Making Pálinka – Part I

Finally. Finally I get my act together and start to make my own pálinka, or Hungarian fruit brandy. Sometime ago, I joined a group of men who wanted to make their own “hooch” or home distilled spirits. Up until now I have been largely a silent/inactive part of the group – except of course for tasting the output from others- but I was determined to set about making pálinka. With the help and expert guidance of Dean I purchased the necessary equipment, and have made a start. (Actually I made a start a few weeks ago, but the result was a “not yet successful” attempt. This time it is serious, this time I am serious. So here is an account of the process of home-made pálinka, photos and all.

Part I deals with the making of the ‘wash’ or ‘mash’ – getting the fruit and fermenting it.

Step 1: Buy Your Fruit

The City Market

The City Market on a typical sunny Sunday morning. Te Papa is in background

I have always been a fan of plum brandy (szilva pálinka) so that was my first choice fruit.  At this time of the year, March, there are a reasonably good supply.  I choose the local Sunday ‘Farmers’ market as the place to buy the eight kilos of fruit required.  I also choose this market because it is, indeed, a market: not a shop or supermarket, but a place where people sell local food.  Those last two words are important: local, and food.   I recently finished reading Michael Pollan’s, In Defense of Food in which he convincingly makes the case that much of what makes up the so-called Western diet is made up on non-food and thus is leading to our current obesity epidemic.  Instead, he urges us to buy “food”, defined, inter alia, has something with less than five ingredients which you can pronounce and your grandmother would recognise!  Also the market reminds me of the markets that are common in Hungary and I have a vague feeling of nostalgia whenever I go to local ‘farmers’ markets. So it is off the local Sunday market to buy eight kilos of plums.

Step 2. Clean Your Equipment

photo of sachets

Magic Chemicals

The first step is accomplished: eight kilos purchased and carried home. One of the joys of home distillation is that you get to buy new stuff.  One of the “still boys”, Dean takes me by the hand, not down the path to righteousness, but to the local home-brew shop somewhere in the Hutt Valley.  We buy plastic buckets, magical chemicals and various other stuff.  Even an hydrometer to measure the amount of alcohol. Neat.  But before I begin, I must clean the lovely white plastic bucket that will hold the concoction while it ferments. So I use magic chemicals  and wash the bucket in the bath.

Step 3: Stone Your Fruit

Photo of plums

Unstoned and Stoned plums

As with all new ventures, you learn stuff you never knew before. Which is kinda the point of new ventures, I guess.  Did you know that stones from fruit contain have very small amounts of cyanide? Not enough to harm you apparently but I am by nature cautious.  And besides, Dean recommended it and I am student to my guide and mentor in this process, so I oblige and stone the fruit. Not before washing the fruit however. Stoning eight kilos of plums takes a long time.  Quite some time.  Maybe not next time.  But there is something therapeutic about stoning fruit this way.  I am sure that many repetitive actions become almost mesmerising after a while.

Step 4: Add Stuff to Fruit

We need to add stuff to the fruit to get the fermentation process going. So in goes four kilos of sugar and enough tap-hot water to take up the volume to twenty litres. This is a cool part of the process as there is something quite liberating about dumping four kilos of sugar over eight kilos of stoned plums. It is quite visceral. I didn’t feel that way about adding the water as, of course it, dissolved the sugar. Next is some mysterious white powder Dean has given me that are called “yeast nutrient salts.”

photo of sugar covering plums in a white bucket

Sugar and Plums

In they go, to be nutrious. A this stage I feel like I making progress. And indeed I am.  Almost there now. The last step is to add yeast and crushed vitamin B tablets. But Dean’s injunction is clear: the water and plums (and sugar) mixture, must cool to 30o.  One of the nifty things we bought was a paper thermometer that is attached to the side of the tank to measure the temperature. How long do you think hot tap water takes to cool to 30o? Quite some time. A long time in fact.  Long enough to have an afternoon nap after my exertions. Finally, several hours later, the temperature is at the required level and in goes the yeast and crushed vitamin B tablets.  Not just any yeast. It is, I think, Lalvin EC 1118 Selection Champagne yeast. I reckon if you are going to use yeast, champagne yeast is as good as any.

Step 5. Seal It

The fruit mash is complete and now the yeast must do its work. I seal the tank with a rubber bung and airlock. A few hours later, I hear a noise.

photo of tank with airlock

The tank is sealed.

A strange, ill-defined noise.  Kinda like a “plop, plop, gurgle, gurgle”.  Ah, the airlock is bubbling away. Fermentation is taking place. An ancient and primeval process that surely goes back thousands of years. It is as if the ancient code is broken and the secrets of making alcohol is revealed once more.

