The ABCs of Spirits by Alexandre Vingtier: N for Nalewka

The ABC of Spirits: N for Nalewka. The tradition of domestic liqueurs or nalewka.

 

When we talk about liqueurs, we think of France and its many productions in all regions, from the Chartreuse in the Alps to the Bénédictine in Normandy, including the crème de cassis of Dijon in Burgundy, Grand Marnier in Charente and Cointreau by the Loire. We also think of Italy and its great bitter liqueurs, amaro, rabarbaro, etc., aniseed like sambuca or limoncello and amaretto. And we will not forget the Dutch giants of Kuyper and Bols. In Central and Eastern Europe, there are mainly bitter plant liqueurs such as Jägermeister and Underberg (Germany), Becherovka (Czech Republic), Unicum (Hungary) or Riga Black Balsam (Latvia). Nevertheless, one cannot miss one of the most important and often unknown cultures of liqueurs, in this case Poland.

Well known for its wódki (plural of wódka), with Wyborowa and Belvedere in the lead, Poland is not to be outdone in terms of maceration of plants and fruits. Who has not fallen under the spell of Żubrówka, vodka flavoured with bison grass or fragrant oats, or Siwucha, grey vodka with an inimitable taste? And if you have stayed in the country of Chopin, you have probably discovered many flavoured wódki such as Cytrynówka with lemon, Orzechówka with walnut or Pieprzówka with pepper, and original liqueurs like Krupnik, based on honey and dozens of spices, and for the more adventurous, the Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka or bitter vodka for the stomach, a sweet vodka with fruits, plants and spices aged in casks.

In the area, they are often given the trade name wódka even if some of them exceed the 100 grams of sugar per litre that define the category of liqueurs. It is true that all these macerations are made from pure vodka or spirytus rektyfikowany at 95% vol. which is easily found in shops, because the tradition of domestic liqueurs is still very much alive in Poland: this kind of artisanal liqueurs is called nalewki (plural of nalewka). Of course, many nalewki are in fact liqueurs or tinctures of fruits or homemade plants, based on a single ingredient, some of which are very original: sunflower, nettle, horsetail or even aronia and a whole series of wild-like fruits. One of their main characteristics is their high alcohol content, often around 40-45% vol. and there are real treasures. Fortunately, some recipes dating back several centuries have been passed down from generation to generation in often aristocratic families. The Nalewka Staropolska (“nalewka of old Poland”) brand is probably the best example, especially with their recipe called Cztery Pory Roku (four seasons), demonstrating complexity and know-how that rivals the greatest French monastic liqueurs. This house produces only a few thousand litres per year, totally by hand, whether it is for harvesting rare varieties of fruit, specially selected for maceration and not varieties for table or distillation, or for handling carboys that will be exposed to the sun to promote extraction and then placed in the cellar before blending several fruits or adding other ingredients such as spices. It takes at least two or three years to obtain a nalewka worthy of the name. A true emblem for Polish alcoholic beverages with the Slow Food label, this brand is available in a few export markets and is featured on all the major Polish tables, even in chanceries. So if you are a fan of liqueurs, top-notch fruit brandies or original flavours, you know what you can ask Santa Claus for!

 

Don’t drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly.