinka. They also expressed misgivings about the unfairness of the proposal which would allow some producers to avoid paying excise taxes. Home brewing must be supervised if it is to be safe and, of course, home brewers must pay the same excise tax that professional distillers do. Distilling is not a job for the amateur. In fact, home brewing might be dangerous. For example, equipment put together by a nonprofessional might blow up. I found this picture of some illegal distilling equipment.

Surely no nectar can come out of these containers!

Then there is the question of the excise tax. László Kovács was right. His claim was confirmed by Tamás Katona, former undersecretary of finance: the European Union doesn’t allow the Hungarian government to grant tax-free status to home distillers. Currrently there is an agreement between the Hungarian government and Brussels that until 2013 home distillers pay only half of the tax due, but they have to pay that amount. And after 2013 the full amount.

And finally there is the health issue. Professor Róza Ádány of the Medical School of the University of Debrecen proved that the rotgut stuff produced in large quantities, especially in certain parts of the country, and consumed freely is responsible for the very high incidence of cirrhosis of the liver in Hungary. Although alcoholism is high in Hungary, Hungarians don’t consume four or five times more alcohol than people in other European countries. Yet the number of deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver is four or five times higher than the European Union average. Within the country there are huge differences in death rates that seem to coincide with the consumption of home-brewed pálinka. The example given is the difference between Győr-Sopron-Moson and Bács-Kiskun counties. In the former people live 4.5 years longer. Researchers are convinced that in large part this huge difference is due to the existence of illegal distillers. In the latter county fruit growing is an important part of agricultural activities. According to Professor Ádány in the rotgut stuff all sorts of poisonous chemicals remain: methanol, butanol, and isoamyl alcohol which cannot be found in the professionally produced pálinka. Apparently, the home-made stuff is drunk not only by the farmer and members of his family; they also sell it to smaller village pubs. According to some estimates perhaps 75% of the pálinka produced illegally reaches the public this way.

So, the arguments against Orbán’s proposal that was greeted so enthusiastically on the right side of the aisle are numerous and weighty. It is possible that in the end the freedom fighters for illegal and tax-free pálinka might be disappointed and that tyranny will win out once again.

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real name

bottom note:
“pálinka is a Hungaricum” – in slovakia (and czech rep) pálenka (páliť = to burn, fire, roast, destilate, … http://www.onlineslovnik.sk/hu/palit )
“just as is tokaji, the wine” – at slovak side tokaj (tokaj region was divided between countries)
another example ostiepok (kind of cheese) is slovak, osczypek polish

Eva S. Balogh

real name: “bottom note: “pálinka is a Hungaricum” – in slovakia (and czech rep) pálenka (páliť = to burn, fire, roast, destilate, … http://www.onlineslovnik.sk/hu/palit ) “just as is tokaji, the wine” – at slovak side tokaj”
Of course, and there was quite a fight over it but eventually the Hungarians won and the pálinka brand name cannot be used elsewhere although that is also pálinka. One of those things. Like feta cheese. There the Greeks won the battle.

Paul Hellyer

I am surprised that the National Pálinka Council was caught unaware by this policy announcement, given that it was first mooted some months ago. (See http://www.chew.hu/fidesz_promise_to_dilute_ban_o.html which is the second link if you search on “fidesz palinka”.) There is also an argument that making legal what is clearly a widespread illegal practice will result in an increase in quality and safety of palinká.
Nonetheless, I intend to enjoy tonight a glass of my home-made “fruit brandy”, distilled here, legally, in New Zealand, in the finest traditions of amateur distilling. (I have labelled the bottle ‘palinká, EU regulations notwithstanding.) Whether my ‘hazi’ brew shortens my life, I’m not sure, but it sure as heck makes it more pleasurable 🙂

Paul Hellyer

…if only I could spell pálinka correctly…

Odin's Lost eye
Ah the ‘mountain dew’ and in parts of the US of A it is sometimes called ‘Moon’ or ‘Moonshine’. The unregulated or unsupervised distillation of this ‘Hooch’ can be extremely dangerous to the drinkers. In the U.K. you can make wine, brew beer and make cider in small quantities for your own (and your families) consumption in small quantities free of duty. The problem is what is a small quantity? Tradition in the UK was for 1 gallon (about 5 litres) per adult per day. The wines are made from anything vegetable, fruit, flower petals. Dad used to brew ‘tea’ wine from the old tea leaves. It was dreadful, I was always glad when I had had enough. Cider was different; we had a communal cider press to which you took your very sour apples and clean(ish) straw. If you apples were sour enough and were accepted you helped by turning the handle on ‘chopper’, loading the chopped apples into the press and layering in the straw. When the press was full you left it for a few days in the hopes that rats and mice would get into it before you helped press the stuff. The juices were put… Read more »