When we wake up in the morning, the gurgling sound continues and a faint smell of yeast permeates the house. Ah, I love the smell of yeast in the morning.  Not sure whether the rest of the family shares quite the same sense of exhiliration.

Step 6: Wait

The fermentation has started and now I must wait 7 to 10 days, or perhaps longer, before the process has ended and the mash is ready for the next stage: distillation. Dean suggests I stir the ‘mash’ each day. This I do with much pleasure.  I let nature take its course, and feel that an earthy connection with man’s ancestral desire to make alcohol and thereby ever so slightly and temporarily, alter his consciousness.

photo of fermenting fruit in white tank.

Fermentation after Day One

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23 Responses to Making Pálinka – Part I

  1. Pingback: Wine – where do you start? » Blog Archive » Making Wine From Apples

  2. Klara says:

    Congratulations Paul you are a genius. Please keep a bottle for me for my 80th.

    Love, Klara

  3. Veronika says:

    Hello,
    just wandering why you called it palinka and since did it become ‘Hungarian’?
    I watched my grandfathers making the proper plum brandy, and I hate to tell you but the sort of plums you used for yours is not even remotely similar to the ones good palenka should be made from. Prunus domestica or Prunus domestica blue free is the traditional variety.
    Do you have a still equipment or did you take your wash to someone and what % was your still…..
    I am trying to make it the old fashioned way, no chemicals and distill just using burning wood, but I am struggling to find anything suitable here in New Zealand.

  4. Paul says:

    Hello Veronika. Thanks for your comments, especially about the variety of plums that make the best plum brandy. I know from my Hungarian extended family, how hard they searched in New Zealand for those ‘European’ plums that, as you say, have such a distinctive quality. If you know of a source, I’d love to hear about it! The traditional method of making plum brandy you describe would be the ideal, but one makes the most of what is available and affordable.

    As to the “pálinka” name, I was trying to re-create the taste of the plum brandy, I had when I lived in Hungary. Of course many other countries in that part of the world make their own version of the same brew. Don’t get between an Hungarian and Romanian arguing about who has the best, most authentic, pálinka (or Pǎlincǎ in Romanian)!! Wikipedia has a good article on this.

    Good luck with your efforts. I wish you every success.

  5. troy says:

    thanks for a variation on the palinka, if you know someone who can weld, building your own still is the best (mine has an inbuilt hand wind stirer). For plums add in a mix of 1/4 blood plumbs and 3/4 normal plumbs for a more authentic flavour. also when distilling use the mash and wash mix complete instead of straining (hence the inbuilt stirrer so it doeasnt burn or the still need opening to stir). after the first distill clean out the cauldron and re-distill.

  6. Andrew says:

    Hi everyone. I read the article and currently making my first batch. The variety of plums available in NZ that are equivalent to Hungarian called Damson. It is not commercially grown so you can only find it by calling farms in your area. I could not find these so purchased a variety called Flavour King. What I was going to ask you is whether you distill only once or 2-3 times as recommended for vodka for example. Also, do you filter the alcohol after it has been distilled or not. And finally what still is better – with a long reflux column (which is said to produce the purest alcohol) or a pot style. Thank you!

  7. Mark says:

    To all,

    I hate to see you all get hung up on the types of plumbs. Remember that Hungarians work with what they have and they make everything well. However the pure joy of Palinka is amazing. To even come close to make something similar is fantastic. But the joy of making Palinka or even coming close is very Hungarian. For example try and find an authentic version of gulyás its as you make it.

    Thank you for all your hints and tricks.

    Don’t forget

    Egészségére

  8. Mark says:

    Hi Paul,
    there’s one thing that strikes me as odd here, why did you add sugar? Traditional Páinka is made without adding any sugar at all.
    Nice project anyways, and I’m curious to read on about the distilling!
    Mark

  9. Roy Grant says:

    Hi
    I live in Hungary and this year my plum trees are bending under the weight of the crop, so much so that several branches broke off before the plums were ripe. In the past I have always given away my surplus to other households, keeping the best for making plum jam and plum preserves, but I am still working through those, so this year its time for the BIGGIE.

    So far I have denuded about 5 small trees by shaking the crop onto a plastic tarp, filled an enormous barrel of about a metre in height (Hungarians call it a Zsefre) and put it aside to degrade. Just to make you all jealous, I also now realise I need two more barrels of the same size for a second crop of a later variety of plum due in about a months time.

    The village has its own still so no trouble on that score and realising there was a possibility of a second revolution because of an EU regulation, the Hungarian government recently over-rode that legislation and abolished the duty on the first 50 litres per household. Suddenly many derelict village properties here gained hypothetical new owners. I have also been fastidiously putting away empty glass (not plastic) spirit bottles throughout the year, sometimes forcing myself to consume more than my fair share of alcohol with this in mind.

