Category Archives: Drinking

Drinking My Way Through Transylvania

What is it that makes people want to take you on a tour of their house? You’re there for a party or something and the next thing you know they’re ushering you around as if you’re looking to buy the place. It’s rude to decline, so you go along.

This was different in Romania, where I was genuinely curious to see people’s homes — and every tour always included an inspection of the still.

The locals are very enthusiastic about making their own hooch. Where we were travelling, in Transylvania, the people are largely ethnic Hungarians. Their the drink of choice is palincă, a type of brandy made from fruit.

They make a fermented mash — usually from plums, but you can use other fruits — which is distilled down to a clear or amber-colored elixir. Is it strong? You bet! This stuff typically clocks in at anywhere between 35 and 85 percent alcohol by volume — or 70 to 170 proof.

Not everyone is very scientific in their approach and the results are sometimes unpredictable. There’s a Hungarian word for the more robust batches: kerítésszaggató, loosely translated as “fence-ripper.”

I’m glad to say that visits to the still also included a little sampling. Like house tours, it would be terribly rude to decline — and just as the the roads we drove during our visit, some were smooth going, others an adventure.

In Praise of Cheap Red Wine

He probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, but the guy at the liquor store makes a face when I buy this wine. The expression says, “Ugh… that stuff is crap. Enjoy the rotgut, chump.”

Yes, it would be quite an ego stroke to be congratulated by the clerk for picking out something extraordinary — but I don’t want that, I just want a glass of wine while cooking dinner. I’m not buying the $50 bottle of 2007 Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.

He can’t help it; most people (me included) don’t know much about wine. A good liquor store clerk helps the customer not make a mistake — especially if it’s for a special occasion or they’re presenting it as a gift. You don’t want them walking away with something awful.

But wine in America has been elevated to the rarefied strata of class and sophistication — at the expense of ordinary table wine. The Europeans seem to understand this better, that you have the everyday wine and the special wine.

No, I wouldn’t bring a 1.5 liter bottle of Yellow Tail that cost $11 as a housewarming gift, but I’ll certainly quaff it while chopping up garlic.

On the other hand, it’s always worth spending a few extra bucks for good beer. And I wouldn’t look down on somebody with a case of Keystone in their shopping cart, just someone who puts ice in it.