Two glasses of pálinka with the Danube in the background
Two glasses of pálinka with the Danube in the background

Pálinka 101 ­– get answers to your burning questions

A complete guide to drinking pálinka, the traditional Hungarian spirit.

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A shot with your Hungarian buddies during a night out. Another one when meeting your fiancé’s parents for the first time. And yet another while doing the Christmas shopping downtown. Pálinka is the go-to spirit of Hungarians – but what else is worth knowing about it? Read on to find out!

What’s pálinka anyway?

Pálinka (pah-lin-ca) is a traditional fruit brandy. The word itself derives from the Slavic verb ‘to burn’, and honestly, that’s a fairly accurate assessment on an average human’s first encounter with a shot of pálinka. The fun part is that as pálinka blazes through your throat, scorching everything in its fiery path, you get to enjoy a genuinely refreshing, fruity flavor in your mouth. Most common flavors include: barack (apricot), szilva (plum), körte (pear), but you’ll probably find every fruit flavor that you can normally see in a market. Raspberry, black currant, sour cherry, or even quince – you name it.

A shot of pálinka
A shot of pálinka

Is it really that strong?

The thing is, there are plenty of brands out there, with most bottles ranging between 37.5-50% alcohol in them, but most people can handle a few shots of these. Problems start when you taste someone’s home-brew pálinka: these dubious concoctions can reach an alcohol volume as high as 80%: it’s like basically drinking apricot-flavored after-shave lotion. Either way, pálinka is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and if you aren’t used to taking shots, don’t even try to play catch-up with your battle-worn Hungarian mates. They’ll win, and you’ll miserably fail in the process.

Plum pálinka with plums in the background
Plum pálinka with plums in the background

Why should I drink it?

Because one day you’ll want to catch up with your battle-worn Hungarian mates. Being able to handle pálinka will earn you respect points equivalent to learning the correct pronunciation of ‘egészségedre’. Jokes aside, even those Hungarians who do not particularly like pálinka will not refuse a shot. Birthday party? Shot. Friday night? Shot. Appetizer? Shot.  

Two glasses of pálinka
Two glasses of pálinka

How should I drink it?

First things first, you ought to drink pálinka as a shot. Yes, it looks intimidating, and might smell like a lonely apricot dipped in a pool of pure alcohol, but you have to get over your initial fears and just chug it. Be sure to have a chaser at hand: a bottle of hungarian beer can work wonders if you feel like things are getting too wild in your guts. On a related note: ever tried Hungarian craft beer?

When should I drink it?

Kicking off a night out with a round of pálinka shots is probably the best way of trying it out. Try to avoid any situation where you are asked to drink a shot in broad daylight. Some Hungarians like to drink pálinka before lunch, but unless you are an experienced pálinka drinker, politely refuse. There’s barely anything more embarrassing than getting a ‘tad bit tipsy’ before noon.

Pálinka with apples in the background
Pálinka with apples in the background

Where can I get some pálinka?

You either grab a bottle (see our recommendations below) at any store, or visit one of the following establishments:

1. Rézangyal Café

The terrace of Rézanygal Café
The terrace of Rézanygal Café

This lovely bar welcomes guests with – you’ve guessed – a boatload of pálinka bottles. Rézangyal produces their own pálinka, so where else to take a shot? Check out their site here.

Summary of
Rézangyal Café

Opening hours
Every Day
12:00:00 – 00:00:00
Price Range
$$
Web Address
Social Media
Address
Budapest, Liszt Ferenc tér 10, 1061 Hungary

2. Magyar Pálinka Háza

The entrance of Magyar Pálinka Háza
The entrance of Magyar Pálinka Háza

If you just want to grab a bottle but want to take your time finding the right one, try this place. Over 200 different brands and flavors await for you if you visit them in person or order something online.

Summary of
Magyar Pálinka Háza

Opening hours
monday 09:00:00 – 19:00:00
tuesday 09:00:00 – 19:00:00
wednesday 09:00:00 – 19:00:00
thursday 09:00:00 – 19:00:00
friday 09:00:00 – 19:00:00
saturday 09:00:00 – 16:00:00
su closed.
Price Range
$$
Web Address
Address
Budapest, Rákóczi út 17, 1088 Magyarország

3. Mester Étterem és Pálinkaház

The interior of Mester Étterem és Pálinkaház
The interior of Mester Étterem és Pálinkaház

Mester Étterem is truly the most authentic place for trying out pálinka. You’ll find some of the major (and most prestigious) pálinka brands on shelf, including Zsindelyes, Panyolai and Etyeki Czímeres. Check out their Facebook page for directions and more!

Summary of
Mester Étterem és Pálinkaház

Opening hours
Every Day
11:00:00 – 23:00:00
Price Range
$$
Social Media
Address
Budapest, Mester u. 13, 1095 Magyarország

Any brands I should look for?

In the land of pálinka, it’s hard to pick the top brands, and since regulations strictly define what counts as pálinka, there’s almost no chance that you pick a bottle that doesn’t qualify as “good enough”. For a real treat though, you might want to take a stab at some of the following brands:

Szicsek

Szicsek hasn’t been around for too long (30 years or so), but it already has over 200 medals and awards under its belt. Apart from the regular flavors, try one of their bedded pálinkas: there’s nothing quite like taking a shot from a fancy flask full of dried sour cherry and spices.

Panyolai

While the distillery itself has only been around for 15 years, Panyolai is using century-old recipes to perfect their pálinka. Take their unique spirit, Silvorius, for instance: with 25 herbs and spices, this plum-flavored drink fuses pálinka and herb-based drinks (like Jägermeister).

Sándor Nemes

Here’s an entry that might not ring a bell for Hungarians. As a matter of fact, Sándor Nemes is part of the much larger Zwack brand (known for Unicum, another herb liqueur) and as such, it’s a guarantee for quality spirits. Try their Noble Quince or Noble Sour Cherry flavors, or check out their full selection here.

Naturally, as the traditional drink of Hungary, pálinka can be found in practically any bar. You might be into cocktails or Irish pubs, but one thing is for sure: no matter where you go, you’ll find at least one bottle of pálinka on the shelf. Oh, and if you want to first experience this fiery Hungarian brandy under the supervision of an expert, consider attending a pálinka-tasting event – click here for more info.

Q&A

What is palinka?
Pálinka is a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy most frequently made from apricot, plum, and pear.
Is palinka strong?
Yes, pálinka is a strong liquor that causes a burning sensation when you drink it, which is mitigated by the strong fruit flavor. Most brands produce pálinka with 37.5-50% alcohol. Homemade pálinka, however, can reach an alcohol volume as high as 80%.
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