A Guide to Weird and Wonderful Spirits & Liquers
By Joseph Piercy, Aubrey C. Smith
The History Press Copyright © 2013 Joseph Piercy
All rights reserved.
DESCRIPTION: Sweet, herb-based liqueur originally produced for medicinal purposes
BACKGROUND: In 1810, Leopold Maximillian Baczewski inherited a small, family-run distillery in Wybranówka, a small suburb of the city of Lwów. (A Polish city since 1349, Lwów had been annexed by the Austrian Empire in 1772 and was incorporated into Ukraine by the USSR in 1939. Its Polish origins notwithstanding, Monopolowa is now manufactured in Austria and it is here that it remains most popular.) Sensing that in order for the business to flourish it needed to be closer to the industrial heart of Lwów, Baczekowski moved the factory into the centre of the city and set about revolutionising the vodka and liqueur distilling business. The main innovation Baczewski introduced was to switch production from the traditional alembic copper stills and embrace Aeneas Coffey's recently invented columnar still, or Coffey, patented in Dublin in 1831.
The advantage of the Coffey was that it allowed the often laborious three-step distillation process to be combined into a one-step method by using three separate interconnected chamber columns. The Coffey produced base alcohol of a much smoother quality containing approximately 90 per cent ABV. It was also considerably safer, as the dangers of producing a base containing poisonous methyl content were greatly reduced. The liqueurs produced proved very popular, not only locally but across the Austrian Empire, so much so that the company was awarded the mark of the Imperial Eagle, a trademark that they were permitted to use on their bottles to distinguish their products as 'Purveyor to Royal and Imperial Court'. The company's most successful product was their double-distilled Monopolowa Vodka, a drink so ubiquitous locally that Baczewski became a separate byword for vodka, suggesting that so superior was its quality that to refer to it merely as vodka was an insult.
The company continued to expand throughout the nineteenth century with branches of the distillery opening in other cities, most notably in Zuckmantal, Silensia under the ownership of Baczewski's brother-in-law Paul Gessler. The Gessler company specialised in the production of a local restorative bitters which they named Altvater. The origins of the recipe for Altvater 'cordial' (medicinal dosage was recommended at three parts Altvater to two parts hot water) are unknown, but its dubious status as a health drink was attested to by many physicians during its heyday. In 1886 Professor Richard Godeffoy, chairman of the influential Imperial and Royal Chemical Laboratory in Vienna, produced a famous paper attesting to the many benefits of Altvater to alleviate discomfort from a myriad of ailments ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to syphilis.
Josef Antoni 'Adam' Baczewski took over the reins of the parent company in the 1870s. A graduate of Lwów University of Technology and an expert in distillation processes, Josef Adam continued the company's aggressive expansion programme. Josef Adam is also regarded as one of the first businessmen to deploy modern marketing techniques to further develop brand awareness, for example, producing limited edition crystal carafes for export markets, printing flyers and leaflets and designing press advertisments. Amongst the many creative stunts Josef Adam implemented was the Baczewski Pavillion, a giant glass carafe-shaped display stand at the Lwów International Trade Fair of 1894.
After over a hundred years of unparalleled success in which the names Baczewski and Gessler had become bywords for spirits and liqueurs of unrivalled excellence, the two arms of the company suffered a dramatic fall from grace during the Second World War. The Lwów headquarters were bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Lwów in 1939. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the remains were razed to the ground by the Soviet authorities who built a paper mill on the site. Other branches throughout Eastern Europe were either shut down or nationalised and the famous Baczewski brand name ceased to exist.
In Vienna, the Gessler factory suffered a similar fate with its factory ransacked by the advancing Soviet army and production brought to a standstill. Salvation eventually arrived in the form of Paul Gessler's grandson Eduard, who doggedly rebuilt the business and acquired the J.A Baczewski trademark in the combined Altvater Gessler- J.A. Baczewski corporation and reintroduced the revered Monopolowa vodka. The company continues to be overseen by the Gessler and Baczewski families to this day and remains one of Austria's most iconic brands.
TASTING NOTES: As with most central or eastern European herb liqueurs, Altvater is best served ice-cold and downed quickly as a shot. The keynotes are of nutmeg, with a cinnamon blast that provides a pleasing sweetness and a slightly marshmallow-like aftertaste. It is not recommended that you follow Professor Richard Godeffoy's medical advice and dilute it with hot water. This has the effect of unleashing an acrid aroma and as the mixture cools (and given the drink's golden hue) it becomes difficult to escape the unnerving feeling that one is imbibing a urine sample.
GOOD FOR: Monopolowa is a must for anybody who harbours any pretensions of being a vodka fancier. Altvater has a very attractive-looking bottle that at the very least makes the casual observer think one takes the constitution of one's drinks cabinet seriously.
TRIVIA: After the destruction of the Lwów factory in 1945 and the subsequent dissolution of production, Monopolowa became highly sought after by spirits connoisseurs around the world. Vintage bottles dating back to before the war were still being sold at auction up until the early 1980s, fetching thousands of pounds for early-ninteenth-century carafes. The popularity of Monopolowa is credited to the traditional use of potato peelings as the base fermentation crop as opposed to grain bases which are used by most other modern vodkas.
