Pálinka: Hungary’s traditional fruit brandy, can be found in virtually every bar, liquor and grocery store in the country. From mass-produced rotgut to small-batch artisanal pálinkas, the quality runs the gamut. But like with most things, the most interesting (or perhaps adventurous) way to experience pálinka in Hungary is to try it in its homemade version. While it is not illegal to distill pálinka for home consumption (the spirit is a geographical indication of the E.U.) as a visitor you may not have access to homemade pálinka. But don’t lose hope: excess homemade pálinka can be found—for a price—in Budapest. We’re not saying it’s a good idea to buy under-the-counter pálinka, but if that’s what you want, you should know how to go about getting it.
Find a market hall. It’s easy to do, as they are all in the guidebooks. Don’t go to the Great Market Hall at Fővám Square, with its heavily toursited stalls. We are looking for stands: tables set up in the main area of the market, where purveyors from the countryside sell their produce and goods. Lehel Market and the market hall on Rákóczi Square are good bets. Find a friendly looking produce vendor and buy some stuff for cover: a fat butternut squash or a tray of pricey blueberries to show you mean business. Try to use some fumbling Hungarian with the seller. This lets them know you aren’t from around here and not looking to cause trouble. Create a little rapport.
Then ask if there is házi (homemade) pálinka around. Don’t ask if it’s for sale. Ask if it’s ‘kaphato’, or available. leave the incriminating active verb out of it, though its sale is tolerated when kept out of sight. The seller may feign ignorance, in which case you have to try somebody else. Anyway, you can never have enough butternut squash. But more likely they will escort you to the source and make an introduction.
For the intrepid, the intermediary is not necessary. With a trained eye, you can find tell-tale signs of your homemade palinka purveyor: look for other fruit products like jam and compote on their table. Chances are better if it is an old woman in kerchief and traditional country garb. These people know palinka better than any sommelier knows wine. If they trust you—again, a little, but just a little Hungarian helps—out will come a water bottle filled with clear spirits.
Likely you will be offered a taste before you buy, which will be sipped from the bottle cap. Sometimes the seller will take a drop of the spirit on their finger and rub it on your wrist, then instruct you to give it a whiff, as though it were perfume. Once the alcohol evaporates, it should smell pungent with the fruit it’s made from: apricot, plum, pear, cherry will be the most likely scents. As with a taste of wine from a bottle bought at a restaurant: this is just a ritual, it’s always good.
Don’t hesitate to have a shot with the seller once the purchase is made. On the other hand, if you are quickly dismissed as though the transaction never occurred, don’t be offended. After all, you’ve proven your mettle, and now it’s time to disappear, prize in hand.