    Now here’s the problem (there always has to be one). Every Hungarian thinks they know best, and is convinced that no one can do it better than they can personally. But many also have an underlying laid back streak (note: I wrote laid back, not lazy) so I am getting contrasting advice. All I want to know is can I leave the stones in or do I have to take them out? Facing the probability of 3 enormous barrel loads of fermenting fruit, you can imagine which of those alternatives I would opt for. I’m becoming more like a Hungarian every day!

    Roy Grant

  10. Paul says:

    Roy

    My inclination would be to remove the stones from the fruit if possible or practical. This is because they contain very small amounts of cyanide and this may impact the taste of the final product. See http://homedistiller.org/wash-fruit.htm for full details. Commercial producers use various methods to remove any trace of cyanide which suggests, from a taste perspective, the less cyanide the better. I should add that clearly any cyanide present is so minute it won’t do you any harm so it is not a question of the any health risks. Let’s be honest, there are far more other dangers from consuming too much pálinka!

    Of course, removing the stones is time-consuming, so you need to factor that into the equation.

    Equally, as you suggest, there will no shortage of those who claim never to have removed the stones and from the fruit and suffered no harm or ill effects. Indeed, there will be those that say it tastes better that way. I could point out that Hungarian male life expectancy is 71 years, compared to 80 in New Zealand and 79 in the UK, so who knows! (I’m joking of course).

    Bottom line is that if you want to have a quality product, then removing the stones is a good way to go, but by no means essential.

    Enjoy the final product no matter what!

  11. Roy Grant says:

    Thanks for the advice but since writing yesterday, the deputy mayor who is a good friend and whose Hazi-palinka I have grown to enjoy, has told me the way he does it.

    He leaves the stones in, but once the plums have begun to degrade, he attacks the mixture with a power drill fitted with a long (very long) paint or plaster mixing attachment. If I have understood him correctly, it breaks everything up causing what remains of the flesh to rise and the stones to sink. He says the guy that runs the still knows what to do when it comes in to him that way.

    Over the years, I have tried shop bought imitations, but they are commercial imitations and lack that bite that you get from something made in the traditional way. Here, barrels are clean but not spotless, plums come straight off the trees into them, and personal hygiene is a word not really understood by some of the countryfolk involved in the process from then on. Yes it could and possibly should kill you, but I’m knocking on 70 at the moment, and hopefully have a few more miles left on the clock to continue enjoying it. If not, with the quantity of ‘Dragon Fuel’ (as my kids call it) that my 3 barrels should produce, there’s going to be one hell of a wake.

    Roy

  12. Lorraine Mecca says:

    How many liters/quarts of palinka did you get from 20 liters of your plum/sugar/water/yeast/vitB mixture after it was distilled?

  13. Paul says:

    Lorraine

    From memory it was about 3 liters. We could of course had more if we had gone for a lower alcohol percentage by adding more water. In the end that comes down to personal preference. Unfortunately those three liters have long gone!

  14. Phoney says:

    Hello Paul,

    why on Earth add sugar? Are you making a decent fruit brandy or just something to get drunk of? Addition of sugar is strictly forbidden for both commercial and home distilled pálinka in Hungary (as well as for all European fruit brandies). It thins out the taste by changing the alcohol/aromatics ratio for which real pálinka is famous for. 4:8 ratio for sugar and plums is an insane ratio, anyway; many home distillers add sugar to make more alcohol (it’s a poor country), but never heard about this much.

    Also, I know several professional pálinka distillers, but they never add nutrients, since healthy fruits should perfectly support fermentation. You may also want to know that most price-winning home-made pálinkas are made with plain baker’s yeast.

  15. Paul says:

    I think the main reason is that the sugar content of the fruit here in New Zealand is not as high as in Hungary. I haven’t made any more since the last batch so haven’t been able to experiment with not using sugar. Hungarian pálinka is unique of course and can not really be replicated elsewhere. We do the best we can with the material/fruit/equipment we have and it was a jolly nice brew. All gone now, unfortunately!

  16. Phoney says:

    @Paul
    Nothing justifies a 1:2 ratio. 1:10 would be enough even if the fruit contained NO sugars:) Since even the worst fruits will contain some sugar, no more than 0,5 kg is necessary for 8 kgs of totally ‘worthless’ plums. I wouldn’t say pálinka cannot be reproduced elsewhere as long as there are fragrant, healthy fruits available. I’ll have a look at your post about distillation and find out if it could get closer to genuine pálinka:)

  17. nelson maller says:

    Hi
    I’m going to south america and one of my parents has much interes in making it. Could anyone give me some advice to see how the thinks (realistic) are?, how much is the investment and how to get the equipment from. I will appreciate, or even if anyone is interested we can travell together and have a look the potencial of the area.