The loss of Monopolowa vodka was deeply felt by the Polish people during the Soviet era. The drink became something of a cause célèbre, with prominent cultural figures such as the dissident poet and playwright Marian Hemar penning odes to its demise. Hemar wrote several comic polka-style tangos in tribute to the wonders of drinking Monopolowa which he performed during his weekly programmes on Radio Free Europe during the 1950s. Hemar eventually settled in Surrey and his remains are buried in a churchyard in Dorking.
Holy Roman Emperor
15cl tonic water
squeeze of lemon
slices of lemon and lime
Named after Francis II, the last of the Holy Roman Emperors and the only Doppelkaiser (Emperor of both Austria and Germany simultaneously). Discounting, of course, the claims of a certain Herr Hitler.
Blend the Altvater and Campari in a cocktail shaker (it is advisable to chill the Altvater thoroughly beforehand), pour over ice and top up with tonic, stir, and add a squeeze of lemon and garnish.
4cl Altvater or Jägermeister
15cl Mountain Dew Pitch Black Soda
This offensively-titled cocktail is, at the time of writing, nearly impossible to make as its distinctive black colour depends on the availability of the mixer. Mountain Dew Pitch Black Soda was a limited edition 'energy drink' produced by a subsidiary of Pepsi Cola Incorporated between 2004 and 2005. Various other versions of Mountain Dew are still available but the Pitch Black has been temporarily discontinued. This has led to various internet campaigns and petitions to have it reissued. Pepsi bowed to consumer pressure in 2007 by releasing a limited edition Pitch Black 2, a sour version of the original which proved unpopular with fans of the drink. Bizarrely, Pitch Black's main selling points were that it was made with 'real sugar' and had a very high caffeine content. The cocktail, if indeed it can be called that, is pretty revolting. Imagine, if you can, drinking carbonated, sugar-sweetened squid ink.
DESCRIPTION: Pear-based fruit liqueur popular in the Balkans.
BACKGROUND: Kruskovac hails from the ancient province of Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast, which was initially absorbed into the former state of Yugoslavia but now finds itself spread across Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and small areas of Montenegro. Dalmatian cuisine is a strange hybrid of traditional Mediterranean influences from Italy (pastas and risottos) and Spain (cured hams and fresh fish) with the more robust meat stews of Eastern Europe. At the heart of Dalmatian cooking, though, is an obsessive attention to locally sourced ingredients and the Dalmatian pear, which grows in abundance along the Adriatic coast, is held in particular affection by this cultured, if sadly dispossessed people.
Kruskovac is made from a carefully selected distillate of Dalmatian pears and then lovingly matured in oak casks. It has been produced by local farmers in the area for centuries and varies from other pear-based liqueurs on account of its beautiful golden yellow hue. Highly prized by liqueur connoisseurs, kruskovac is fiendishly difficult to get hold of in the UK although the Maraska Company produce an un-aged variety with a milder alcohol content (25 per cent ABV).
TASTING NOTES: One of the drinks of the gods, kruskovac has mild, sweet undertones of vanilla and almonds with a smooth flowery finish. It is one of those drinks that one could easily polish off a bottle of without really noticing. Dangerously quaffable served ice cold in tall glasses with crushed ice and a garnish of fresh torn mint leaves.
GOOD FOR: Culinary experimentation. Simply pour over stewed pears for a bright boozy buzz; alternatively, the stewed pears with kruskovac in thick syrup go well in short crust pastry tartlets. It is also delicious brushed over chicken breasts before grilling or to flambé fruit pancakes.
An ingenious and near foolproof cocktail that looks mighty impressive.
4cl cherry vodka
Pour the Midori in first for a green base, then float the kruskovac on top by pouring over the back of a chilled teaspoon. Finally, repeat the floating technique with the cherry vodka and step back and marvel at how clever you are.
Apples 'n' Pears
2.5cl apple flavoured vodka
7.5cl sparkling apple juice
Pour ingredients into a tall glass with ice and stir.
DESCRIPTION: Balkan fruit-based liqueur traditionally used in a variety of Slavonic social ceremonies: christenings, weddings and funerals.
BACKGROUND: Rakia is the generic term used to describe fruit based, homemade, brandy. In Serbia and Bulgaria, macerated plums and apricots are most commonly used at the optimum point of ripeness and distilled by gentle boiling in large copper pots. The origins of rakia (or rakija) are uncertain. The Slavs began to spread and settle in the Balkans throughout the sixth and seventh centuries. Historical documentation refers to the popularity and production of a honey-based spirit known as medovaca and rakia probably developed through experimentation with the use of different seasonal fruits. Duan's Code, a kind of Serbian version of the Magna Carta, was presented to and implemented by Tsar Stefan Duan between 1349 and 1354. Among the mish-mash of early church decrees, common law and ancient Imperial Greek edicts, there is the following passage on the misuse of alcohol which stands as a very early attempt by a state to deal with the seemingly centuries old problem of binge drinking:
If a drunk goes from somewhere and if provokes or cuts one, or bleeds one, and doesn't kill, to that drunk shall an eye been taken out and a hand cut off. If drunk yells, or takes one's hat off, or embarrass in some other way, and doesn't bleed, that drunk shall be beaten, a hundred times with a stick, then thrown into a dungeon, and then taken out of the dungeon, beaten again, and then let go.
