The Drinker’s Guide to Hungarikums

8 minutes read

Hungary is a country that surely loves to drink. Whether it’s a strong presszókávé with a pastry in the morning (accompanied by a small glass of soda water), a shot of Unicum or plink with friends, or a glass of golden-tinted Tokaji aszú after dinner, there is always something delicious (and local) to drink in Hungary. Like so many culinary specialties, the drinks that inspire the most pride in Hungary have also been named Hungarikums.

The Hungarikum Act was established in 2012 and includes quintessential local products such as Herend porcelain, Matyó folk art, Hungarian grey cattle, and the Hungarian cimbalom. This is the official definition of Hungarikum: “a collective term indicating a value worthy of distinction and highlighting within a unified system of qualification, classification, and registry and which represents the high performance of Hungarian people thanks to its typically Hungarian attribute, uniqueness, specialty and quality.”

Previously we wrote about the edible Hungarikums, now we highlight the drinkable ones. Read more about the food-related Hungarikums.

Egészségedre!

Tokaj Aszú, and the Historic Tokaji Wine Region

Labeled the “king of wines, the wine of kings” by Louis XV of France, sweet wine from the Tokaj region has been celebrated around the world for centuries. Tokaj is so unique and important in Hungary that it has two Hungarikums dedicated to it—the cultural landscape of the historic wine region is recognized, as is and Tokaji aszú. The wine region is located in the northeastern corner of the country, in a location which is perfect for bringing on the botrytis (“noble rot”) which is essential to the sweet wine production. Six grape varieties, all white, are permitted in Tokaj, but most of the region vineyards are planted with Furmint and Hárslevelű. There are a growing number of fine dry wines made in Tokaj, but it’s really the sweet wines which have made the area famous. Honey-gold, silky sweet aszú is an iconic wine made from botrytized grapes which have shriveled to a raisin-like state. Besides aszú, look for other stand-out wines such as dry Furmints and Hárslevelű, sweet Szamorodni, dry Szamorodni (reminiscent of sherry), and the rarest-of-the-rare, Tokaji eszencia.

Read more about Tokaj, in the many other articles we’ve posted:

Understanding Tokaj

Tokaj Essencia—Sunshine on a Spoon

Szamorodni—The Wine Hiding in the Wings in Tokaj

Tokaj Aszú: The Story of the World’s Oldest Sweet Wine

The Humbling Experience of a Tokaji Aszú Harvest

Discovering Tokaj’s Sweet Secrets: At Home in Erdőbénye

The 1956 Tokaji Aszú: A Wine with a Long Finish

The Lost World of The Jewish Wine Trade in Hungary (and The Old Habsburg Empire) Part I. and Part II.

Unicum

This potent national drink can be found stashed away in just about every liquor cabinet in Hungary. Unicum is a beloved bittersweet digestive made from a secret recipe and 40 herbs and spices. According to family lore, in the late 1700s, the Royal Physician to the Habsburg Court, Dr. József Zwack, was asked to concoct a medicinal liqueur for the ailing emperor, Joseph II. Voicing his pleasure, he reportedly said, “Dr. Zwack, Das ist ein unicum!” (literally translating to “This is unique”). Thus became Unicum, the trademark product of Zwack, Hungary’s best-known spirit maker that still operates under the family’s hand in Budapest. The company now has a portfolio of more than 200 spirits, but the chocolate-hued Unicum still shines as its flagship, with its memorable bomb-shaped bottle, emergency-cross logo, and a truly unforgettable (even acquired) taste. In our opinion, it is one of the best bitter spirits in the world.

Read more about Unicum

Spritzer (Fröccs)

The ultimate summertime drink that fizzles and refreshes, fröccs is the marriage of white wine (or rosé) with soda water. It’s no coincidence that this thirst-quenching cocktail made its mark on both the Hungarian bar scene and the Hungarian psyche, given the abundance of wine production and the local invention of soda water on an industrial scale. The diminished quality of wine during Communist times gave rise to the love of fröccs. But its popularity still persisted after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and you can still order a fröccs at any establishment in Hungary. The preparation of this summertime classic has developed into something of an art form with different proportions of wine and soda (or mineral water) mixed to offer various degrees of strength (or weakness), depending on the drinker’s personal preference.