    Mi name is Nelson and i live in london

  18. PieOPah says:

    Glad I came across your blog. I am planning on making some Plum Palinka in the near future.

    How much fruit do you think I would need instead of using sugar?

    Thanks

  19. cristian says:

    Hi
    anybody know a person who made palinka/P?linc?/Tzuica. I just arrived in nz and live in chch. I realy miss it. at my home we made from plums, grapes, apricots, pears and cereals (corn). I boilled tzuica at 53 degrees. Each has own flawor and by me is more better then whisky, vodka tequila, quzo or gin.
    If you have a palinka boiler and want to share with me please send a mail to pb80tm@yahoo.com. I’m Romanian but until I can try diferences between hungarian palinka or romanian tzuica i can’t argue whos best.
    If the plums are green because did not have time to ripen properly you can add sugar but the unplesent effect of adding sugar is headache in the next morning when you wake up from drinking.
    Egészségére/Noroc sanatate

  20. cristian says:

    @PieOPah
    take a 200 litres barrel, be sure is made of plastic no metal. fill aprox 75 to 80% of with plums and live it cover (not tight) in shadow warmly place. check the status periodically. in the begining the plums ferments and the composition will swell (making so called bridge ). best is to takeit to boiler is when bridge is maximum because then you can get maximum of palinka. in my country we have some little flies who tell when is ready to be boiled (Drosophila melanogaster) that mean when you take the of the cover those flies will fill the surface of the composition. the time is depending of outside temperature may take 2 weeks more/less. the plum quantity is not a fixed, depending how much you can harvest.
    I don’t use yeast, water, sugar and the keep whole plum without removing the kernel. but the technology may suffer modification in nz.

  21. Soproni hazi palinka says:

    There is some ‘magic’ in the soil and air or to the environment to some regions of Hungary. There is some unique combination of factors that produce ideal fruit. I guess similar to other regions of Europe known for grapes. I have no idea what it is. But just to say, in my experience fruits grown on Hungarian soil are the most delicious.

    Aside from the HU gov stipulations that it can’t be called “Palinka” unless it’s made in Hungary from fruit grown on Hungarian soil, for the most part, the purple plums are used for the Szilvas Palinka. NO sugar is ever added. Your photo has a different kind of plum and with sugar added.

    For the ‘hazi palinka’ (palinka made at home), when I was there, it was made with a lot of ‘fallen fruit’; like bruised fruit you would not be eating as is. I remember on time where I was in my friend’s fruit orchard and I said: ‘Hey Gyozo, there is a lot of fallen fruit going to waste (as in turning brown and mushy). Why do you just let it rot that way. It’s wasting food.” He told me it did not go to waste because he picks it all up later on and tosses in an oak barrel to let it ferment and then he makes palinka from that.

    Later, he showed me the barrel of ‘decomposing’ plums. My first response was; “Gross. Rohat Szilva (rotten plums)”. He said: “Nem rohat. (not rotten)” Basically that they were preserving themselves by being bathed in the alcohol solution they were producing and therefor not “rotten” plums and were making a “wine”. I asked him about yeasts and conveyed that when my uncle made wine, he tossed in some yeast specifically for that. He told me he did not do that because there were yeasts already in the air and on the fruit. Hence, ‘something about’ what’s in the air or environment of some regions of Hungary where the home made stuff kind of just ‘produces itself’ in the absence of some of the steps you read about (such as using only ripe perfect fruit, washing it and adding sugar and/or yeast) for the home made palinkas.

    For the still, he made that himself. It was out in the back yard (the orchard) along with the cast iron cauldron used to make the gulas. As to the heads; first spirits to come out, he would collect those and put a flame to them to show that the orange flame was the bad stuff. He only used the ‘kek tuz’ spirits. That was the ethanol which burned a BLUE flame; the middle parts or body.

    He would use a bunch of jars to collect and keep doing the flame test along the progression. Eventually, when the ‘tails’ started to form, the solution was too watery to kick up a blue flame as did the jars before that point. In this way, he had the high ethanol palinka and did not do a double distill. Then he put some fresh ripe plums to that and stored in an oak barrel. Although I did not see what was done after that, he told me that later pure water is added (to cut down of ‘burn’ of high alcohol concentration) at the time he bottles it. Although we did drink some during the distilling process, it was really strong stuff with a burn to it and was not as good tasting or ‘smooth’ as was the State made (I was there in the 80’s when there was socialism) palinkas I got at the bars. I guess that explained why he stored it as to let it mellow.

  22. Joseph pearson says:

    Palinka is made with only fruit sugar and water

  23. Ernest Joseph Palinkas says:

    Without knowing my own heritage I drank more Hiram Walker Blackberry Brandy than you can Imagica. I am unsure how one goes from fermented fruit mash to bottled drinkable sustenance.

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