Paragraph 166, Duan's Code, 1349
By the mid fifteenth century the Ottoman Empire (under the direction of the immodestly titled Suleiman the Magnificent) had captured Belgrade and began importing their own homemade hooch, arak. The name 'rakia' derives from a distortion of the word arak, which in Arabic means sweat and relates to the distillation processes involved in producing spirits. The Ottoman Empire, mindful of the Serbian and Bulgarian penchant for artisanal alcohol, introduced a tax on privately owned stills of 12 akçes (the Ottoman currency).
After the Second Serbian Uprising (1813–1817) made Serbia a semi-independent state, the still tax was lifted and this led to the widespread practice of community distilling that is prevalent in the Balkans to this day.
TASTING NOTES: The quality of rakia varies hugely in accordance with such variables as the fruits and flavourings used, the reliability of the distillation equipment and, most notably, the retail price. For purposes of clarity I shall confine these tasting notes to the plum based rakia of Serbia known as Slivovitz (ljivovica).
Slivovitz (and rakia in general) has a reputation in Western Europe for being 'Balkan Fire Water' or 'Serbo-Rocket Fuel' and although often the 'straight off the farm' varieties can weigh in at over 60 per cent ABV, commercial producers such as Stefan Nemanja prefer a more modest and palatable 35 per cent ABV. Double distilled and aged in oak casks, Stefan Nemanja has a smoothness that counters the high natural sugar content of the plums. A faint undertone of almonds is provided by the use of toasted and ground plum stones in the fermentation process.
GOOD FOR: Adding a little touch of Eastern European kitsch to weddings, funerals or barmitzvahs (several brands of Slivovitz have been certified kosher). Also works well added to the mixture of traditional Jewish honey and almond flat cakes.
TRIVIA: Rakia has a peculiar relationship with death. In Eastern Orthodox Christian burial services in the Balkans the mourners are directed to the gates of the cemetery at the end of the service. Here they are supplied with a piece of soda or rye bread and a small glass of rakia. The ritual requires the eating of the bread, followed by a sip of rakia. It is then traditional to spill a few drops of rakia on the consecrated ground and to chant in Romanian 'Dumnezeu sa-i primeasca' (May God receive this for her/him), before finishing the rest of the glass.
Certain writers and artists have played on this relationship between rakia and death. Bram Stoker's protagonist Jonathan Harker is offered Slivovitz whilst travelling to meet Dracula for the first time:
'the driver said in excellent German – 'The night is chill, Mein Herr, and my master the Count bade me take all care of you. There is a flask of slivovitz (the plum brandy of the country) underneath the seat, if you should require it.'
Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
Patricia Highsmith's gentleman serial killer Tom Ripley drinks Slivovitz in Salzburg whilst stalking a man who believes him to be dead in the novel Ripley Under Ground (1970).
In the 2006 film Art School Confidential, a semi-autobiographical account of comic artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes' experiences as a student, the principal character Jerome meets Jimmy, a death-obsessed reclusive painter (played by British actor Jim Broadbent) who will only allow people to enter his flat on production of a bottle of Slivovitz.
Named after the twelfth-century medieval ruler of Serbia, Stefan Nemanja (aka Eastern Orthodox Saint, St Simeon who also gives him name to Serbia's best selling brand of Slivovitz).
4cl blueberry juice ice
Mix Slivovitz and blueberry juice and pour over crushed ice.
The Serbian Slammer
twist of lime juice
Mix together the ingredients and drink, shooter style.
DESCRIPTION: Spirit made from raw cane sugar, reminiscent of Caribbean rum which is a comparison, although not wholly accurate, that deeply enrages Brazilians for some reason.
BACKGROUND: The origins of Cachaça date back to the sixteenth century and a period of Brazilian history known as the Sugar Cane Cycle. Attempts by the early Portuguese settlers to mine for gold and silver had proved fruitless and of the fifteen captancies (geographical areas of Brazil carved up by King Jo o III) only two remained under effective Portuguese control: Pernambuco and Sao Vicente. Pernambuco flourished under the proto-governorship of relatively liberal-minded conquistador Duarte Coelho, who established the city of Olinda on Brazil's north-eastern Atlantic coast. Whilst the governors of the other remaining thirteen captancies had their hands full roaming round the rainforests, fighting the indigenous population and dealing with the attentions of the French government (who were highly perplexed that Spain and Portugal had divided up the New World cake and not invited them to the party), Duarte Coelho and his counterpart in São Vicente, the explorer Martim Afonso de Sousa, came up with a clever money-making scheme. Duarte Coelho established sugar cane plantations and built large milling factories and for his part, Martim Afonso de Sousa provided African slaves to work the farms and exported the sugar back to Europe. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Slippery Tipples by Joseph Piercy, Aubrey C. Smith. Copyright © 2013 Joseph Piercy. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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