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In Praise of Slivovitz

I used to think plum brandy tasted like paint thinner—but then I saw the light

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The first time I tried slivovitz, I nearly spat it right back out.

It was at the conclusion of a particularly soporific, long-winded Passover dinner: My father-in-law brought out a squat bottle with a battered label and proudly poured everyone a thimbleful of the clear liquid—eau-de-vie distilled from plums.

It had a pleasingly fruity aroma, but it burned like paint thinner going down. I sputtered a few swear words and declared I’d never, ever touch that firewater again.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong. It was like a bad first date that makes you swear off relationships altogether. I just hadn’t met the right one yet.

As someone who has sampled more than her fair share of spirits (I review them for a living), I can report with authority that most slivovitzes (aka slivovice, šljivovica, slivka; see also: plum brandy) are just awful.

But there’s hope on the horizon.

When I complained about firewater slivs to Angus MacDonald of the Coppersea Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, he scolded me—and then gave me a sample of his first batch of locally-made sliv.

“Slivovitz is rough by nature; it’s meant to be,” MacDonald insisted. “It’s old-country grappa, and the people who drank it were tough-ass mo-fos.” But he also assured me that if made right, it can be more drinkable. And sure enough, his version was delicate and pure, more eau-de-vie than paint thinner.

I sipped, and felt a fluttering in my chest—whether the stirrings of first love or the warming effects of over-proof distillate on the stomach lining, who can really tell—but the aroma of sun-warmed fruit, luscious and inviting, was enough to make my heart skip a happy beat and my hand pour another draught.

Clearly, the time is right for giving slivovitz a second chance. Plum brandies—good ones!—are making their way to the U.S. marketplace, including Unicum’s Szilva (“plum” in Hungarian), a plum-infused bitter herbal liqueur from Hungary that became available in the U.S. last year.

“Slivovitz? Of course!” exclaimed Isabella Zwack, whose family has owned the Zwack/Unicum brand for centuries, when I mentioned my sliv awakening. Plums grow abundantly throughout Eastern Europe, she explained, and preserving them through distillation has been a tradition for generations. So it follows that anyone of Eastern European descent—including Jews—should view a slug of sliv as a rite of passage.

Like a good therapist, Isabella deconstructed my previous aversion, coaxing forth the realization that un-aged spirits can elicit that rough, paint-thinner sensation from which I rightly recoil. With a deft hand, she poured out Zwack’s aged plum brandy—that barrel time certainly made a difference compared to un-aged slivs, yielding a rich mix of almost Port-like dried plum, vanilla, and baking spice.

I’m not the only one who has fallen in love with sliv. Just ask the folks behind the annual U.S. Slivovitz Festival, celebrating its 10-year anniversary in fall 2014. More than 3,000 distilleries make the plum brandy, the festival organizers estimate, but only about 100 offer it commercially. And each year, the festival draws experienced drinkers and “Slivovirgins” (dear distillers: be gentle) to taste sliv bottlings from around the globe.

Even bartenders are giving sliv some love, using it in cocktails to add a judicious touch of fruit and fire. I tried one such drink at Goose & Gander in Healdsburg, CA, where it was mixed with Green Chartreuse for a light sipper that shimmered in my coupe glass. At Hospoda, a Czech restaurant, it’s served Manhattan-style, mixed with herbal Becherovka and a splash of Angostura.

If ever there was time to try out slivovitz, this is it. It’s heartening to know that a new generation may finally get to indulge in their first sliv this Passover—without fighting the urge to ruin their host’s antique vase by using it as a spittoon.

Kara Newman is the spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, and author of Cocktails for a Crowd.

Related: How I Learned To Drink

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In Praise of Slivovitz

I used to think plum brandy tasted like paint thinner—but then I saw the light

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