These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Fiery drinks for cold nights

 Photo: Ján Svrček

For centuries during Slovakia's long stint under Hungarian rule, the area's peasant population had little access to wine or beer. Slovak wine generally went to nobles throughout the kingdom, although the lower-quality stuff did serve as an every-day drink in wine-producing areas. Beer, the beverage of the rising burgher class, cost too much for most peasants to buy, and it was illegal to make it without a license from the king.

These social relations held through much of Central Europe, but they didn't stop people from drinking. A grand tradition of home-distilled liquor, made from fruit grown in the family garden, arose. The most famous is slivovica, a fiery clear brandy made from plums. Traditionally, a meal starts with a shot of this strong nectar. While the stuff you find in pubs and bottled in supermarkets is too often just firewater, a homemade slivovica can be a marvellous, warming drink on a cold night. Similar distillates are made from cherries, pears, and raspberries.

Borovička, another popular liquor, is made (like gin) from juniper berries. Slovaks claim it can ward off a cold. I have personally seen a Slovak, obviously sliding into a bad cold, take two shots of borovička at night and wake up the next morning feeling like a million crowns.

Finally, there's medovina, or honey wine (mead). Róbert Chlebo, a teacher at the National Agricultural University in Nitra, points out that Slovakia boasts a long tradition of bee keeping. "In the past, nearly every household in villages made honey. The practice has faded, but nearly every village still has at least one bee keeper." It wasn't long before people realised they could boil their honey with water and allow it to ferment naturally, producing a pleasant alcoholic beverage. In the Middle Ages, mead was wildly popular here. And so it remains in winter, when it is served heated.

- Tom Philpott

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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