Read more about the Fröccs

Pálinka and Törkölypálinka

Pálinka is a liquid source of pride for Hungarians. “Pálinkás Jóreggelt!” or pálinka sunrise is how rural workers once started the day, and this potent fruit brandy is served freely in rural households. It’s a part of traditional family events in Hungary, be it weddings, baptisms, or funerals. Often referred to as firewater, the production of this type of brandy is now strictly regulated and only drinks that are 100 percent fruit distillates with a minimum alcohol content of 37.5 percent can be named pálinka. Traditionally the most commonly used fruits to make this drink were plums, apples, pears, apricots, and cherries, but increasingly more unusual and lesser-known varieties are fruits and flavor combinations have become popular. A pálinka revival that began in the 1990s has brought incredibly high quality palinka to the market, including the revival of some nearly forgotten types.

One of the other exciting palinka developments has been the resurgence of törkölypálinka (grappa / marc), which only makes sense because of the amount of wine produced here. Törkölypálinka is also considered to be its own Hungarikum! This pálinka is distilled from pomace (the residue left from grapes after pressing them for wine, mostly stalks, skins, and seeds). Now, both pálinka distilleries and winemakers have returned to the törkölypálinka tradition and they’re making excellent varietal (and mixed) pálinka from the pomace of grapes like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Irsai Olivér, Sárga Muskotály, Olaszrizling, Chardonnay, and other grapes. 

Read more about Pálinka

Soda Water (Szíkvíz)

Soda water (szíkvíz or szódavíz), which comes in elegant glass bottles with their own built in taps, is ubiquitous at Hungarian restaurants and cafés. There are manufacturers in Hungary which specialize in refilling these bottles (often engraved with the name of the restaurant) and delivering them back to the restaurant. In 1826 soda water was created by a Hungarian Benedictine monk, and in 1841 the first industrial carbonated water manufacturing plant was built in Budapest. It soon became immensely popular, and has remained so. It’s an essential ingredient in the fröccs, and also typically served in tiny glasses alongside espresso and cakes.

Read more about Hungarian mineral water

Törléy Sparkling Wine

At the end of the 19th century József Törley, who had worked in the Champagne region in France, returned home to start his own winery. He found the limestone beneath Budafok ideal for cellars to store sparkling wine because of its steady cool temperatures. Ever since, Budafok (the southern 22nd district of Budapest) has been Hungary’s center of sparkling wine (pezsgő) making. Törley hired French winemakers to help him set up his business, and one, Louis François, eventually left to found his own sparkling wine house (which is still in operation today). Törley sparkling wine was wildly successful until 1944 when the factory was bombed and then nationalized a few years later. Törley was taken over Hungarovin following the fall of Communism, and Hungarovin was then bought by the German company Henkell & Söhnlein in 1992. Törley remains Hungary’s most popular sparkling wine brand, with more than 20 million bottles produced annually.

Read more about Hungarian sparkling wine

Bull’s Blood from Eger (Egri Bikavér)

Egri Bikavér, or ‘Bull’s Blood from Eger,’ is Eger’s flagship wine and is probably still Hungary’s best-known red wine, despite the indignities it suffered during the second part of the 20th century. Its image is now being beautifully rebuilt by Eger’s top winemakers who take the traditional Eger blend seriously. Bikavér is a red wine blend (which is also made in Szekszárd, with some slight differences) which has been made for at least 150 years, with certain rules that must be followed. Kékfrankos is the most important grape in the blend, and it is made at different levels of quality. There are several legends explaining the origin of the name. The most commonly told story is that when the Ottomans invaded Eger’s castle in 1552, the general in charge of protecting it had the bright idea to give red wine to the soldiers to make them braver and stronger. The Hungarians became fearless defenders of their castle. The Ottoman soldiers saw red all over the Hungarian mustaches and clothes. Since they didn’t drink alcohol, they didn’t associate this with wine, and they thought the Hungarians had been drinking blood from bulls. Nobody knows if this legend is true or not, and most likely it isn’t. Either way, this Hungarikum is worth getting to know.

Read more about Egri Bikavér


Want to learn more about traditional Hungarian foods, drinks, and customs? Join a Taste Hungary food tour, wine tour, or wine tasting!


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