We still do cider ((Apfelwein or Most in Swab counzty) but under the supervision of an expert – and the left over cider is turned into pálinka – at a state controlled distillery – and we pay tax in Germany.
I’ve written on the home distilling on politics.hu and Eva is absolutely right – it is dangerous.
Thanks for the additional info!

My own experience is mixed with this noble tradition. Some twenty years ago I sucumbed to a crate of lovely pears in a supermarket and after the proper fermentation time, that drove the bees and hornets of the neighbourhood absolutely crazy, I distilled a wonderful pear brandy, that, considering my low consumption and the tender age and disinterest of my children, lasted for years. However, when I attempted to do the same with some leftover apricots some years later, the results were dismal. So much so, that my wife pretty well forbade any further experimentation, in case I have not lost the desire. But I have. The problem is, that I really love apricot brandy, or palinka, if you please, but the local authority that regulates the import and sale of alcohol here forbade the import of the Hungarian stuff exactly because it contained a high proportion of those alternate alcohols that are so harmful. Now my lovely young apricot tree is pregnant with the largest crop it ever had and if I manage to preserve it from the relentless attacks of squirrels, I may end up with so much apricot that I will have no option, but to try… Read more »
Odin's Lost eye

Armature distillation is a menace to humanity. A few millimetres difference in length of the fractionation column, a one or two degrees difference in temperature, a few millibars difference in pressure and you can create a poisonous soup as opposed to delicious nectar. It takes knowledge, skill, attention to detail and careful scientific control to make a pure clean product. I once had to de-bug a control program which allowed a huge mega-litre vodka still to over heat once or twice a year. It took months to find the bug which was in the pressure sensors which failed if the local air pressure changed suddenly.
Fusel oil is nasty. Its name comes from the German word for ‘bad drink/alcohol’.
Over here there was a very popular (cheap) moonshine Pálinka which was found to contain Ethylene-Glycol (anti-freeze) and the cheapest and dirtiest commercially available. Although the makers are in ‘strong lodgings’ their product is still much sought after locally!
Mr Wolfi try adding a little finely grated strong Cheddar cheese to your ‘Scrumpy’ when you bottle it and leave it to mature (if you can).


“A few millimetres difference” – the absolutely worst amatuere destilate in Slovakia was called “lavorovica” – “washbasin-brandy” /lavor=washbasin/, some time ago.
This name is because of used “technology” – for condensation of alcohol a washbasin filled with cold water was used. The result product is hardly to imagine, not even to drink.
No such technology is used at present days, as far as I know and do believe.
I didn’t know, that “palinka” is hungarian protected mark.
In slovak lang. pálenica = destilery, pálenka = any destilled alcohol, synonyms are pálenô, pálené – largely used in all regions.
In czech lang. palírna = destilery, etc.
Does it realy means, that any bottle of hungarian made alcohol with “palinka” printed on the label is 100% made from fruits /barack, cseresnyi, etc./ ???
Sounds, good 🙂

Eva S. Balogh

Jozef: “A few millimetres difference” – the absolutely worst amatuere destilate in Slovakia was called “lavorovica” – “washbasin-brandy” /lavor=washbasin/, some time ago.”
Washbasin is called “lavór” in Hungarian too. I just looked up the etymology of the word. As one suspects the original was the French “lavoir,” but apparently it got into Hungarian via Austrian German.

Odin's Lost eye

Jozef you ask “Does it realy means, that any bottle of Hungarian made alcohol with “palinka” printed on the label is 100% made from fruits /barack, cseresnyi, etc./ ???”
If the bottle has all the proper Hungarian marks on it and is bought from a reputable shop or supermarket then the answer is a resounding ‘YES’. You can even get Kosher Palinka from an outfit called Zwack.
But there are fakes about.